‘Which sufario should we make the soup in?” I asked my 12-year-old daughter as she pored over the recipe for chicken and sweet corn soup on my iPhone.
I held out two choices.
“I think we should use the bigger pot,” she shrugged, turning back to the list of ingredients on the screen.
“Pot?” I repeated. “It’s ‘sufario’!”
She laughed and said, “It’s a pot!”
I faked horror, but actually a part of me was gripped by a familiar, unsettling feeling.
Eventually, she conceded and used the Kiswahili word, perhaps knowing that it’s all fun and games until her mother pulls out a 15-minute lecture on her family’s cultural-linguistic background.
Being from a tropical place, I can’t use the North American hyperbole: “Do you know your grandparents walked to school in the snow, uphill – both ways?”
My equivalent is, “Do you know your grandparents spoke five different languages?” Except I’m not exaggerating; they really did speak that many, and that is not uncommon for people in other parts of the world.
My kids can get away with speaking only English where we live, even within our family; there isn’t a single relative now who doesn’t speak it.
They use English to communicate with their great-grandmother who learned the language when she moved to Canada in her 50s, primarily through her daily soap operas. But there is something about that that doesn’t sit well with me.
I’m worried that if they only speak English, they’ll forget where they came from.
This is something I’ve discussed with other first-generation Canadian parents who are from the same language group as I am.
Every so often, a discussion thread will begin in a private Facebook group inquiring about Gujarati classes or seeking advice about passing down the language. The answer to the latter is, of course, providing as immersive an environment as possible.
This sounds easy, but with English now being my generation’s primary language, it’s a real effort to remember to use our mother tongue.
My kids have some phrases down, for sure. For example, they have understood, “Don’t touch that! It’s dirty!” since they were toddlers, eager to play with the toys in a doctor’s waiting room.
My being hyper-aware of germs ensured that this expression flew out of my mouth from the beginning; I use it with a big smile on my face so that the other unsuspecting parents in the waiting room don’t think I’m strange for forbidding my kids to play with the same toys their kids are mouthing.
There are many other words we use within English sentences that my kids didn’t even realize weren’t English words until much later. (My nine-year-old boy admitted the other day that he didn’t know the word ‘medicine’ until he was in Grade 2 because we use the Kiswahili ‘dawa’ at home, which he assumed was English). But as for my kids being fluent in the language of their ancestors, the chances are slim.
So I push for phrases and words when I know it’s part of their lexicon.
I’m not a purist by any means. I think language is exciting in the way it changes; the subsequent new words, and how they are used, tell interesting stories.
For example, that word sufario? It’s kind of made up.
It originates from the Kiswahili word ‘sufaria’ which means cooking pot. Gujarati and Kutchi households that employed native African housekeepers adopted this word (and many others) and then applied the rules of their own native tongues.
Both these Indian languages have grammatical gender while Kiswahili does not. Somehow, cooking pot became masculine which requires the suffix -o, and that’s how ‘sufario’ came to be.
My insisting that my children use this word over pot might seem silly to my great-great grandparents who had never even heard the word.
In fact, I don’t even know what word they would have used instead. Maybe my kids will hear my voice in their head when they pull out a sufario in their own kitchens one day.
Maybe they will use it with their kids or maybe they’ll just think of it with fondness but not pass it down. I’m not sure how much further this word and the others I grew up using will reach.
These are some of the thoughts that come with motherhood for me.
It’s a part of parenthood that gets way less airtime than, say, diaper brands and extracurricular activities and high school programs.
But it’s very much a part of the first-generation Canadian experience.
Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.