Every evening, after online classes, 55-year-old homemaker Sajna Abdulla shepherds her two grandchildren Mehreen, 9, and Zayaan, 7, to a magical world of storybooks and folktales. These half-hour sessions are conducted in their mother tongue of Malayalam as the grandmother’s mission is to connect the next generation with their native language. From interactive stories, to reading the newspaper to calligraphy, Sajna has plenty of tricks up her sleeve to keep them engaged in the language.

For Thai expat Sirinapa Hoshang, the longer hours spent indoors due to the pandemic means she can practice writing and reading Thai with her eight-year-old son Aliassalem. "Earlier we learned for about two hours a week but currently we can do almost double that time," she says. "I am happy he is learning Thai more often than before."

Lana Kaati, a Canadian of Syrian origin, is keen that her two children learn Arabic and to that end encourages them to speak in the language even during the laughter yoga sessions she practices with them.

Indian expat Ayesha Amaan uses Zoom meetings for one-on-one Urdu reading sessions with her son Omar Farshori, 11.

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Ayesha, Sirinapa, Lana and Sajna are among a bunch of people who are keen to preserve their mother tongue and are taking pains to ensure that the next generation does not forget their language and their roots.

Importance of mother tongue

According to Unesco, at least 43 per cent of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world. Languages are slowly disappearing taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.

All the more reason to promote and preserve the mother language, says Mariam Shibib, chief executive officer and founder of Pomegranate Institute, a centre which offers language skills development in Dubai.

"Culture and language are inseparable and you need to have an understanding of one to fully and truly understand the other. Even if you are slowly transforming to become a global citizen, you’ll always need a ground to fall back to – a place or a feeling where you can have a strong connection to people of the same tongue. Learning your mother tongue not only improves your personality, it becomes part of your personality," says Mariam, who has studied in four countries and speaks six languages - Arabic, English, German, French, Spanish and Urdu.

Catch ‘em young

Back in 1987, when her daughter Nasreen was born in Dubai, Sajna realised that she would have to take the initiative of inculcating a love of Malayalam in her child. "I made an iron clad rule that only Malayalam would be spoken at home as I had seen many other children brought up here who would converse only in English. English is something they will learn from school eventually. But if she didn’t learn Malayalam, I knew that she would have trouble communicating with elderly family members back home. Moreover, she would miss out on an integral part of her identity," says Sajna.

Learning your mother tongue not only improves your personality, it becomes part of your personality, says Mariam

Apart from the mentoring at home, Nasreen learned Malayalam from school till grade 7. The mother-daughter duo also took part in many popular radio shows, quizzes and debates. By the age of 10, Nasreen was invited to host a talk show on a Malayalam radio and later presented programmes on TV as well.

"Lots of comments poured in over her perfect diction and command of the language," recalls Sajna.

Quite like Sajna, Ayesha too was particular that her son should also receive proper coaching in Urdu, his mother tongue. Right from his toddler years, she and her husband spoke to Omar in the language. English was introduced gradually as he was preparing for school.

For Sirinapa teaching the Thai language was challenging at first as they did not have a strong Thai community in the UAE. But ever since the boy started to speak, Sirin ensured that she would speak to him only in the language.

Another main improvement tool was to take her child to Thailand every year and let him deal with a Thai speaker/environment by himself, which Sirin says was also a great bonding experience

Since Thai language is used in Thailand only, Sirin wanted her son to be able to communicate with family and relatives so that he could learn and enjoy life in the proper cultural context. Starting with single words, she moved on to sentences and daily life conversations by including games, stories and small textbooks. "I would put him on video calls with my family back home or get him to send them voice messages. Practice was key," she says.

Sirin’s husband Dr Hoshang is German, so there are essentially four languages used at home – English, German, Arabic and Thai. Initially when Sirin spoke to Aliassalam in Thai, he’d reply in English though he understood each and every word. "So, I needed to use the condition technique – rewarding him with something that he wants if he replies in Thai," says Sirin.

Another main improvement tool was to take him to Thailand every year and let him deal with a Thai speaker/environment by himself, which Sirin also claims was a great bonding experience. "Thai language has many words each of which can mean more than one thing depending on the context. Earlier it was confusing for him but now he can read short messages from his grandmother all by himself."

Cognitive development

Omar is fluent in communicating in Urdu and also knows how to read and write fairly well in the script. Ayesha says that the ability to communicate in Urdu has given Omar a deep sense of understanding towards the elder family members who are not too fluent in the English language. "He knows stories of their childhood, old songs, history and has a fair idea of the old-world charm."

