Language and Mother

Languages are amazing, just as mothers are! Without languages, we wouldn’t be able to communicate. Without mothers, we wouldn’t even be! How are these two concepts so intricately linked together?

Language came to us ‘through’ our mothers. ‘Through’ our mothers because, while being in our mothers’ wombs as growing embryos we heard her voice! Once the baby is about six months old inside its mother’s womb, it already has well developed ears and other auditory accessories in the brain. It can actually hear the sounds around it. Babies not only hear these sounds but also pay attention to them. Isn’t it wonderful?

How do we know that babies can hear? When doctors insert ‘prob’s into mothers’ wombs for medical reasons, they insert a tiny microphone along in order to investigate the environment in the womb. This microphone is connected to a recorder. This enables us to listen to what the baby is listening to.

This investigation showed that babies listen to a lot of noises, sounds and voices. Mother’s heartbeat. Rumblings in her stomach. Blood rushing through veins. And, the mother’s voice. Babies may not be able to pick up every word clearly. But it can hear muffled distant voices, like we hear others when we plug fingers into our ears. The baby can hear the rhythm and intonation of the speech it listens to. This is called the prosody of a language.

Prosodic information gives babies their first language lesson. Prosody or rhythmic information registers in the babies’ brain as they begin listening to their first language. We must know that languages are categorized based on their prosodic structure. English is a rhythmic language with specific stress patterns in speech. Languages like Malayalam, Hindi or Japanese are syllable timed languages without stress. It is a very important information which tags babies as speakers of Hindi, English, French, etc. It’s the mother who gives this information the most, because most of the baby’s time is occupied by the mother’s speech which is also called ‘motherese’. So, mother is the most important element in a child’s language development.

There is another interesting experiment done on babies when they are born. Earphones are plugged into their ears, and rubber nipples are given to suckle. These rubber nipples are connected to a computerised counter which counts the number and speed of suckles the baby makes. When the baby is made to listen to the sound of barking dog, a man or a woman, the speed of sucking increases slightly and then decreases. But when it hears its mother speaking, the baby continuously sucks at enormous speed. The baby recognizes its mother! This experiment is done when the baby is just ‘a few hours’ old. This means, the baby doesn’t have to wait for six months to learn what its mummy sounds like. It already knows! Before it is born, it recognizes its mother tongue. Also, new-born babies can distinguish between languages that differ fundamentally with respect to their rhythmic or prosodic structure. This is the result of what is known as prosodic bootstrapping.

By 5 months of age they are already able to discriminate between different languages of the same rhythmic group. It becomes familiar with the set of sounds its language uses. And as early as 6 months of age, infants show maternal language specific phoneme perception behaviour. Later by around 12 months they are so familiar to sounds of mother tongue, that other sounds are not paid attention to. Around the same time, the child utters its first word and then, like magic it begins to speak.

We know how difficult it is for us adults to learn a new language. We spend years in school trying to master a second language, and end up having learned a language so imperfectly that most of the time we keep quiet. But children learn languages so perfectly. We have never heard of a child who failed to master its mother tongue! What is the difference then, between child language acquisition and adult language learning?

There is scientific explanation why there is a difference. But here I would like to emphasize a few factors that puts the mother in the centre.

  1. Language is not just words and grammar, it’s love

Language is a package. It comes wrapped in love. Do you want evidence? Look at any mother with her child. The way she speaks to it, the way she asks questions with no expectation of an answer, the amount of effort she takes to cook up stories to make it eat! Language is given to the baby with love. Babies take language in along with acceptance, care, understanding, concern, sacrifice and love that the mother gives.

  1. First language is called mother tongue, not father tongue.

We add our father’s name to our names. We inherit our father’s property. We live in our father’s house. But why is our first language called mother tongue and not father tongue? It is because, the first set of things mentioned are artificial constructs, while mother tongue is a natural phenomenon. Mother is synonymous to nature. Therefore, it couldn’t be called anything else but mother tongue.

  1. Language is an organic relationship

Despite the fact that there are artificial languages like Esperanto, languages are an organic relationship. We naturally learn them. The most important use of language is natural communication without any effort. Just like mother’s relationship with child, it happens. The speaker and the language itself are so intrinsically related like the mother and child.

  1. Language conceives and delivers

Like a woman conceives and delivers a baby, language conceives ideas and delivers in spoken or written form. Language is always generously like the mother. It delivers literature and poetry. It lovingly accommodates new and strange ideas into its lap- just like a mother.

  1. Language feeds ideas

Ideas are what languages plays with. Language feeds us with ideas. And ideas are born in languages. Just as a mother feeds her child with food, a language feeds a civilization with ideas.

Language is the window through which we see the world. What we see in this world is what our language shows us. If a language doesn’t have a word for a concept, the concept doesn’t exist in the culture that breeds the language. In one way we are what our language is. That is why the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. In the same way, we are what our mothers made. We owe ourselves to our mothers. So, just as we respect our mothers, we need to respect and protect our languages. Simply put, language is mother.

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