This is my first experience participating in a Blogathon and the topic is a real treat : Writing and Speaking the Mother Tongue
Mother tongue learning and language development are topics that have been on my mind lately and something I’ve only recently begun to read about. So, I am very happy to be participating in this. Thank you, Tulika, for asking these important questions.
1.How different are the written and spoken forms of your first language?
2.If you want children to become familiar with their first language, which form would you look for in children’s books – formal or informal? Why?
To answer Q 1,
Our first language is Tamil. The spoken and written forms are VERY different. To someone who’s had no exposure to written or formal Tamil, reading from a Tamil book or poem will probably seem like a different language the first few times…unless they pay keen attention to certain words. Earlier, I wrote about how this happened with my daughter the first couple of times I read to her in Tamil.
To answer Q 2 about whether I’d prefer children’s books to be written in ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ Tamil, let’s consider:
Why do I want to read to my daughter in Tamil?
*I want her to continue communicating fluently in Tamil. I have observed that reading to/with a child and doing other activities( singing, group activities, value-ed classes or play groups) in that language plays a really crucial role in a child continuing to learn and use that language. I’m sure most parents have noticed that babies start picking up and applying words and phrases from books we read to them long before they actually start ‘talking.’ Little, repetitive phrases or catchy lines in books are among the first to enter a child’s vocabulary( besides obvious, everyday things, people and concepts like the words for mother, father, milk etc). So, if I don’t read to my daughter in Tamil in addition to speaking to her in Tamil, it may not be too long before she loses interest in the language, since most of her everyday learning experiences happen in an English-speaking environment.
* I want her to enjoy, appreciate, grow to love and take pride in her mother tongue. Reaching this level of awareness and appreciation of language may take some years. But, by constantly exposing my child to the rich vocabulary and intricacies of Tamil language from an early age( as much as my very limited knowledge of Tamil will allow, since I never studied Tamil myself and my official second language was Hindi), I’d like to think I’m establishing a framework for that to happen at some point.
* I want her to learn and enjoy the process of learning a new language, so she can enjoy the benefit of being bilingual or multilingual. Nobody really knows how a child learns language, but most researchers agree that learning more than one language from an early age is beneficial in several ways – improves child’s cognitive, creative abilities, slows aging, keeps the mind alert, helps them adapt to new environments, makes them more tolerant and broadminded, improves their employability etc etc. So regardless of whether or not my daughter will do either of the above, I want to give her the advantage of bilingualism at the very least.
So, will a formal or informal style enable the above?
I guess, it may not matter initially, as long as children are reading something – anything – in their mother tongue or at least making an effort to. That in itself is a greater feat than many kids will achieve ( determining factors being parental involvement, parents’ knowledge and interest in mother tongue, available resources etc). But, when it comes to a language like Tamil, where the spoken and written forms differ so vastly, and which has several dozens, if not hundreds of dialects and countless colloquialisms characterizing each geographical location, community or generation…it’s sure to be very challenging to find a common written format that will appeal to all.
Also, we know that this kind of ‘informal’ Tamil is easy for kids to pick up anyway, since that’s what they use on a day to day basis at home and are exposed to in movies, on TV and through various outlets of pop culture. Be it stage shows, contests, radio, cultural events or family gatherings, there won’t be any shortage of opportunities to learn informal Tamil if your child is already in a Tamil-speaking environment.
However, you can’t say the same about ‘formal’ or pure Tamil. If we don’t consciously make an attempt to expose kids to pure Tamil( as pure as it gets these days, anyway), there’s not much chance they’re going to learn it. And only the child’s parents can determine how important or insignificant that exposure is.
But, are the two really mutually exclusive?
In my view, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ don’t seem to matter when it comes to entertaining and engaging children. Would you call Barathiyar’s Odi Vilayadu Pappa and age-old favorite rhymes like Nila Nila Odi Vaa, Kaakka Kaakka Parandhu Vaa formal because they use ‘pure’ Tamil words or ‘informal’ because they have been making children smile for decades?
That said, attaining this balance between formal and informal may not always be easy and not all attempts turn out tastefully. I’d personally like to see a mix and match of styles – formal to semi formal language in familiar settings. You may be aware of some of these online gems.
* Pratham Books’ Nilaavum Thoppiyum( Chaand ka Tohfa in Hindi)
* Singamum Sundeliyum and other stories in the series (can’t locate the link at the moment)
* Some of the sections in Tamilvu
I’d say the language in most of these is semi formal, but not so stiff that kids won’t enjoy it. At first, my daughter found words like ‘Muzhangiyathu’ and ‘Magizhchi’ amusing. Now, she’s got used to the sounds and words and likes using them. She’s figured out that that’s probably not the way we speak but that it’s the way Tamil is written. Given the fact that my daughter may never learn formal Tamil literature, syntax or texts in the traditional sense, the only way for me to introduce her to ‘literary Tamil’ at least to a small degree is by means of such books.
I can’t imagine doing that if the books used ”Ponaanga” instead of “Sendrar” or “Khushi” instead of “Magizhchi.”
Early Literacy and Bilingualism
Reasons to Read to Your Child in Your Mother Tongue