This is a guest post from Heather Foley
When I taught English to teenagers in the UK, one of the most challenging topics was poetry. Students struggled to locate hidden meanings, found language analysis difficult, and sometimes just felt alienated by themes.
But, a group of poems from other cultures often stirred them. These poems were written by outsiders, those who felt displaced or people who had struggled to fit in. Which teenager could fail to identify with that?
In her poem ‘Search for my Tongue’, the Indian poet, Sujata Bhatt explores her two languages, English and Gujarati.
Bhatt examines the problems of having two languages, illustrated by the image of two tongues. It’s also about the dominance of one language over another, as the poet worries that she’ll forget her Mother Tongue if she doesn’t use it. This resonated well with ESL students, who found, in the UK, that they increasingly spoke English, and had even started to think in English, using their first language less often.
Why is it important to keep your Mother Tongue, if you no longer need it? Bhatt’s poem encourages us to ponder this. It’s because language is so closely bound with identity. If you lose your Mother Tongue, you sacrifice a part of your very being. It’s often a link to your past, to a life before. It’s the language you used as a child and, as such, embodies childhood’s insecurities and experiences. To lose your Mother Tongue would be to dissolve your earliest memories.
Fortunately, Bhatt argues that you can’t lose your Mother Tongue, even if you try. For, in your subconscious, it still exists, and even when you believe you have forgotten it, it “blossoms”. Why? Because language is something alive. Bhatt compares it to a plant, with a shoot, vein and bud. And how is language kept alive? By remembering it, by using it and by valuing it.
Knowing more than one language is a gift to be treasured. Whilst, at times, one language may struggle with the other, the very fact that it does so, affirms its existence. Let your languages challenge each other, jostle and nudge each other; it proves they’re alive.
Heather Foley taught English for over a decade before becoming a consultant at etsplc.com, a UK based consultancy company.