Do You Know How To Read & Write In Your Mother-Tongue?

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To know how to read your mother tongue is to have the key to freedom.


When I was in school there was a story in one of my books which had this line somewhere in it. Not this exact line perhaps but a line which more or less conveyed this very idea. And it has stuck with me since then. The idea, the thought more than just the words but somehow I could never pin point as to why. Whenever I discuss this with the husband he tells me perhaps I should have read the story carefully instead of just this line. He is right, I guess.


Anyways, but tell me this, do you know how to read and write in your mother tongue?


Because I don’t.


I don’t know how to read or write in Bengali.


It just so happened that I grew up in a part of the country where English was the first language. Hindi was the other alternative or second language taught in schools that too only till the 6th standard. Khasi was the third language for some time but overall it was just English.


Now I was so bad in Hindi that my mum thought if she tried to teach me Bengali, I’d probably muddle both up scripts. Honestly, I think she was right on the money there. But as a result, I never got around to learning the Bengali Script. Good or bad, well, the jury is still out on that, if you ask me.


I have never felt that I’m missing out on something as a result of not knowing the Bengali script. I can speak the language and that has always been enough for me. But still, there is always this voice inside my head nagging me whenever I am reminded of it. You can’t read or write in your mother tongue. It’s so shameful.


To know how to read your mother tongue is to have the key to freedom. #Language Click To Tweet


Some years back when I flew down to Sydney for the very first time, an uncle who had come to pick me up had carried a placard with my name written in Bengali because we had never met before. The irony was that I didn’t know what was written. However, since it was Australia and he was the only one carrying a placard written in what looked like Bengali Script I was able to identify him. I still remember his disappointment at learning that I don’t know how to read Bengali. Even at that point, I had voices shouting in my head. One saying it wasn’t a big deal while the other chiding me for not knowing something which I should.


Sometimes I think the fact that I don’t know how to read and write in Bengali has made me appreciate every culture that I have been part of instead of being limited to just my own. But then again, I feel, that’s just my way of justifying something that probably isn’t the norm. For justifying my inability to do something as basic as reading a language I have been speaking at home forever. Who doesn’t know how to read and write in their mother tongue? I haven’t met anyone apart from my sister and me.


I have probably missed out on Bengali Literature. Translated works never have the original charm, rarely ever. I do feel that sometimes. Maybe reading the old letters by my grandparents or the Wedding card of my parents. These are some things I wish I could do. But other than that, I’m not too sure.


However, now that I have M, a part of me worries how I’ll pass on my language to her. Though I also wonder if her knowing and understanding Bengali isn’t enough. If her being able to write in it is really that important to me.


Will I like it if she and I are able to converse in Bengali? Of course, yes. Will it be really bad if she cannot read or write in Bengali? No, I don’t think so. And that’s where I find myself staring at that age-old puzzle again.


Should I have know how to read and write in my mother tongue? Should I be ashamed that I don’t?


Maybe I sound silly to you. Maybe I do, really. And that’s why I ask you to tell me what I might be missing out on?


What do you think is the benefit of being able to read and write in one’s mother tongue? Is speaking it not enough?





Linking to #mg hosted by Mackenzie Glanville


18 thoughts on “Do You Know How To Read & Write In Your Mother-Tongue?

  1. Hi Naba, I guess this is the situation for every second and third generations. We had English, Hindi, Marathi and an option for French in school. But, it was my earnestness to learn Malayalam that got me to learn to read it. I can read almost fluently as I can read magazines, newspapers. But, I cannot write it for some strange reason. Everytime I try to write, I cannot. But my children are nowhere near Malayalam which really embarasses me. Coming back to your dilemma, you can always learn the language now. Since you know the language already, it is just a matter of knowing the letters. Just like programming. All the best.

  2. I am not the right person to answer your question because I come from the Hindi belt and reading and writing Hindi is a part of school curriculum. Inspite of this, the other day I was helping D form his ‘H’ sounding letter in Hindi and I could not get it right. This made me realize that it has been ages since I have written in Hindi script. I have got used to writing Hindi words in English so I have forgotten writing many Hindi letters. This is a bigger shame. On top of it, D has been pressing me that both of us learn Kannada in this summer vacation because most of his friends speak Kannada.

