Realizing the Difference Between my Mother Tongue and First Language

Growing up, every Sunday my family and I would watch a Bollywood movie and fall asleep in the living room. It became tradition. Bollywood is the massive Indian film industry of movies composed in Hindi, and occasionally Urdu. We would watch these films, chuckle, sob and grin, at different times, but I never understood what was going on.

During my younger years, I would just be fascinated by the colors and songs, but as I turned 6, my heart was set on knowing what the movie was actually about. I remember always asking my parents “What are they saying?” constantly throughout the movie. Although they always replied, I could tell they were annoyed.

They started getting movies with subtitles in English, so that I could follow along, but then it hit me. Why was I the only one that had problems understanding Urdu and Hindi out of all my relatives? Why was I the one who needed the subtitles and not my little cousins in India? I concluded that it was because I was raised in Canada, whereas my parents and their families were raised in India, the country with thousands of languages.

As I grew older, my understanding of Urdu grew as well, primarily because I insisted that I would speak only Urdu at home, unless my friends came over. My mother even enrolled me into an after school Urdu program. It made me contemplate why I had to go to a class to learn Urdu, and why I didn’t know how to read or write in it, despite it being my “first language.”

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Urdu was not my first language, but instead my “mother tongue.”

A mother tongue is the language that individuals grow up speaking at home, by learning from their parents. Key word: Speaking.

I was relieved to see that I didn’t have to know how to read or write Urdu to call it my mother tongue. In a way, being able to give Urdu this title brought me closer to my family back home in India. It connected me to my parents and heritage.

However, I still didn’t know what my first language was. After doing a bit more research, I found out that a first language is “the first language that the person learned.”

Still, I was distraught between both Urdu and English. I had learned English from watching cartoons and in school, but Urdu was what my parents had integrated throughout my life.

I came to the conclusion that since I knew how to read, write and speak English, but only knew how to speak Urdu, that English was my first language and that it shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of.

As a teenager, I now speak four languages: English, Urdu, Hindi and French. Though my life has been diverse with languages, I’ve grown proud of calling English my first language, even though it isn’t my parents’ first. But Urdu will always have a special place in my heart because it connects me back to my family and cultural identity.

 

Image credit: GoDaddy

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