The Struggles Within The South Asian Community, Being Labelled A Voiceless Coconut, When You Lose Your Mother Tongue – Saarah Bhalwani

Back to Stories

The Struggles Within The South Asian Community, Being Labelled A Voiceless Coconut, When You Lose Your Mother Tongue – Saarah Bhalwani

Language is so important for us South Asians, right? It’s who we are. It defines and shapes
our understanding of our culture, heritage, and identity.
It’s our cool little superpower.

We’ve all sneakily taught classmates the rude words in our mother tongue. Gossiped in front
of people we don’t like, in a language that they do not understand. We stand out like a sore
thumb when our grandparents speak to us on the phone in public, and we unashamedly
respond back in our language.

It’s how we relate to one another. Language determines which village our grandparents were
from in India, who knows who within the communities, which cities have more Punjabis or
Gujaratis. We connect to one another with our shared secrets, interwoven within beautifully
articulated sentences and phrases.

But something that we don’t speak so often about, is the feeling of incredible isolation and
inadequacy, when you struggle to speak fluently in your mother tongue. I acknowledge this
from personal experience with struggling to speak my family language, Kutchi.
This piece explores the feeling of losing your culture, becoming less of an Asian, when you
lack the skill to speak your mother tongue. It is a vicious cycle of self-hate and an
insufficiency with one’s connection to their roots.
. . .

“She could speak the language fluently at the age of 2!”. A line my mother repeats to others
in regard to my incapability to speak Kutchi.

I, like many young Asian kids, grew up speaking and familiarising myself with my mother
tongue, but slowly the art of articulating the language was lost, as I aged and prioritised
speaking English. As an English Literature graduate, I completely immersed myself in
perfecting my knowledge on a subject linked to the language that stole my mother tongue.
It is a truly frustrating dynamic, where I can understand Kutchi completely, but I struggle to
speak those words out loud. For many of us, it’s due to a lack of practice, under confidence
and overall a constant guilty conscience eating away at us over this lost form of
communication, which is deeply engrained in our blood.

The most frustrating part of understanding a language, but rendered completely useless in
speaking, is that you fully know when those aunties are gossiping about you in front of your
face, complaining that your generation are too western and are losing their culture.

But I do love my culture. I’m proud of my rich heritage, my skin colour, the traditional
clothes, music and the food.
My language.

But it doesn’t matter how many lengha’s I wear or how many times I post pictures of my
nose ring and eat pani puri at the local Asian shops. I can’t speak to the elders and completely
integrate. I will always essentially be an outsider in my community, even if I have brown

A voiceless coconut. Those who have lost their tongue.

I’ve spent hours googling for online language teachers, who could re-teach me my language.
The issue greatens when your family language is not as popularly spoken and so there aren’t
a lot of tools available to easily regain confidence in practice. Kutchi is spoken by 885,000
people. If you compare that to the 425 million people who can speak Hindi, you can see my
struggle in finding a teacher in the UK.

I’ve then turned to family members. I resulted in eavesdropping into my mother’s
conversations with my Nani (Grandma), mouthing along in hope of picking up the correct
pronunciations. I’ve tried and tried but I do feel like a bit of a lost cause.
The saddening thing is, is knowing that my children stand no chance in knowing our
language, if I’ve been unable to hold onto those roots, as a first- and second-generation child
of immigrants.

Will this vicious cycle of self-hate continue with generations to come? Will Asianess be
measured from judging each person’s capability with language, clothing, food and lifestyle?
As a community, I do feel we need to understand each other’s struggles within our culture,
highlighting that we each have our own connection to our roots individually. At the end of
the day, we are South Asian and that can’t be changed. Many of us are proud of our roots,
some of us may not be and that’s okay too. We all have complex relationships with our
identity, but it shouldn’t be gatekept by others.

I have made a promise to myself that I will keep learning my mother tongue, not out of
pressure or self-hate, but as an appreciation of who I am. A form of self-love.
Nevertheless, I am not any less of an Asian for struggling with my language. If that makes
me a coconut, then so be it.

By Saarah Bhalwani

Share this post

Back to Stories