  3. I have always envied the groups of peeps in school who would form, from speaking the same regional language. I yearned to belong to such a group while in school.
    During working days, such groups irritated me as they would all talk in another language to each other while sharing a meal with rest of us. I used to (still do) find it rude. Probably they don’t realize how alienating it becomes for the rest of the group, esp if only 2/8 are the “rest”.
    I am a marwari but even my dad doesn’t speak the language so it never got handed down.
    I suppose I grew up and felt proud to have hindi as my mother tongue ( mom is hindi speaking ) and to date revel in it.
    I live reading bengali literature , translated ofcourse. And no I never feel I missed out on the original as I wouldnt know how to gauge that translated works are great in my opinion – you do loose out on colloquialism but that’s not too big a deal IMO.
    So chill and enjoy your “limitation” or learn the language with your LO right from scratch, giving her company will make it all the more enjoyable.

  4. Nabanita, despair not. It is the truth for many of us who have grown up outside our homestates. In our family, I know how to read and write while my brother doesn’t. I did because when I was in grade 9, I wanted to read the Bengali classics in their original form, as translations didn’t give me the sense of the actual work. My mother insisted on teaching me to write Bengali so I could write to grandparents which was a must those days. Looking back, I can only attribute my Bengali reading and writing skills to my mom’s early efforts and my deep interest and I’m doing the same for Arjyo. He knows the alphabets but I read to him in Bengali even when we lived in the UK. (There is such a rich treasure house of Bengali literature for kids that one should not miss out on, I feel…’Abol Tabol’ by Sukumar Ray, is a classic…we love it even after all these years.) Until 7 years of age Arjyo used to recite poems in Bengali too, which mightily impressed my folks back home! (not anymore, sigh!) Now, with growing academic pressure am not sure, if he will ever get round to learning to write, but, if he shows interest, I’d be happy to help. You must teach M to speak in Bengali and there are some lovely books with simple poems that your mom might read out to her. It’s a beautiful tradition to pass on to the next generation, Nabanita, when it’s your mother tongue. <3

  5. Oh I used to think I was the only person who didn’t know my mother tongue. My mother tongue is Tamil and I can’t speak it so forget about reading or writing! I guess because we were in Oman for 5-7 years of my early childhood, there wasn’t much of a need for it. Plus, except for my paternal grandma, the rest of my grandparents all spoke English so that was my main language. Yes, I studied and spoke Hindi through school but my spoken Hindi is Bombay-Hindi and not having used it much in the last 12 years, I can only understand it but not speak too well. I can understand a bit of Tamil but am not too fussed about not knowing it. I think nowadays, the manner in which the world is so global, learning a language that will be common and useful is probably the best way to go. I’m not sentimental about tradition and the like but it’s more about being practical and adapting in the world for me. 🙂

  6. It is very important that kids learn how to read and write in their mother tongue. Unfortunately these days, parents don’t even teach their kids to talk in their mother tongue. Atleast you were lucky to be able to converse in bengali. Kids have a great capacity to learn languages. So they should be taught at home. I travel throughout India and face language issues. Wish I had learnt more languages…

  7. I came here through Mel’s MicroblogMondays, hello!
    I don’t have direct experience of this but I don’t think you should be ashamed – it’s one of those things that can happen in countries with lots of different languages and dialects. If there are important situations in which you and M will really need to use it, then yes, I would say it’s necessary to have the skill. There’s some great advice in the comments above. Good luck!

  8. This is so interesting! The funny thing is, I’ve always loved languages and speak 3 of them, but not my family’s! I’m jealous that you can speak Benghali. That would be even more important to me than reading or writing because you can communicate with others. When my grandparents moved to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, they spoke Yiddish. My father’s mother never learned to speak English. She understood it, but I could never talk with her. It’s such a great expressive language. But it was considered a street language, not a high class language, and the kids wanted to be Americans and might have been a little embarrassed by the old country language. So my parents never taught us much. I speak Spanish and some French. I do my best to at least teach my kids Spanish. It’s not our culture, but at least I wouldn’t be passing down the family trait of squandering the gift of language.

