We were talking last evening about how your mother tongue influences how you speak English, when we came upon another interesting question: What is your mother tongue and how would you determine it? Is it:

1) The language your mother speaks

2) The language you speak with your mother (and what if you speak two languages?)

3) The language you speak most with your family

4) The language you think in (Which might not be your technical mother tongue. For example, Assamese is technically my mother tongue, but I don’t think in the language)

5) The language you’re most comfortable speaking (and this may or may not be the same as the one you use to communicate with your family).

Also, what happens if you have parents who speak different languages and use Hindi or English as a common language? Does Hindi/English become your mother tongue, or it is still your mother’s language that is your mother tongue?

Hmm… A little complicated I think. I’d be interested in hearing your views especially if you come from a background where your family speaks two languages.

26 thoughts on “Tongue Twister

  1. Interesting conundrum!

    I consider Punjabi (or is it spelt Panjabi?) to be my mother tongue.

    But I do not feel comfortable speaking in it. I certainly don’t *think* in Punjabi – and the conversations we have at home with family as well as parents is *not* Punjabi!

    (English is what we speak comfortably and think in – even though we can speak Punjabi)

    But I still call it my “mother tongue” – as it is the language my mum talks to my dad and vice versa.

    You’re gonna find this strange though: my mum has always spoken to me in English practically all of my life – but for some wierd reason – she speaks to my wife in Punjabi – and my wife speaks back to my mum in English! Can you believe that? It’s really wierd listening to them chatting.

    I’ve no idea why my mum speaks to my wife in Punjabi – and I’m equally puzzled as to why my wife speaks to my mum in English. I have asked them both about this – and they both find it completely natural and comfortable – and not strange at all!

    I can hazard a guess as to why my mum will talk to me in English but to my wife in Punjabi: My Punjabi is not as fluent as my wife’s – and my wife is rather surprising as “modern girls” go in the eyes of my mum. And I am playing you back my mum’s line of thinking here – so forgive me for this – but my mum’s view of “modern girl” is: more concerned about looks and jewellery, can’t cook, has no respect for elders – especially mother-in-law – and doesn’t care about husband like she and her generation used to. Except – in the case of my wife – my mum is very surprised that she does all of the opposite of what “modern girl” supposedly does. And this is the reason why I think my mum speaks to her in Punjabi! Kind of like – special treatment!

  2. hmmm…….. Ok…I am a tamilian…. my parents also speak tamil. But our tamil has a lot of malayalam in it..so its a cute cocktail……..i speak Hindi….(i think in Hindi)…….Also I speak in English.(i also think in english)..well tht’s abt it! πŸ™‚

  3. Shobha – thanks – but the more I think about it – the more I am convinced that my theory about my mum and her attitude is true. When I first got married – for several years – my mum always spoke to my wife in English. I got married very young you see (age 22) and it was a “love” marriage – so a lot of pain and heartache that took a long time to heal. Anyway – several years passed and my mum got to experience the marriage of the friends and relatives in my social circle and age group – and most of them were “arranged” marriages. But my mum reshaped her views of “modern Indian girl” a lot on the girls in those marriages – and my wife became the exception rather than the rule as it were (in her eyes). So she started to speak to my wife in Punjabi instead after a few years. The change was almost as if it was stimulated by a better understanding of “modern girl” – and her obsession of “comparing” people – especially her own daughter-in-law with other people’s daughter-in-laws. To this day – she speaks to me in English, she speaks to all my male friends in my peer-group in English – and she speaks to all their “modern-girl” wives in English too. But to my wife – she speaks in Punjabi! Very strange!

  4. ha ha i have a melange of lots of languages when I think… usually its bengali since my mother tongue is bengali and then sometimes its assamese.. since my father tongue is assamese .. LOL.. .

    It depends.. I think in English in Bengali most of the time.. assamese comes to me when I speak it out so it comes out wrong most of the time LOLOL…

    I guess its the language you have close.. associations with.. like say I have been always fussed over with by my bengali aunts and am closer to them so the conversational quota is more that side than on my father’s side so I guess that makes me partial to bengali, though now I am getting an overdose of assamese since I am married to one but that does not stop me from thinking in Bengali…

  5. I once met a girl in a pub, she was obviously inebriated but she asked a question that stumped me : So if English is not your mother tongue which language do u dream in?

