Teaching my child her mother tongue | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 21, 2016

Teaching my child her mother tongue

Almost every morning I chat with my mom on Viber or Skype. We are thousands of miles apart, she is in Bangladesh and I am in the United States. Technology helps us stay in touch. A couple of weeks back she told me I should teach my daughter "Amar bhaiyer rokte rangano Ekushey February", since Ekushey February was just round the corner. I immediately got defensive, told her that I would have to first explain the significance of the song, the meaning behind the emotional lyrics and the history of Bhasha Andolon  (Language Movement) patiently to my seven-year-old daughter Areesha, before she would be interested in learning the song. Teaching Areesha, Bangla, is a sore topic that gets me frustrated these days. I often feel like a failure as a Bangladeshi parent, for not being able to do a better job of instilling a sense of pride in my daughter for her cultural heritage.

When she was born, I promised myself I would make sure my child knows how to speak my language and teach her the significance of Ekushey February, Muktijudhho, Pahela Baishakh etc. As someone born and raised in Bangladesh, these historical events of my country form an important part of my identity that I proudly carry with me wherever I go. Naturally, I want my daughter to know, that her parents came from a land with a very rich and unique history. I do not want her to be like so many first generation "American Born Confused Deshis" who are born abroad and never quite learn the language of their parents well. Now seven years later, I realise, teaching my child my language and culture in a foreign land is harder than I expected.

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When Areesha started talking, she picked up both Bangla and English at the same time without much difficulty. We always spoke to her in Bangla at home and people would comment on how fluently she was able to communicate with us in our native language. But then she started kindergarten in the US, and I noticed she was becoming reluctant to speak in Bangla, especially in front of others, and was more comfortable responding to my questions in English. At seven, she is of course at an age where she wants to 'fit in' with her classmates. She wants to assimilate into the mainstream culture; be 'American' like her friends in the way she talks, eats, dresses, in every aspect of her young life. As I am busy these days juggling multiple responsibilities, I don't pressure her enough to converse with me in Bangla, because to be honest, I feel it is an added chore for me.

I started talking to other immigrant moms like myself to understand the challenges they face while trying to inculcate their own culture into their children. Dr. Nazneen Ahmad, a professor of Economics at Weber State University, is my fellow Utah resident and my role model of a Bangladeshi immigrant parent. Her five-year-old daughter Auhona, expresses herself very clearly in Bangla without using any English word in her sentences.

Nazneen, who is deeply attached to Bangla culture poses a question, "can a tree flourish if it doesn't have a strong root? If someone does not know her/his cultural roots, she/he cannot thrive." As a working mom, Nazneen has a busy schedule, but she diligently devotes time to her daughter's Bangla learning. One of the challenges she points out is that teaching her child Bangla is her own struggle. Although there is quite a big Bangladeshi community in Utah, and they celebrate all the utshobs, e.g.- Pahela Boishakh, Boshonto, Eid, Ekushey, etc cultural festivals, these gatherings are usually limited to people dressing up in sarees and punjabis and eating deshi food. The children hardly speak in Bangla. In some cases it is frustrating to note, that parents even talk to their young children in English at home instead of Bangla, because they think that the kids will not learn English otherwise, and as a result fall behind in school. In big, culturally diverse cities like New York, Boston or Los Angeles, there are weekend schools to teach kids South Asian languages like Bangla, but in a state like Utah which has little diversity, we do not have that opportunity.

Nazneen and I have also made an interesting observation - among the Bangladeshi immigrant communities living in the Western countries, the focus seems to be more on religious education than teaching the mother tongue. It is very common to see Bangladeshi-American kids being sent to mosques on weekends to learn Arabic and get an education on Islam, but the same effort is not often seen in teaching kids Bangla. Somehow it seems that religious identity is more important than cultural identity. But Nazneen feels, "religion is one-dimensional and culture is multi-dimensional."  She explains that it is possible to have a conversation about Nazrulgeeti, a Bangla novel, winter pitha, boi mela, saree, with a fellow Bangladeshi or Bangali person, whether or not that person is Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. But one cannot have similar conversations with another Muslim from a different cultural background. She has a valid point. Belonging to a common faith may or may not bring people closer, but sharing a language and culture can certainly create common grounds and a sense of security in a foreign land.

As I ponder these issues, my mom's voice cuts through my reverie. Ma is talking with Areesha on Viber and asking her to sing "Megher kole rod hesheche, badol geche tuti ah ha ha ”, the song she taught her last summer when she visited us in the US. To my surprise my daughter readily obliges. This is not always the case when I ask her to speak to me in Bangla. Inspired by the popular Bangla children's song, I play “amar bhaiyer rokte rangano ekushey February” on Youtube and get emotional like I always do when I hear that song.

Perhaps I can never fully explain to my daughter, what this song means to Bangladeshis of my generation, who were fortunate enough to be born in an independent country and speak in their native language. But I have to make my daughter understand why Ekushey February was declared the International Mother Language Day by the United Nations and teach her to proudly embrace her cultural heritage in today's multicultural world.

The writer is a freelance journalist living in USA.

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