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Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Invisible Interpreter: The Grandmother – Child Language Divide

raising-bilingual-children/ Silvia Ottaviano -

Paati (grandma) joined us this past summer from India. It was her first visit to our home in the U.S since the kids. Paati can understand, read and write elementary English, while our six-something-year-old daughter can handle only minimal Tamil (the regional Indian language we speak). With no clairvoyance, my husband and I concluded that the lack of a medium of communication was going to deter and procrastinate the bonding between Paati and our children. We also somehow decided not to take on the task of translating or facilitating the process for either side. We simply shrugged it off as something that needed to self-resolve and waited for a protocol to emerge for sustenance sake. However, events transpired sooner than we anticipated. I guess it was the longing for company during those mundane summer afternoons that made both Paati and our little girl search for ways to communicate.

Our daughter was learning elementary Hindi (the more diffused Indian language) from a friend in the neighborhood. Paati was a Hindi teacher in her twenties. The two soon resorted to a tutor-student relationship under the umbrella of a third language. The relationship blossomed with occasional silent play and soon moved on to Paati experimenting with the American ways of greeting, while our little one began using the Indian head-nods. One day we heard our daughter neatly explain her favorite girlhood figure to Paati in her newly acquired Indian-accented English. Their communication later matured into small sentences sprinkled with English and Tamil. A milestone, I would still say.

Paati started browsing and later borrowing from the meager lot of children’s books in Hindi from our local library. She also passed down to her granddaughter Indian tales with a horde of talkative animals, goons and thieves during downtime on the couch and sometimes, as a bedtime ritual—all, in a concoction of Tamil, Hindi, English and even Malayalam (tracing back to her roots from another region in India). Tragedies and fantasies from the subcontinent were devoured by our little girl, and they left her wanting for more.

I also witnessed role reversals—our daughter paraphrased a story from her all-American picture book to Paati, while Paati gaped at the bright and colorful spreads of illustrations. Impressive moves in board games by Paati had our daughter invariably teaming up with her on game nights. For Paati, her granddaughter meant so much more to her than a companion in a strange land. She also relied on her, in our absence, to communicate with our toddler boy who had his own special set of gestures and words. The symbiosis nurtured multiple languages with spontaneity.

Paati left for India towards the end of the same summer. Although our children reverted to their preferred linguistic set-up at home, their familiar resistance to Tamil was much milder while Paati was around. My husband and I recollected how the kids had willingly tried to bridge the differences, and how they were more enthusiastic about embracing languages in an uncontrived setting. We felt reassured that with a more organic process, the language barrier was easier to bring down, with little need for an interpreter.

© 2011 – 2013, Meera Sriram. All rights reserved.

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Meera Sriram has been reviewing and recommending diverse children’s literature for about ten years now. She loves to pass on a title or an author to a friend (or a stranger, for that matter). Picture books particularly appeal to the inner child in her. She moved to the U.S. at the turn of the millennium from India. After graduate studies and a brief stint as an electrical engineer, she decided to express herself in other creative ways, primarily through writing. She has co-authored four books for children, all published in India. Her writing interests include people and cultures, nature, and life’s everyday moments. She also runs an early literacy program for toddlers and preschoolers in her neighboring communities. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her husband and two kids. Curling up to read a good book with her children is something she looks forward to every day. She constantly fantasizes about a world with no boundaries over hot chai, to help her stay warm in foggy Northern California. More at

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsChaitali Rede   |  Saturday, 07 May 2011 at 8:31 am

    Well put Meera! Really loved the message!
    I also have noticed that whenever the kids visit India they don’t need the extra nudge to try and experiment the local language. Rohan could converse with my mom’s helper maid who spoke a different dialect in Marathi. Thank god for a human’s basic thirst for being felt included!

  2. CommentsVishal   |  Saturday, 07 May 2011 at 10:20 am

    Very well written Meera – as always. Strangely, we haven’t experienced this as yet but I can see the connection that can be made possible. This summer, our 7 year old will visit India – we hope to get her reaquainted with her grandparents and hopefully there is a lively bond and connection.

    Keep writing….chai always helps!

  3. Commentskanchanasadagopan   |  Thursday, 08 December 2011 at 8:11 pm

    HI Meera
    i read all your article
    i am proud to be your schoolmate friend

  4. CommentsAarti   |  Thursday, 13 June 2013 at 2:02 am

    Can you please recommend some Hindi children’s books or a resource list of Hindi books?
    Thank you!

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