On First and Second Languages-IV: Bringing Up Baby

I am often asked, by well-meaning friends, “Are you going to teach your daughter how to speak [Hindi, Urdu]?” My answer, invariably, is “I’ll try.” So I’m trying.  My efforts at teaching my daughter Hindi-Urdu consist primarily of speaking to her in it, with occasional lapses into English.

These lapses have become more frequent. I feel my resolve faltering. This is perhaps ludicrous. My daughter is only eighteen months, and is only now learning her first words. Among them, she has learned one in Hindi–a slightly colloquial, baby-talk term for milk. This surely, is the time to dig in, and press on.

But the challenges are daunting. Hindi-Urdu isn’t my first language; English is. I don’t read books in Hindi–though I have grand plans to read three novels, patiently waiting for me on my shelves; the frequency of my Hindi-movie watching is far outstripped by that of English–and other languages, subtitled in, naturally, English. Very few of my daughter’s local uncles and aunts–who do not live in New York City in any case–speak Hindi-Urdu (though some of them comprehend it well enough to converse with their immigrant parents.) Her grandparents–my wife’s parents–only occasionally speak to her in Hindi-Urdu. I have few Indian friends, and their children only speak English as well. Her linguistic community for Hindi-Urdu–that is, me–looks remarkably scant and impoverished.

Besides, I’m conflicted about this project. While I’m well aware of the virtues of bilingualism, I wonder about the choice of the second language. Wouldn’t Spanish be better for a child growing up in the modern United States? My English vocabulary is much richer than my Hindi-Urdu one; wouldn’t I be aiding her cognitive development more by speaking to her in a language in which I would be more expressive, more fluent, more able to express a broader range of concepts and ideas? Why should she learn Hindi-Urdu? I doubt she’ll become a South Asian studies scholar. And if she does, perhaps she can learn this language later in life? Many area studies scholars do just that, after all.  To ‘learn about her roots’ and ‘where she came from’? But her roots are in Brooklyn and New York City. This is where her father has lived for the last two decades; this is where she was born.  My trips to India look like becoming less, not more, frequent in the years to come. And lastly, I have neither the desire nor the ability to impose a specific Indian identity on her. Mine is confused enough; I doubt I should attempt to ‘bring her up Indian’, to ‘make her aware of her culture’. Perhaps she can sample the bits of Indianness that exist in my life along with all the other flavors of this Brooklyn life of ours and make of them what she will.

Perhaps I’m just lazy, unwilling to put in the hard yards to bring up a bilingual child–like watching movies with her or teaching her the alphabet. Perhaps; it won’t be the first time a dimly desirable project of mine has run aground for lack of drive.

For the time being, I’ll press on, talking as much as I can in my ‘mother-tongues’, trusting that my daughter will find some traction in our conversations. Perhaps she’ll let me know, by her facility, what she’d like to do.

Note: As might be surmised, I do feel some guilt about being so conflicted and insufficiently committed to this project. This emotion has only been exacerbated by a niece of mine–raised in Los Angeles–who has told me she would have much preferred it if her parents had taught her Hindi-Urdu.

13 thoughts on “On First and Second Languages-IV: Bringing Up Baby

  1. For the next generation to remain connected with their roots, a recourse to Hindi-Urdu would be desirable. However, if the idea is to propel them further without the baggage of the past, any other language would do. As your niece commented, when they grow up, they might wish it otherwise!

  2. Oh, but there is one crucial difference between our little monster and your niece. For one, she has much more connection to India because of her grandparents and, now, one her cousins. Her mother used to make trips to India for months over the summer holidays on a regular basis. She probably feels a bit distanced from the rest of her family in India because of her limited Hindi. While they are all fluent in English they surely make plenty of jokes and conversation in Hindi (I completely relate to this sense of alienation from our trips to India in similar circumstances). A__ won’t necessarily have that, unless that is what you want, and I think that is the real source of your conflict.

  3. I wish that I had learned another language besides English growing up – any language. Though I understand why you might feel conflicted, at the end of the day I think it would be a gift to your daughter. Aren’t there concepts and words and emotions in Hindi-Urdu that don’t exist in English? Even broken fluency is better than nothing.

    1. Alina,

      Excellent point – there are definitely concepts and emotions expressible in Hindi-Urdu that are not so in English. I’m going to press on for the time being for sure. We’ll see how it works out.

  4. My father didn’t teach me Urdu, and I have always faintly regretted it. It’s a very faint regret, though. I wish I could speak more easily to my family in Karachi, and it would be a professional and academic advantage to have a true second language. But my father taught me so many other things, and my life is so good. It’s hard to think my life would be objectively improved by Urdu fluency.

    Among my bilingual friends, I have noticed that the families who succeed in raising bilingual kids do it through a very structured approach, with designated times for language learning and actually using textbooks.

    (side note: my father also admitted that he’d been conflicted about teaching me Urdu because “Pakistan is no place for a woman.”)

    1. Alanna,

      Thanks for the comment. Indeed, its because I doubt I will be able to provide a structured approach to language learning that I am pessimistic about my daughter learning Hindi-Urdu. Finding a peer group might help, and I’m going to work on that if its at all possible.

      Your broader point about being able to give many other things to our children other than language is an excellent one, and it resonates here.


  5. It makes sense to learn the language(s) that you’ll need to use most of the time. Anything else is a bonus. Obviously there is no ‘limit’ on the number of languages one can learn, and one learns a language best when one is a child. But learning a language (or being forced to learn one) for something as vague as ‘being connected to one’s roots’ seems silly to me. Especially if you’re going to use it only once every 2-3 years, and for only a couple of weeks.

    One doesn’t have to grow up in a foreign land to experience a sense of ‘disconnectedness’, it happens all the time in India! I grew up and still live in a particular state. My parents are from another state. So, apart from English and Hindi, I can converse in the language of the state where I live and will live for the rest of my life. I can’t speak the language of my parent’s state and quite frankly, I don’t feel that’s a big loss. Yes, perhaps I don’t know what I’m missing, but in that case I’m probably missing out by not knowing so many other languages. I’d rather know the languages I have to use everyday, since at this stage in my life, there is certainly a limit to my being able to pick up a new language. If I were to learn another language sometime in the future, I’d probably like to try Chinese over ‘the language of my ancestors’, it’s probably going to be more useful in my future!

    1. Amit,

      Very good points – especially the bit about experiencing dislocation in the same country. And yes, there can be many kinds of deprivations – not just linguistic.


  6. Hi Samir.

    According to some theories which I believe have a better grip on reality, if you want to teach your daughter some other language you better find her PEERS, i.e. other kids, to speak to her in that other language. Otherwise she will be a foreign speaker of that language, with no familiarity.

    I never learned my parents first language (yidish), which they used between them for us not to understand, but I could recognize they were ferquently talking about “numbers”. For a while I blamed them for that, but not any more (my teenage years are far gone).

    My kids learned English during that year in the states, with a lovely american accent. They did not learn it from me.



    1. Marcelo,

      Good points; linguists report the same phenomenon – peer groups are necessary. I’ll see if I can find a play group for my daughter. You should put up a video of your lovely sons talking in ‘American’!


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