Forgetting Mother Tongue

How much time would you require to forget your mother tongue?

The world knows [I really think so!] that I am a ‘Marathi manoos’ and that I love my mother tongue, Marathi, very dearly. At my office I spoke English rarely and addressed my non-Marathi colleagues also in my language. My colleagues and my students make fun of this habit in my absence, but it is okay, my love for my language which I can speak and write well too is too strong to be affected.

So it came as a shock to me when I read that people can forget their mother tongue! [Incidentally, defining mother tongue is a problem in India. With inter-community marriages where spouses cannot understand or speak each other’s language; they prefer to converse in English, and that is the language child learns]. Coming back to our discussion on forgetting one’s mother tongue, I must say that it was completely incomprehensible for me.

The first time I read about it was in Khushwant Singh’s autobiography ‘Truth, Love and a Little malice’. He wrote about a Sikh gentleman he met in Uruguay, but more about it later. The memory of that narration came to me because I read about Hafeeza, a Muslim from Baramulla district who spent seventeen years in a temple at Khatanpur, a village in Rajasthan’s Dhaulpur district. By a freak accident her family which had considered her dead, managed to find her again. She is now not able to speak Kashmiri or local dialect and her family is unable to understand her language! [I have provided a link to her story at the end of this post.]

So it takes at least seventeen years to forget your language completely.

And here is the Khushwant Singh’s story excerpted from his autobiography, equally interesting:
[Khushwant Singh was in Montevideo in Uruguay, and he says in earlier paragraph that Montevideans had never seen a Sikh before.] A most interesting experience took place on my third day in the city. I was standing in the foyer of my hotel when a short, wizened, old man with only one eye, approached me and greeted me with ‘Sat Sri Akal, Signor!’ I answered his greeting and asked him in Punjabi if he was a Sikh. Si, Signor’ he replied in Spanish. To prove it he took out an old, battered British passport and pointed to the photograph in it: it was of a young Sikh in his twenties with only one eye. He pointed to his chest and said in rustic Punjabi, Naon [name], Chanchal Seonh [Singh]. Pay [peo or father] Sohan Seon; Maoo [mother] Gurdeep Kaur; pind [village] something or the other in district Lahore. Then he began to count ek, do, teen, chaar [one, two, three, four] up to ten. Beyond these words neither he could speak nor understand what I said in Punjabi or English. I asked my Spanish secretary to help me out. It was an incredible story. Chanchal Singh had left Punjab as a young lad intending to settle in Canada. At that time he spoke no other language other than Punjabi. The Canadian authorities refused to permit him to stay. He escaped to United States. He met the same fate there and was ordered to leave the country in a few days. He hitch-hiked his way southward through Mexico and Brazil. No country would have him till he reached Uruguay and got a job as a farm labourer. He married a Spanish labourer’s daughter and had a large family by her…..Chanchal Singh, who spoke only Punjabi till he was twenty, could now not understand a word of it – fifty years had completely wiped it out of his memory. ……

I have found that it takes much less than fifty years to erase the memory of a language if one is not exposed to it orally or visually. A Punjabi Muslim businessman [I think his name was Anwar], invited me to dine with him and his Spanish wife. Both spoke English fluently. When she was busy in kitchen I spoke to my host in Punjabi. He had difficulty in comprehending what I was saying. ‘Words sound familiar but I can’t recollect what they mean,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘I have been in Uruguay for twelve years; my work is entirely in Spanish or English. All these years I have not spoken Hindustani or Punjabi to anyone nor kept in touch with them through books or magazines. Now I can neither speak nor understand a word of what you are saying.’ In twelve years the tablet of his memory had been wiped clean of his mother tongue.

Here is the link to Hafeeza’s Story
Strange but interesting!