Anique Afshan Newaz
I am passionate about languages. I am privileged to have come from a multilingual background. Bangla is my mother tongue, Urdu is the mother tongue of my father's family. Our education in schools and colleges was in English. I grew up surrounded with the literature, poetry, and music in these languages. Since childhood, I developed a keen sense for the uniqueness of each language.
Reading Tagore's poetry describing the heavy Indian summer rain, evokes rich sounds and visual images that English poetry cannot. When I read Keats's poem, “Ode To Autumn,” the sensory images of autumn against an English landscape moves me in a way a Bangla poem cannot. There are certain Urdu sounds that cannot be replicated in Bangla. Translations of one language into another can never capture the distinctive quality or the essence of the translated one. When my children were born in the United States, I wanted to instill in them the respect and admiration for languages.
My husband and I decided to speak Bangla at home with our children so they could preserve a bilingual heritage and connect more strongly with the family. But it is difficult to maintain speaking Bangla because we unconsciously interject English in our conversation due to its influence in our daily lives in this country. This results in a phenomenon of speaking Bangla flecked with English words, producing a new form of language and has become a tendency among other Bangla-speaking families. To understand this phenomenon and try to solve the problem I wanted to see what I could do to help my children.
My daughter Nureen, our first child, rarely mixes the two languages. Ever since she was a child, she was eager to learn Bangla. During summer vacations, we used to visit our parents. My mother did not speak English very well and conversed with Nureen in Bangla. She read her children's rhymes, such as “tai, tai, tai, mama bari jai, mama dilo dudh bhaat, pet bhore khai.” When translated it becomes, “tai, tai, tai I go to uncle's house, uncle gave me milk and rice, I eat till my stomach's full.” Nureen clapped her hands in delight and repeated after my mother who was ecstatic to hear her grand-daughter's Bangla. Nureen absorbed the lilting sounds of her grandmother's voice and recited them by heart. My mother read her fairytales from Chotoder Rupkatha (Fairytales for Children), written by my maternal grandmother. The stories left a lasting impression on Nureen's mind. These and other stories drawn from the sub-continent's history help children to embrace their culture.
Since childhood my son, Zubad, spoke Bangla mixed with English words. I can recall our lives becoming busier when he was little. We paid less attention to his Bangla. To make it easier for his understanding, my husband inserted English verbs and adjectives when speaking Bangla with him. He said “Zubad, please sit here and finish your food,” in Bangla, but used the English words finish and food in place of equivalent Bangla words. This created a broken form of Bangla that sounded odd: “Zubad, please ekhane bosho, tomar food finish koro.” Zubad responded in a similar way.
Sometimes, in using certain Bangla verbs, Zubad used the English suffixes, 'es' and 'ing' at the end of the word. For example, when Zubad washed his hands, he would say the word 'dhow' for wash, but use 'ed' at the end, thus producing “I dhowed my hands.” Now that he is older, he understands when I point out the mistake, but the habit is more difficult to overcome as a teenager.
My nephew's daughter, Tia, mixes her language despite constant admonition from her mother. To describe her world, she reverts to speaking this way with her Bangla friends. While pretending to ride a train on the staircase with Nureen, she said, “I will sit in the neeche and you will sit in the upore!” She even changed the grammar in the sentence. Tia's mother explained that she and her husband decided to speak in Bangla with Tia because they realised that once she went to school, she would be learning English anyway. Once Tia started school, she began to forget Bangla or chose not to speak it at home. Her parents, concerned, thought she would forget Bangla completely and began substituting some English words so Tia would understand better. This was the beginning of her mixed language. The phenomenon is common among other friends.
My friend, Rita thinks it is natural to converse with her children this way. From these observations, I concluded that this mixed or broken Bangla is a unique language on its own through which the children find a way to express themselves and learn to navigate between two different cultural environments. Most of their educational experiences, interactions with peers at various activities, and the media are in English. It is so pervasive in the lives of even the adults of immigrant families, that it becomes overwhelming and extremely difficult to maintain a pure form of the mother tongue. Our community makes an effort to organise cultural shows in order to make the children conscious about their language and heritage, but due to a lack of consistency, it is difficult for bilingual families to leave for their children and generation afterwards, the richness of a mother tongue.
I want to guide our children with their Bangla speech before I can expect to teach the literature. When Zubad adds suffixes to Bangla words, I correct it for him. My daughter uses code-switching, which is switching the first half or the second half of a sentence into Bangla. For example, “The weather is so nice today, ami patla jacket pore jai,”. She is clearly expressing herself, but why should I not provide her with the tools to express herself with greater accuracy?
A book, Handbook For Parents, suggests, instead of reprimanding your child, encourage keeping languages separate through interaction with them. My way of interacting with my children is, pointing out certain sounds, which I cannot replicate such as the heavy downpour of the rain (brishti). The expression, “Jhor Jhore brishti, Jhom Jhome brishti,” has no English equivalent. The closest in English is, it rains “cats and dogs”. The same happens with English as in the Christmas song, 'Jingle Bells': “Dashing through the snow, in a one horse-open sleigh, … jingle all the way…” How can one describe this imagery in Bangla? I do not want my children to feel confined with their language. With relatives in Bangladesh, this 'limiting' feeling can be frustrating. The mother tongue not only brings the children close to their relatives, it opens a vast new world to them through events of their cultural histories.
Nureen, an English teacher, studied French. She listens to Hindi, Urdu, and Bangla songs. She recites: “ Megher kole road hesheche, Badal geche tuti." Translated it is: "In the lap of the clouds, the sunlight is smiling, the rain clouds have scattered." My son, a pre-medical student, studied Spanish in high school and Arabic in college. Though he still mixes up his language, he makes a conscious effort to learn correct Bangla. It is wonderful to see children growing up in a English-speaking environment develop respect, interest and admiration for the beauty and wealth in other languages as well.
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