Root cause

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


New Delhi, Jakarta and, more recently, Hong Kong: Swapna Agarwal and her family have had to uproot themselves every few years with each of her husband's new postings as a senior bank executive. The nomadic lifestyle exposes their two children to several languages, and their five-year-old son Om has picked up a smattering of Indonesian words, as well as Pasha, from their previous helpers.

Agarwal and her husband try to speak in Hindi as much as possible, to teach the children about their cultural roots. But Om has shown little interest in understanding their conversation or the Bollywood movies they watch at home, and their daughter, 14-year-old Sia, is just as indifferent.

'My daughter speaks in English. She knows a bit of Hindi but she has forgotten the language. She takes a long time to say something [in Hindi] and sometimes can't use the right words, so we end up with a misunderstanding. She is not very keen on learning Hindi,' says Agarwal, a full-time mum.

Neha Patel, who relocated from Mumbai in 2010, was also dismayed by her four-year-old daughter Elliana's muddled sense of identity. 'She's sometimes confused,' Patel says. '[She will say] 'I live in Hong Kong, and I used to live in India and I was born in New York.''

Most literature on third culture children lists several benefits of a globalised upbringing, including a better understanding of other societies and ways of life. But the lifestyle also concerns parents, who fear youngsters may lose their home culture roots. What to do when the children are more likely to relate to tales of Harry Potter than Hanuman, the monkey god among the most powerful in the Hindu pantheon?

In 2006, hospitality trainer Geetanjali Dhar decided she had to help halt the cultural erosion.

'We're very good at adapting to other cultures,' Dhar says of Indian communities outside the subcontinent. 'Wherever you go you'll see Indians learning French, Mandarin, Japanese and so on. But in the process we're losing our own foundations. I was very disturbed because even my children couldn't speak the language.'

Dhar, who came to Hong Kong 13 years ago, quit her job to set up an educational venture, Brilliant Learning International, that, among other activities, promotes Indian heritage among the diaspora in Hong Kong.

Her vehicle is Sanskriti, a programme created to introduce Indian history and culture to globalised Indian children aged five and upwards, and to teach them to read, write and speak Hindi (an official language in India, along with English). These aren't the dry, one-way lessons common in traditional Indian classrooms. Dhar realises it's important to make learning fun for the globalised children of today and incorporates games and role play into classes. Younger pupils might sing familiar songs such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, but in Hindi.

Dhar says she developed the first section of the programme herself, translating children's songs and rhymes into Hindi to give youngsters different ways build up their vocabulary.

The intermediate section incorporates exercise and copy books for different levels of proficiency (from alphabets to words and sentences) developed by Arti Chandnani, a teacher based in San Francisco, who faces similar difficulties in engaging the globalised Indian child. The advanced programme prepares students to eventually sit for a six-hour Hindi Certificate Examination conducted by the Indian government at consulates to assess proficiency in the language.

Youngsters also learn about India's culture through songs, folk dances and projects such as creating their own calendars, with each month featuring a student's drawing of a festival or architectural landmark. Immersion camps held during school holidays further familiarise students with traditions.

'In the [Urdu-Hindi] language, sanskriti means 'heritage'. The aim of the programme is to keep children in touch with the country even if they're not going to live there. It is not only about Hindi, but also about the culture,' says Dhar of the importance of ethnic identification.

'A child who has strong roots in his [ancestral] culture knows where he or she comes from, and will be more confident. Also, India's [economy] is coming up so strongly, it's important for them to be aware.'

In March 2011, success with Sanskriti inspired Dhar to launch Muskaan, a junior Hindi class for two- to five-year-olds, which focuses on vocabulary building.

Once a year, the children celebrate their efforts at an event called Utsav, or 'festival'. Be it reading a poem or literary work, singing or dancing, they show off what they have learned.

Agarwal, who enrolled her son in the Sanskriti programme, is delighted with its effect so far.

'Om now questions us. He used to never bother when my husband and I talked [in Hindi], but now he wants to know [what we are saying],' she says. 'And when we are enjoying Indian songs and Bollywood hits at home, he will ask me the meaning of particular words and try to use them in a sentence. He's motivated to learn more.

'When we took him home [to India], he also tried to speak Hindi to [his grandparents]. On Skype, on the phone, he'll try to speak in Hindi, which is delightful.'

Among some Indian diaspora, children who pick up the language can be a crucial link to an ancestral land they never really got to know, Dhar says. One of her students who was in the Sanskriti programme for three years became the family translator because neither his parents nor siblings had the chance to learn when they were younger.

'So when they go to India, he's the one who reads the signs, talks to the shopkeepers and all that,' says Dhar. 'It's an ego boost for him.'

For her part, Patel now speaks a lot more Hindi herself in an effort to help reinforce her daughter's lessons at Brilliant Learning.

'It helps give her a sense of her cultural identity,' Patel says. 'I learned Hindi informally as I was growing up, and picked up reading and writing aged 12 to 16. Once it's embedded in your brain, even if you come back to it years later, your mind remembers it.'

Cultural heritage aside, Patel says getting a good grasp of the language is important for a practical, long-term purpose.

'In the next 15 to 20 years, learning Mandarin and Hindi to cover India and China might be the best position these kids can be in. They're smart and won't get confused,' says Patel. 'Elliana learns Mandarin three days a week at her bilingual school and does Hindi at home. When she counts, she says: 'One, yi, ek; two, er, do; three, san, teen' in English, Mandarin and Hindi. I hope she will be very competitive in the job force.'