Learning a language to express oneself, English language in particular, is an important first step in our lives in India. Parents do everything possible so that their little ones learn to speak soon. Really soon. It is an obsession––a natural response to the need to master a skill that would enable smooth sail later in life.
As young parents, Chhaya and I observed others teaching their little ones to speak. They would use words that did not exist in dictionaries. For example: doodhoo for doodh (Hindi for milk); ta-ta for hot; kitchtchy for a kiss and bicky for biscuit… the list is long. No sooner did children learn those invented words it was time to start unlearning them and learn the right words to convey the same thoughts. Parents would say, “Sunny, it is not doodhoo, it is doodh; not bicky but biscuit etc.
Toddlers would go through a cycle of learning words; unlearning them and then, learning the appropriate words. Both kids and the parents paid a cost in terms of time and effort involved in the little ones being able to communicate meaningfully.
In our son, Mudit’s case we leapfrogged this step of teaching/ learning by making a deliberate effort to use the right word in the first instance. Thus Mudit picked up fairly decent diction right in the beginning.
Building vocabulary was a parallel process. We helped Mudit learn new words. On his part, he made use of his limited vocabulary to his best advantage. Once when he wanted a hammer and did not know the word for it, he said. “Papa, please give me a nail-pusher.” I was reminded of a 1970 Dustin Hoffman starrer, Little Big Man in which one of the characters says: “I have pain between my ears,” to convey that he had a headache.
Years later, when I was doing a certificate course in French language, our professor posed a question that had a binary answer in a “yes” or a “no”. I do not remember the exact question but it was like: “Are you an Indian?”. The student, who stood up to answer, gave a nod. It was just a nod, a universally accepted expression for “Y-E-S.” On his response, which looked comical the class burst out laughing because everyone expected him to say (in French): “Yes Sir, I am an Indian.” When the laughter died down, on a serious note our professor said that the purpose of learning a language is to be able to convey ideas and to get a feedback or a confirmation or an answer. A nod was as good as an answer formed with half a dozen words. “Do not lose sight of the aim of learning anything,” he said.
As a child Mudit, also learnt that a picture was worth a thousand words. Once we left him home playing with a friend. On our return we found the front door of the house closed and latched. Stuck in the door-handle was a rather longish message that read: “Papa, Vaibhav and I are in Vaibhav’s house…” It was enough need-to-know information for me at that moment. Therefore, I would not have read the complete message, which read further, “Please meet us before you open the door…. There is a snake in the house.” What drew my attention to the rest of the message was the drawing of a snake made prominently in the lower half of the note. Thanks to Mudit’s warning (drawing), the snake was removed and the house was secured. None was harmed.
Fast-forward a dozen years and more. It is a treat seeing Vilasini, our grandniece––based in Geneva with a Tamil-speaking father and a Hindi-speaking mother––effortlessly switching between Hindi, English, Tamil and French. And Kartik, our grandnephew (in the tutelage of his grandmother and parents), conversing in intelligible Hindi/ English and reciting Shlokas in Sanskrit.
In a fast shrinking world, ability to convey ideas will be power of sorts.
Sweet home is the university where education on effective communication begins.