Hing-lish: How this children's storybook is bridging linguistic and cultural gap

Though the official language of the country is Hindi in Devanagari script, it is the colloquial use of English language that finds precedence over regional dialects — more so in metropolitan the cities — to overcome language barriers


Somya Mehta

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Published: Wed 22 Dec 2021, 4:57 PM

A recent meme doing rounds on social media reads something along the lines of: The “post-” in post-Covid is the same as the “post-” in post-colonialism. And while there might be some truth to that passing comment, amongst the most common areas that this “colonial hangover” manifests is the widespread use of English as the predominant mode of communication in most former colonies now free from foreign rule.

Though the official language of the country is Hindi in Devanagari script, it is the colloquial use of English language that finds precedence over regional dialects — more so in metropolitan cities — to overcome language barriers.

But can language play a role in rooting oneself more strongly in their culture? Natasha Bajaj, mother of a five–year-old boy, discovered the disconnect between her son’s use of language and his cultural heritage. As a way to bridge the gap between the two, she came up with the concept behind her latest children’s book HING-LISH, an interactive storybook that helps increase children’s Hindi vocabulary. “The book is reviewed by teachers to teach kids conversational Hindi through English phonics. It’s a series about Indian culture, relationships and festivals. It makes you nostalgic and takes you back home,” said Bajaj.

“Learning Hindi Devanagari script is tough for kids who don’t learn Hindi at school, which might be the case for many children growing up away from their home country. English phonics make it easy for them to pronounce certain Hindi words,” she added.

Bajaj grew up in India and experienced a very different upbringing to that of her son, growing up in the UAE. Speaking of her formative years, the author added, “Growing up in India was a lot of fun but very different compared to my son. My days were filled with loads of play time with friends and the nights were filled with fascinating Indian mythological stories. The house was always busy and filled with people,” said Bajaj.

“We spoke Hindi and English but Hindi was given a lot of preference. Being raised in a Punjabi family, we also understood the language but couldn’t speak it. On the contrary I spoke Bengali fluently,” said Bajaj, adding that growing up learning multiple languages was something she took great pride in. “Being bilingual or multilingual is a superpower. Being able to communicate with people from other cultures is a huge social advantage and can open up so many more avenues,” said Bajaj. “It actually helps in your cognitive abilities,” she added.

What is HING-LISH?

Her latest children’s storybook is a product of the pandemic. During the 2020 lockdown, Bajaj noticed her son’s growing interest in language. “My son would speak to my mother in what I call ‘Hinglish’, which means half Hindi and half English,” said Bajaj. “He would speak to her but still wouldn’t understand a lot of the words, so I tried teaching him Hindi through Devanagari script. ”

To her amusement, it failed miserably. During the lockdown, she created a game where he had to read Hindi numbers in English phonics, for instance, Ek Khar-gosh’ (one rabbit). “I still remember my son’s excitement where he yelled, “Mom, I can read Hindi,” said Bajaj, adding that it was through this realisation that her passion project was conceived.

Western influence had been a big part of the author’s formative years, growing up in India. “English is a universal language. Therefore, the emphasis on it. There’s this understanding that everyone around the world understands it, so parents push their kids to learn English,” added Bajaj.

Embracing your heritage

For kids living outside India, said Bajaj, parents want to preserve their heritage and culture by encouraging them to speak in Hindi. “Roots are what ground you as a person. It’s part of the identity you inherit from your parents. Knowing your lineage and feeling connected to your family is always advantageous,” she added.

Staying connected to your mother tongue comes with various other benefits, added Bajaj. “It’s necessary for a child’s comprehensive development, including their emotional growth. Staying connected to your roots can develop a strong personal and social identity,” she said, adding that there’s a 2010 study from Emory University that concludes that children who know about their family history have higher levels of emotional well-being (Journal of Family Life, 2010). “When children know their families, they are filled with a sense of fulfilment, which helps in their overall growth,” the author signed off.


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