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Mother tongue-tied

By Dhara Thakar Meghani


Language, Daniel Stern once wrote, is a double-edged sword.¹ We have all encountered situations when we felt words did not quite deliver justice to our lived and felt reality; to emphasize this shortcoming, we have learned to say, “you just had to be there.”

A similar experience sometimes occurs with language translation—words, expressions, and ways of understanding certain situations do not always have a graceful way of making it into another language, often resulting in a distorted or lost meaning altogether.

Such was the experience of 12-year-old Aarav, an Indian-American boy who found himself unable to appreciate joke after joke his relatives kept telling in his native language of Punjabi at a large family reunion. Although he had heard enough of the language while growing up (and in fact learned to speak Punjabi before he was even exposed to English), it was an elementary fluency at best; and over time he had grown not to even care whether he ‘got it’ in these situations, while the rest of the family collapsed in peals of laughter.

The worst part was when an aunt tried to clue him in by translating the joke into ‘Pinglish,’ and waited for him to find the humor. He obliged with a few laughs, just to be polite, but the meaning escaped him entirely.

It’s a classic immigrant conflict: parents of kids like Aarav wonder what they could have done when he was younger or what they could still do now to help their children stay connected to their familial language(s). Fluency in a language affords us cultural capital; it gives us a window into a particular group’s thoughts, values, and practices.

It is not unusual then, for a parent to worry that a child’s lack of proficiency in her mother tongue may indeed shut that window to ethnic identity for her and following generations. How can parents take a more proactive approach to passing on their dialect? Here are some ideas:

• Start early and keep at it. Children tend to pick up languages most easily before the age of 3, but it is especially important for them to have opportunities to use their “home” language after they enter school. Although some parents worry that promoting multiple languages when a child is first learning to speak is confusing or could cause speech delays, recent research has found that being bilingual can actually improve cognitive processing speed throughout the life span.²

• Practice what you preach. Language is learned best in the context of meaningful relationships, and we learn how to label, organize, and emotionally evaluate objects, people, and experiences through our caregivers and the specific words they use. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking in your mother tongue, try taking classes at your neighborhood temple, community cultural center, or from a private tutor–and bring your child along.

• Make the language relevant. Children will learn the value of using this second language if they realize how it deepens their relationships with grandparents, cousins in the “home” country, and allows them to appreciate media (books, movies, songs, and even jokes!) in that language.

• Check in with reality from time to time. As much as parents want their child to fluently speak their mother tongue(s), children will inevitably also learn—and likely, prefer—the language spoken by the majority of people where they live. This is adaptive and necessary for their social, emotional, and intellectual functioning, and should serve as a reminder that children are not to be faulted for their lack of knowledge or desire to speak their parents’ primary language.

Changing contexts can induce a great sense of cultural loss, and this is perhaps (to borrow from Stern), the “double-edged sword” of immigration, which simultaneously promises opportunity, hope, and a new identity on the other side.

Dhara Thakar Meghani takes this moment to pay homage to Daniel Stern (1934-2012), an influential and groundbreaking psychoanalyst who contributed much of what we know today about language, symbolic functioning, and mental representations to the world of child development.


¹Stern, D. N. (2000). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books. Chapter 8: The sense of a verbal self (pp.162-182).

²Martin-Rhee, M.M. and Bialystok, E. (2008). The development of two types of inhibitory control in monolingual and bilingual children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11 (1), 81-93.

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