A Weaving of Languages
I am told I spoke German before I spoke English. German was spoken in my grandparents’ home unless English speakers were present. My mother was fluent in German but, as I neared school age, my family insisted I speak English only. They believed it would make it easier for me in school. I could understand the German conversation going on around me, but I could not take part. As that older generation passed, my mother stopped speaking her second language and I lost my ability to understand it. My brain still puts words into German patterns now and then. I wonder at that.
How I wish they would have encouraged me to speak two languages! But that was not popular at the time.
This book, My Mother’s Tongues, brought all these memories to mind. Now, Sumi, the main character, is proud of her family’s languages. Her goal is to have command of many languages. “Having a tapestry of tongues will be my superpower.”
In the book we read Malayalam, the language of Kerala, a state on the Malabar Coast of India. The illustrations include beautifully written words here and there so we can see the language.
Just as my mother and grandmother did in German, Sumi’s elders speak Malayalam in stores so they can’t be understood.
Sumi’s mother studied to learn English before moving to America as a young woman. “… she couldn’t always understand what people were saying. They spoke too quickly or used words and phrases she had never heard before. And it felt like her two tongues were twisted into pretzels.”
Anyone who has learned a second or third or fourth language will identify with this book. For Sumi, her family encourages learning languages: “The more languages I learn and practice, the happier my tongue will become.”
The book celebrates our global world and the many, many languages spoken. Sumi wants to learn “dozens of languages” so she can speak to “people who live in every part of the world.” I think she will.
The illustrator used “mixed media” according to the copyright page. I wish this was more specific, naming the media, because the illustrations are fascinating. Bell’s art is represented on a rough-textured, woven canvas which gives the illustrations a rustic appearance. Yet the composition and color palette are sophisticated, charming, and inviting. My favorite spread depicts Sumi, her grandmother, and her mother and father at an art museum, where many cultures have contributed the paintings and sculpture.
It’s a beautiful, encouraging book, one I hope you will share with your family, classroom, and library patrons. Oh, the discussions it will begin!