You have a decent command over English and Telugu, but how is it that your preschool son’s question about language left you inarticulate and introspective?
His simple question about his friend Sahil’s “Indian language” and if he knows Telugu was the beginning of a complicated dialogue with him as well as within you.
Your mother tongue is Telugu, because your mother’s tongue is Telugu. You have been raised in the US but you are bilingual – your parents provided an environment so that you can now speak both Telugu and English fluently. You have desi and ABCD friends with whom your poor Hindi is the only way to make the Indian connection. Your primary mode of communication is English, since it’s the language of the land you live in. You make an effort to teach them your mother tongue but they are not bilingual.
You feel you are to blame. That you are not providing your son the proper language connection through the cultural exposure you give him. Do you feel justified that you are unable to teach him Telugu because your Indian cousins who grew up outside Andhra Pradesh speak to one another in Hindi. Or do you feel guilty that these same cousins can speak to your parents and others of that generation in fluent Telugu?
Celluloid is a great desi link. Didn’t a second generation guy you know once tell you that he learnt Tamil by watching movies? And you love your quota of Bollywood and Tollywood flicks, from which you selectively provide the kids their share. Now you are thinking of sending them to language classes. Learning how to read and write Telugu at a first grade level didn’t help you gain command over spoken Telugu. But hey, you already knew how to speak it when you took language classes. Doesn’t your son have enough to contend with, learning the English alphabet and being exposed to three or four spoken languages (if you add the school district’s weekly Spanish classes to Telugu, Hindi and English)?
So you wonder what the next generation “Indian language” will be. And how your kids will share desi culture concepts, with a multilingual Indian-American community and friends like Sahil (whose “Indian language” is Gujarati). While you may have lost the “acchu (pure) Telugu” your parents speak, you gain so much from living and communicating with people here – not just “Indian” language.
Your second grader is learning Spanish as part of the school curriculum, and has learnt some Chinese from one of her classmates. She’s picked up Tamil, Hindi and Gujarati words from her desi friends. Your kids know teeku and khaaram are both hot – the spicy version of hot, that is. Sahil and your son, like your daughter and her friends, will help each other spice up the Indian-American vocabulary, and also what makes up the American melting pot. Enjoy the results!