Ayesha tries innovative techniques like introducing Urdu poetry at post-dinner talks. "We received mixed reactions from him; he once asked why there was no Urdu rap," she says. "So we told him to give it a try. One never knows what hidden talent the lockdown may bring out in young minds.

"We carry a huge responsibility of passing onto the next generation what we learnt and what our culture and traditions are. My mother-in-law is a Hindi and Sanskrit scholar though she writes for children in Urdu. I am happy my son has such a rich heritage and hope one day his children can read and communicate with us too with ease."

Ayesha and Omar

Linguistic experts say learning multiple languages increases brain power and improves memory. Treating it as brain exercise helps in processing new information and polishes our abilities on problem-solving and creativity. When children develop their skills in two or even three languages, they get a deeper understanding of how to use different languages effectively. They are often more flexible in their thinking as they can process information quicker.

Mariam’s mother tongues are Arabic and German. As she has just had her first baby, she and her husband have already split responsibilities of multilingual language development; wherein she will converse in English and German with the child, while her husband and extended family will cover the Arabic language.

Mother-of-two Lana Kaati is on a daily grind to teach her kids their root language Arabic. Her daughter Livia, 9, and son Liam, 7, can converse in English fluently, but when it comes to Arabic Lana claims they are only at the beginner level. "Though I try to read stories and get them to practice writing, they can hardly read basic words. Arabic grammar is not easy to learn and the different accents/slangs makes it more complicated to understand. The universal Arabic that is taught at schools is not what we speak in our daily routine so parents have to take more effort to teach kids Arabic," she says. 

But since Arabic is the language of their culture and religion, Lana is hopeful that her efforts will bear fruit.

No child’s play

For Sajna, teaching the language to her grandchildren is no child’s play and definitely not as easy as it was when teaching her daughter Nasreen. "Since Nasreen was an only child, it was easy to enforce a Malayalam-only rule. However, the two grandchildren speak English among themsleves and that spills over into their conversations with others," she says. 

Not one to be deterred, Sajna brings her usual stock of Malayalam writing books from India every time she goes on a vacation. For her part, Nasreen has implemented a reward system where she sets aside Dh50 every month. "Every time the kids speak in English at home, they lose one dirham. At the end of the month, what is left is handed over to them as pocket money," she says. "It is so important for me that I do what I can to make sure the language doesn’t die out. If we native speakers don’t take the trouble of learning and speaking it, it will be forgotten very soon."

At last year’s Sharjah Book Fair, she also realised a long cherished dream of realeasing her first book in Malayalam. Titled Sajnayude Kathakal (Stories from Sajna), the book was set in the backdrop of her home state Kerala, and comprises four short stories of struggles of common people.

"More than conveying my thoughts, I wanted to leave a tangible asset for my grandchildren to relish their mother tongue," says the grandmom.

Sirin is definite that learning Thai has helped her son’s cognitive development because he has got a chance to learn and expand his understanding and experience in different cultures and environments. "Since Thai is my mother tongue, I am more fluent in it than English. So, to be able to communicate with him in Thai helps to express the exact feeling and emotion in the correct cultural context. Additionally, we can understand each other correctly and naturally as well," she says.

With proper motivation, learning any language can be easy. Since all the languages she speaks are either western or central Asian, Mariam is now on a quest to learn Chinese. "Though it is a widely spoken language in the world, Chinese writing system can be very overwhelming, with thousands of characters to be familiar with. Not to mention the tones that can make a word mean different," she says.

But with the right approach to learning, she is sure she will crack it soon.  Considering a language as easy to learn may also depend on factors like the languages that are already known. Relatively, a new language is easier if you know one that is of the same language family. "But again, it goes down on the level of commitment put forth in learning. Don’t shy away from learning – whether you’re busy or you claim to be too old, you’ll be surprised what your brain is capable of. Live, love, learn, repeat!" says Mariam.

Mariam Shibib’s tips to inculcate the mother tongue in children

• Practice and immerse yourself in your mother tongue through communicating with your family and friends. More than ever, this is the time to connect with yourself, others and to explore your roots!

• Modern media has a lot to offer when it comes to mother tongue programmes. Make use of the free creative, fun and enjoyable resources to foster your mother tongue at home. You can choose from edutaining formats - movies, TV series, online videos, books, e-books, audiobooks and many more.

• Be creative! Create an environment at home that enables you to experience the rich traditions and strong cultural values related to your mother tongue. Cook traditional food, wear your traditional clothes or do traditional activities.

• Be consistent with your efforts. Learning or relearning your mother tongue can be challenging to some but nothing is impossible when you are consistent with your efforts.

• Take advantage of virtual educational platforms that can connect you to people who can help you in your journey.

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