My mother tongue and other languages

I grew up in a little village in Azad Kashmir. It was a simple world. We walked everywhere, fetched our water from a nearby ravine and ate what was in season and what had been grown locally, in our own lands. Here, I was to learn my first words from Beyji and others in my family. As soon as I was old enough, I went to the local school. It was about a half hour walk away, over the other side of the ravine.

 We sat on the dusty floor, each year-class in a separate row. On the rare occasions when it rained we were sent home. There were two items of furniture in the school; a chair for our one teacher and a blackboard. Towards the end of my five years there, we were lucky to have a second teacher.

 As soon as I arrived at the school, I realised that my mother tongue was not a ‘proper’ language; after all, it didn’t even have a name. So, I set to learn Urdu. Some of the vocabulary was familiar but there were many new words I had to learn and discover their meaning. 

 I then went to the secondary school. We could sit on benches here. This school had more teachers; one per class.

 Now, as well as being exposed to a number of other subjects, I began to learn new languages, alongside Urdu. There was Farsi, which seemed like Urdu; just stranger. It helped us to understand some of the writing of Allama Mohammed Iqbal, our national poet.  We learned Arabic, so that we could understand the Holy Quran. We also learnt English. I didn’t know why we were learning this language; maybe it would help some of the boys when they went to Vilayat (meaning England; the source of word Blighty), to join their fathers there. Little did I know then that I too would soon be sent to England, to live with my older sister who had gone there after marrying my cousin.

I then arrived in England, in 1970. I quickly learnt that being an immigrant here was not much fun. I only had to remember the abusive welcome I had received on my first day at school. I also realised that the languages I spoke did not count. The only thing that mattered was how good my English was

 There was a bilingual community newspaper published near where we lived. Its editor, Mahmood Hashmi, who happened to be the person who founded Urdu journalism in the UK, encouraged me to write. So, I began to write, for their Urdu section; the first article was written while I was still at school. Later, I did an Urdu ‘A’ Level, based on what I had learnt in Pakistan. However, generally, in my new home, everyone told me “language = English”; nothing else mattered, nothing else counted. So I learnt English and …nothing else! I became fluent, even more than some who were born here.

 On the NALDIC website, I recently read:”Many children could grow up as bilinguals but in the UK, through a process known as subtractive bilingualism (Lambert 1975), become monolingual as the opportunities to use and develop their knowledge and skills in their first languages decrease.” In many ways this is exactly what happened to me and no doubt countless others and will go on happening unless we as a society move towards a more just policy of additive bilingualism, where learning English is not at the expense of a child’s mother tongue but builds on it and in the process celebrates it and enhances it.

 I managed to maintain some interest in bilingualism. For example, during the 1980s, when I did my masters qualification, my research focus was on ‘bilingualism amongst Asian students’. Occasionally, I would also read something in Urdu. But in the main, I was to spend many years relying solely on English. In the monolingual world I spent my work and social life, this was all that mattered. Although, no one ever said so explicitly, the clear message I received from the world around me was that bilingualism was not worth anything, certainly not if it involved ‘immigrant’ languages.

 The clearest advocate of the above viewpoint was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as he pointed out in his book ‘Disuniting of America’:

 Bilingualism shuts doors. It nourishes self-ghettoization, and ghettoization nourishes racial antagonism. 

 Using some language other than English dooms people to second-class citizenship in American society

 After 43 years (of living and researching) in the UK, I am in a position to say that the above message is also true here. Consequently, slowly but surely, I became a monolingual. I began to not only lose my mother tongue vocabulary but my confidence with it. Then one day, I decided to deal with the situation.

 I remembered the advice I had been given by one of my teachers, soon after I had arrived in England. She had said: “read, read and then read some more. This will help you in learning English”. I wondered whether reading could help to keep alive both my mother tongues; Urdu, the formal one I learnt at school and my first one which now had a name, Pahari. So, I systematically began to read, by subscribing to an Urdu newspaper as well as books and any other material I could lay my hands on.

 It has had the desired effect. My mother tongues vocabulary is much broader now. My world is certainly a richer place now and bigger as I can access and benefit from more of it. I am also more confident; not just responding but initiating conversations too. A few years ago, it felt a real sense of achievement when I was able to interview Mahmood Hashmi, in our common mother tongues.

Using my skills in Pahari, recently I have also been able to conduct interviews with some of the parents, for my doctoral research in Birmingham. Here, it is worth pointing out that ‘Pakistani’-heritage pupils are a quarter of the city’s pupils and will, in the foreseeable future, become the largest ethnic group. Furthermore, it has been estimated that more than three-quarters of them are from Pahari-speaking families.    

I now look forward to the day when Pahari and Urdu will have the pride and recognition they deserve and my multilingualism will have the same status as that of people who can speak, say, European languages.


6 Replies to “My mother tongue and other languages”

  1. Good read! Begins with a lovely narrative and imparts on some useful advice. Being bilingual has certainly helped me and I’m glad it’s being promoted. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Please pass the link to your contacts, anywhere in the world but especially in the UK. They can link it to any events they might be organising for the International Mother Language Day on 21 February.

  3. Enjoyed reading this. One point of clarification. “Vilayat (meaning England; a derivative of Blighty)” It’s the other way around. Brighty is the derivative of walayat.

    First used by soldiers in the Indian army; Anglo-Indian alteration of Urdu bilāyatī, wilāyatī ‘foreign, European’, from Arabic wilāyat, wilāya ‘dominion, district’. Oxford dictionary.

  4. Definitely a good inspirational read.
    Thank you for helping me take hypnotic trip down memory lane and to relive my childhood experiences of village and city life both Kashmir and Burmi’Stan.

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