Reconnecting With My Mother-Tongue Gujarati

by | Jun 25, 2024

It was almost 19 years ago that my father decided to admit me to an English-medium school. Both of my parents studied in Gujarati-medium. He felt he did not want to pass on their improficiency in English to his children. They were living in a time when English was the ultimate hip language, still is. It was put on the highest pedestal in society, still is. It was a language that people looked up to and romanticised, still do.

My relationship with these languages was also quite similar. At the age of 9, my family moved to Saudi Arabia and then a year later to South Korea. It was my schooling in Korea, at an American school, that propelled me to become fluent in English. Consequently, Gujarati faded into the background, and I gradually lost the ability to read, write and speak my mother tongue. 

Here I am 19 years later, quite fluent in English having spent half of my life outside of Gujarat. India Fellow brought me back to Gujarat 3 months ago. In quite a hilariously ironic full-circle moment I am living and working in an ecosystem that requires me to be fluent in Gujarati.

Language Insecurity

I never consciously acknowledged that I was insecure about my language skills until I sat down to write this. The roots of this insecurity and fear go way back. But it was when I lived in the Netherlands that triggered this insecurity as most people there were fluent in their mother tongues. I had friends who were fluent in 2 to 3 other languages as well, including English. I found myself as the only one who was fluent in English but not her mother tongue.

All our class discussions on colonisation and its aftermath made me more ashamed of the fact that I had let myself adopt this colonial language over my native language. I feel conflicted even now, as I write these feelings in English!

As a result, when I found out that I was going to Bhuj for my fellowship, at Sakhi Sangini, a community-based organisation, I was afraid of being in Gujarat as a Gujarati who did not know the native language well enough. I was afraid of the judgement that might come from my colleagues and afraid that my inability to speak in Gujarati fluently would get in the way of connecting with the community during work.

Roots Of The Fear

Moving frequently was not an easy ordeal for me, socially or psychologically. It involved getting used to a new social order and making new friends. Language is meant to make connections with new people easier, however, almost always the language was unfamiliar to me. Therefore, languages have challenged me all my life. Though I started school in English medium at 5, no one there spoke English. We lived in a small town called Ankleshwar. At school, spoken English was limited and all the teaching happened in Gujarati. Some years went by and I found myself going to an American school in South Korea. There I was, a 5th grader who could not converse in or understand much English, in a surrounding where everyone’s mother tongue was English. Their American accents leapt over my head. Hence began a difficult school year that likely planted the seeds of my lifelong struggle with languages.

For 6-7 months, I wrestled with understanding what was taught in class and expressing myself. I could not make any friends either. Language had become the biggest barrier and I found myself at the margins, figuratively and literally. Assigned seating forced my classmates to sit with me in class. However, at lunch, I found myself alone. You’d find me by myself during post-lunch play time as well. This went on for too long before some sweet girls from another class began hanging out with me.

Throughout that academic year, I grappled with feeling like an outsider because of the language. At the time as a child who felt lost in this new environment, I struggled to cope with everything that was going on. I find that I have not processed that time properly even today and it weighs heavy on my heart. 

Overcoming The Fear One Day At A Time

Coming to Bhuj for the fellowship reminded me of that difficult time, hence the fear settled in. Fortunately, as an adult, I now have the coping skills for it. This included giving myself a pep-talk about not letting fear dictate my actions and behaviour in the new environment. I needed to accept and make peace with the fact that I would face some language barrier.

“Parachuting into any ecosystem”, a phrase I borrow from my mentor Anupama, means experiencing hurdles in integration for me. As natives have a knack for sifting out non-locals, the only prospect that can make connection easier is the vernacular. Taking a proactive approach to face my fear of languages and resolve the insecurity of not knowing my mother tongue, I set a goal for myself. Throughout these 18 months, I aim to increase my fluency in reading, writing and speaking in Gujarati. 

Reconciling With Gujarati

On the first day at work, my mentor here at Sakhi Sangini, Alkaben, happily shared with my colleagues that I knew Gujarati. I felt instant embarrassment because my Gujarati was abysmal. Since then, I have learnt more Gujarati from my team and Alkaben than at school or from my family. It is the constant presence of the language at my office and in the field that reinforces it in my consciousness. In addition, being around Alkaben has truly accelerated my learning process as she is supremely fluent in Gujarati. I tend to language-shadow her when she is around, to make mental notes of phrases she uses as well as written notes of any new words I hear.

A young girl in white kurta pointing on a poster that had some text in Gujarati and drawings of women pasted on a orange colored wall

Recently, I took a more pronounced step towards facing my fear of languages and numbers! I volunteered to facilitate five SHG meetings. The medium of communication in these meetings is exclusively Gujarati. This includes conversing with women members in Gujarati, writing the financial accounts and meeting minutes in Gujarati and reading notes or forms in Gujarati.

Also Read The Good, Bad And Ugly Of Micro-finance in Uttar Pradesh

This time I am hopeful about my prospects with regards to Gujarati. My team’s support is an undeniable motivator. They accept my broken Gujarati and uplift my efforts to learn the language. Happily, they simplify complex words or phrases and take over when I feel overwhelmed. My quirks, like not knowing what અઢી (Hindi: ढाई) is and what દોઢ (Hindi: डेढ़) is, are also put up with and ‘dumbed down’ as 2.5 and 1.5 for me.

A black and white form with details of people written in Gujarati and English
When I wrote answers in English for Gujarati questions
Names of women written in Gujarati on a sheet of paper with blue ink
My attempt at Gujarati writing at my first SHG meeting

Balancing Act

I often think about the position of English as a foreign language in our society. As well as its impact on the dissemination of our mother tongues, socially and in our education system. On one hand, British superiority ingrained in the Indian mind for two centuries, resulted in the language being perceived as superior. This perception, coupled with the upper class’s hold on the language, has contributed to its elitist image. The constant, and often obnoxious, grammar and pronunciation corrections faced by those attempting to speak English only reinforce this elitism.
On the other hand, English holds the country together, language-wise, and provides for a common medium of communication, socially and administratively.

It would be most simple if languages were not associated with status and class but were treated as a tool to connect with other human beings. Can it be that simple though? Can English be dethroned from the Indian psyche as a symbol of superiority? Will our vernacular get its deserved space in the social context, along with English? India’s adoption of English pre-dates Independence. It is an undeniable unifying force and a significant source of identity for Indians abroad.

Perhaps the answer may lie in a balancing act: to advocate for learning in local languages while challenging the elitist connotations associated with the English language by encouraging more people to speak it, even if it is not grammatically perfect.

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