“An individual’s mother language has all the knowledge about one’s cultural roots, family history and identity.”
Sitting in her classroom, surrounded by walls abundantly decorated with signs, posters, and pictures written in Punjabi, Parabjot Singh reminisced about her experiences growing up and learning her mother language. Parabjot is a teacher at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, B.C. Although she is a high school English teacher by training, she currently teaches Punjabi to classrooms filled with students every day.
Her inspiration to teach Punjabi came from her family’s literary background and her personal passion for reading and writing. While she fell in love with reading at a very young age through reading chapter books and stories in English, she was introduced to Punjabi story books by her paternal grandfather, prominent Punjabi-Canadian writer, Jarnail Singh Sekha. Her grandfather inspired her most along her pursuit of Punjabi education, making her feel honoured to have been exposed to Punjabi literature from early on. Books filled with exciting tales surrounded her, which helped strengthen her bond with her grandfather. To this day, she continues to discuss many literary works with him.
Being Canadian born, her bond with her grandfather was the key to her connection to Punjabi language and literature. It was in grade 3 that her grandfather taught her how to read and write Punjabi. Along with learning grammar and syntax through Punjabi 11 and 12 classes, she strengthened her Punjabi skills by continuing to communicate in Punjabi with family members and friends. Her reading speed was initially slow, but she practiced daily and subsequently honed these skills. While she now self-teaches topics she is interested in, Parabjot considers herself lucky to have attended a secondary school that offers Punjabi classes. Having access to universities with Punjabi classes on the curriculum also proved beneficial, allowing her to study scholarly work of Punjabi academics. Although she finds it difficult to differentiate between writers, believing writing is a very personal and challenging task, she admires writings of Punjabi authors Amrita Pritam, Dilip Kaur Tiwana, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, and Dr. Surjit Pattar, and deeply respects writings by Canadian-Punjabi writers such as Sadhu Binning, Surjit Kalsey and Harpreet Sekha. Some of her favourite English Canadian authors include Thomas King, Phinder Dulai, Anita Rau Badami, and Alice Munro.
It is through her personal experiences and pursuit of Punjabi education that Parabjot recognizes the importance of International Mother Language Day. She finds that although we celebrate multiculturalism through various means related to cultural dances, clothing, and food, language does not receive the attention it deserves. “A culture cannot survive without its language, as it teaches us so much about our families, cultural roots, relationships, music, religions and other worldviews,” says Parabjot. This opens our minds and hearts to a new way of thinking and perceiving our reality, along with helping shape our identity and connecting us to others. Stressing the importance of learning Punjabi from a young age, Parabjot encourages parents and grandparents to speak it at home in combination with English, so children are exposed to it and feel comfortable engaging in conversations. She posits that “if there are no positive emotions attached to it, then youth will not feel connected to their mother tongue.” Therefore, she wholeheartedly believes youth need to feel love and respect for the language.
Happy International Mother Language Day!