  9. Since Hindi is my mother tongue and was luckily taught in school, I fluently read, wrote and speak Hindi. I actually love the language and made sure that it was the first language the kids conversed in. But I guess it was simpler for me as Hindi is part of the curriculum in school and so the kids will obviously learn it.

  10. I am lucky enough to learn my mother tongue in school. I m not a proficient but can read and write , but now after all these years staying away from my home country I find it difficult for the kids to learn it. We moms here make sure the kids learn atleast how to talk in their native language.

  11. I feel we have an emotional connection to mother tongue. Fortunately my father taught me my mother tongue in detail including poetry. Iam afraid how i will teach my kids the mother tongue in a foreign country. It takes extra effort. I see the benefit of my mother tongue wgen i go my home town and everything including the destination names on the buses are in Telugu. I take pride in reading good literature in my mother tongue which i might have missed if i dont know telugu. Yes, i would have felt ashamed if i was not able to read telugu.

  12. I remember living in Thailand as an exchange student. I learned to speak, read and write Thai (though not fluently), and a friend had no intentions of learning to read or write Thai, that he could always ask anything he wanted to know. As a shy teenager at the time, I’d rather read and understand than ask!! I will say I’ve had a lot of joy being able to read and write Thai – not least I can read my Thai friends/families Facebook conversations (within reason!). So I find this question really interesting.

    I will say that it’s never too late. If you speak Bengali, then learning to read and write it should be comparatively easy I would have thought? (Though I know nothing about Bengali script, I can read and write Thai, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.) A project you and your daughter could do together maybe?

  13. Since, english has been given more priority In India, especially in private schools, I don`t think that there is any fault by your side. Language is something which expresses your feelings. And to express there is no need of any language. One can express herself through music , dance, art and poetry. When an artist expresses his feelings through his painting, who asks him about the language?
    We all are unique, your mother had her own language that is bengali and you have your own unique language that is your poetry, your writing. Thats enough for you. Don`t feel ashamed of not knowing your mother tongue completely, but feel proud of your own language.

  14. If I can put it there in the simplest words possible – you are not missing on anything. Absolutely nothing.

    I know how to read and write in Hindi. But do I read and write Hindi? No. Do I miss that I am not reading Hindi? No. Do I really write in Hindi? No. I also write Hindi in English like “kya haal hai?”

    The point I am trying to make is that a language proficiency is not a must-have. What’s important is that you can use language as a medium to communicate. Which you can do with Bengali and suffices. 🙂 With M, get er to learn Bengali and that’s it. As M’s Mashi Ma, this is what I would really love 🙂 <3

  15. Growing up in Australia life has been very multicultural for me. I grew up in an area that was surrounded by many cultures but in particular Italian. I learnt a little Italian, and at school studies Japanese. But I can not write or speak another language other than a few words. I envy people who can. I think it is lovely if children can learn to be fluent in more than one language and learn their history. I do think it is becoming a thing of he past though. I think until we are older we don’t stop and think how nice it would be to be more in touch with our history. #mg

  16. I am not quite sure what to say for this. I can speak my mother tongue – which is Malayalam, but writing is a whole different ball game. I’ve always found it quite easy to pick up languages and dialects, so I now speak a variety of languages (moderate conversational skill – not that fluent!).
    Writing and reading, is really where I get lost.
    to be honest, I’d say, don’t fret too much. M will pick it up – who knows, maybe she’ll teach you too one day 😛

  17. To say that you were losing out on something wouldn’t be right. Being from a Hindi speaking region I grew up with just the two languages – Hindi and English. Perhaps because of that I feel it’s a privilege to have access to a third language. And if you know how to read and write it, that’s the icing on the cake. You may not use it of course, in fact you would perhaps not use it ever yet I feel I’d like to hold on to it like a hoarder of languages.

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