    I told her it depends on the context of my dreams.

    Similarly our thought too I guess is based on the context : viz thoughts related to academics are in English, related to mom are in Tamil, related to friends are in the language we speak to that person. This probably is the most fascinating part of our brain : all information seems to be instantly cross correlated and it seems to pick the medium of best expression naturally!

  6. I think “Mother tounge” is called so because its the language which you feel most comfortable with.I used to think in Hindi till I was in college,but for past 3-4 years I have observed that I have started thinking in English.For most of my day I communicate in English, but I love reading Hindi books and with most of my friends I converse in Hindi.I feel that “coziness” comes when I talk in Hindi, probably because in my personal sphere almost everyone talks in Hindi.

  7. Jag: It is quite interesting that you are not comfortable in Punjabi but still consider it your mother tongue. Do you think the conundrum arises because of the slight apprehension in calling ‘English’ your mother tongue since many Indians unconsciously think of it as a ‘foreign’ language, though it is quite widely used?

    Shobha: That still doesn’t answer my question about what you consider your mother tongue!

    Rajat: Thanks a lot!

    Pallavi: Yes, you’re right about the association bit. I think that the language you ‘think’ or ‘dream’ in has a lot to do with determining it. But as Nilu points out, they too might differ depending upon the context and environment.

    Mehak: Confusing definitely. But interesting in the social context!

    Nilu: That is quite an interesting observation. I am not too sure about it, but it’s definitely worth some thought. Different languages depending upon the context and the people. Maybe there’s some scientific study into this!

  8. Hi Anita:

    You asked: “Do you think the conundrum arises because of the slight apprehension in calling ‘English’ your mother tongue since many Indians unconsciously think of it as a ‘foreign’ language, though it is quite widely used?”

    My answer is; no – not at all because of that – but because over here in UK we are “brown” and so we have it socially prescribed to us that we are of “foriegn” (or to be politically-correct: “ethnic”) origin – no matter what generation of “brown” you are. So society’s institutions presume that English cannot be our “mother tongue”. This is ingrained in the fabric of every institution: school, corporate, municipal, goivernmental etc. So – although we speak English 99% of the time – and much more fluently than we speak Punjabi – or Hindi – or Gujurati, English is not accepted by society as out “mother tongue” because we are of “ethnic” origin. Trust me – even though some second-generation Indian immigrants were born over here – if they have kids (like my own) – the headteacher of the school will classify the child as “ethnic” with a “mother tongue” of Punjabi! Which implies that the definition of mother tongue here in UK is much more closely tied to ethnic origin than it is to what your “mother” speaks most comfortably in.

    Fascinating topic.

  9. I’m a Malayali who speaks English, Hindi, and Malayalam fluently.

    But I think in English and it’s the language I’m most comfortable with.

    A “mother tongue” is defined as “one’s native language”. That way, I’d have to say that since my folks are also Malayalis, it’s Malayalam. Your mother tongue is an inherited trait, not a chosen one.

    To me, the language we think in and which we feel most comfortable expressing ourselves in is the one we should call our “first language”.

  10. Its good to know I’m not the only one – my father is Bengali, mums Maharashtrian. I’m an “army brat”, which meant I tagged along all over the country the first 13 years of my life and then spent the next 10 in Pune, Maharashtra.

    No wonder then, that English turned out to be the “standard” language at home. While I understand spoken Bengali and Marathi, I don’t think I could have a conversation in either language. But I still try ! So whats my mothertongue then ? I’d have to agree with MadMan’s theory – Marathi is my mothertongue and English is my “first language”, but then where does that leave Bengali? Is there something called a “father-tongue”?

  11. Madman: What I find interesting is the fact that many of us have a mother tongue but are usually more comfortable speaking in another language. I guess, it is inevitable in a country where we speak so many languages, dialects, Hindi and English over and above. I think it’s probably only here we have a first language, second language, third language, and so on and so forth!

    Mithun: It’s pretty sad that the ‘father’ gets ignored in the tongue discussion! But this might be because of the predominance of the mother’s language when she talks to a kid (especially when it is different from the father). So the father’s language gets second priority! And sometimes no priority at all πŸ™‚

  12. I speak Bengali with my mom , but with the rest of the world it is Assamese ( of course not with the fellows who don’t know assamese ) . I speak english and hindi too . I speak ass more than any other language . Now tell which is my mother tongue ?

    Note : I speak eng with my mom sometime .

  13. Yes, Even if we speak two languages at home but the language in which my mother speaks is my mother tounge

  14. I experienced a classic case of Mother tongue ^ Regional Influence… my sardar neighbour, who has been living in a bengali colony for over 25yrs now is one who has his TYPICAL punjabi diction of saying “Playyer” for Pleasure…”Mayyer” for Measure….”Paehey” for paise(in hindi… to top it all calls addresses himself as “BAWLDEB SINGH” for Baldev Singh!

  15. hey my mother tongue is telgu but i dono tat so i use to speak english as well as tamil… but my tamil will be bit different…. so., i started to speak in english alone…

  16. Hi. I am totally bamboozled. Trust me. Being a VANC trainer for over 5 years now, I think mother tongue or L1 is something which is not acquired. Its there already .For us, our mother tongue would be the language which we never thought of acquiring. It happened automatically .English ,again is an acquired language for majority of us ( L2 )
    My mother tongue is Urdu with a dash of English and Hindi.And I love it unlike my team of VANC trainers who get pseudo pleasure in speaking in that rotten American accent.

    Let us feel proud of our Mother tongue….whatever it is.And chill.

  17. wow , I am amazed by u folks . what a fascinating topic you have been discussing and arguing , it was very interesting and ofcourse puzzling too .
    each one have put forth their views , after going through all your views , what I want to say abt mother tongue is ‘it’s the language which an individual aquires by birth and the language which he/she speaks with his/her mother and this depends on mother’s mother tongue bcos i feel mother is the first person in the world any person speaks with.
    if mother’s mother tongue is different from what she speaks to her child , still her mother tongue will b the child’s mother tongue .
    We might learn , acquire , master many languages in the process of life , but when it comes to mother tongue i feel it’s always related to mother.
    ANITA – u have done a great job.

  18. okay so my mum speaks hindi and engish. so does my dad. and i am fluent in both.
    my mum is hindu and my da is half punjabi.
    would that make me punjabi?? ( but my dad does not speak punjabi, my mum does.) and we go to both the mandir and gurudwara( sorry about the spelling)

    (i have a confusing stry i knoe!)

    so what would my mother tongue be? and what religion would i be?


  19. Hi yeah ive got comment about this my mother tongue is punjabi and im 16 and cant speak a word fluently at all. never been taught and expected to pick it up per say but havent. so what would my mother tongue be currently living in england and not knowing your mother tongue punjabi so bad? advice as i feel this may distance me from my religion and relatives
    currently in england student


  20. Dear Anitha….

    this is shiva who born and broughtup in tamilnadu
    but due to my work i have travel all over india since last three years..
    i met my girl at nagpur who working now in mumbai.we are loving each other like anything.
    we both(to be frank she is mere egar) have had big confution about our marrige..
    she always worry about her family i mean both the family!
    she always says..i love you like anything in this world..i need you as my partner but i think if we marry how our parents{my parents(Tamil)cannot understand/talk in Hindhi or marathi her Parents(hindhi-marathi)cannot understand/talk tamil}?
    her altime question is this..
    i do not know how to make her understand this ..!
    i am sure that both the family members are not going to be togather always except some important family functions! so,that time we both will be with them to communicate their feelings..! right? i said this to her thousands of times!
    you please anitha help to marry her!
    and tell me what/how/can should i convince her?
    treat me as your brother and help me out..pleaseeeeeeeeesz!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.