I think, pray and speak in English, so why should I speak to my children in Urdu?

Published: July 3, 2017

I do want my children to acquire a level of Urdu which will allow them to be able to understand their grandparents, aunts and uncles.

My twins are almost three-years-old and they can’t speak Urdu, my ‘mother tongue’. They hear it being spoken around the house, and occasionally I may try to converse with them in Urdu but truth be told, it doesn’t come naturally. As first-time parents, we did get the infamous lecture that we should only speak to our children in Urdu or else they will never be able to speak the language.

People would say,

“Don’t worry, they will learn English at school but you must speak to them in Urdu.”

The common fear is that our children will drift away from their cultural heritage. Most people believe that language is what will keep our children connected to their culture; I only gave this thought after a dinner table conversation we had with some family friends. Their children were of similar ages to ours and both spoke fluent Urdu. They were passionate about maintaining Urdu in the house so much so that they felt the need to warn us of the ‘mistake’ we are making.

Needless to say, after a few days of being defensive of my children’s inability to speak Urdu, I did start to feel parental guilt. I began to think of how I could mend my ways and start conversing only in Urdu with them. I thought of finding an Urdu tutor, Urdu YouTube videos, Urdu flashcards and Urdu books. However, after my mum guilt slowly faded away, I was back to my old antics.

I’m a third generation immigrant who was born and raised in England. I can speak Urdu, English and my Punjabi is quite awful. My love for languages grew throughout my schooling. French was compulsory as was German. At university, I majored in Arabic and took a minor in French. Despite knowing the plethora of benefits associated with being multi-lingual, I still haven’t been able to pass the gift of Urdu to my children.

Language is essentially just another form of communication and at the same time it is so much more than that.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela’s words very simply highlight how this form of communication, unlike any other, is so connected to our being.

It is for this exact reason that I find it difficult to pull myself away from speaking in English with my children. Despite Urdu being my official ‘mother tongue’, English is the language I think in, pray in and prefer to speak in. So then why would I not use this language to communicate in with my children? Children learn the most in the first six years of their lives and it is a crucial time in their development. Currently, I am not able to convince myself that I should compromise my ability to guide them through these crucial years using a language that doesn’t flow naturally with me.

Nevertheless, I still want them to be able to at least speak Urdu. I am not hoping that my children grow up to be avid readers of Mirza Ghalib or Faiz Ahmed Faiz. However, I do want them to acquire a level of Urdu which will allow them to be able to understand their grandparents, aunts and uncles and be able to listen to family stories, life advice and the seasoned opinions of our elders.

Is this an unreasonable aspiration for my children? I think not. I fail to believe that one cannot acquire the skill of a new language out of the home environment. Yes it’s harder, it requires some effort and it is not the same as submerging yourself amongst the native speaker but it is an attainable goal.

I believe the discourse surrounding keeping the Urdu language and Pakistani culture alive in immigrant households is somewhat dated. Instead of looking for constrictive solutions to this epidemic, people are more concerned with highlighting the shortcomings of parents.

We need to connect to keep this language alive in a way that will adapt to the ideals of an immigrant generation and appeal to generations to come. We are living in an era deeply entrenched in institutionalised learning environments. Establishing a network of Urdu language schools which mimic the learning environments their students are accustomed to will greatly increase the likelihood of both children and their parents maintaining Urdu as a part of their lives.

Some would argue institutionalising the learning of the Urdu language would kill the essence of what is supposedly our mother tongue. Perhaps it will, but it remains that without this method. Urdu is sure to die in many homes.

The famous Urdu poet Allama Iqbal once said,

 “Only change is permanent.”

We must adapt to change as well as accept change. Not all families of Pakistani origin will be able to maintain Urdu in their homes and this should be perfectly acceptable. What is perhaps not acceptable is if we do not collectively help one another to create accessible and accepting learning environments for future generations to have the option to acquire this beautiful language if they so please.

Yasmin Ginai

Yasmin Ginai

The author is a British Kiwi expat now settled in Canada and enjoying everyday adventures with her twins. She blogs at www.twinsiesandco.com

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • ab

    you dream in english?Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    It is UnIslamic to pray in English.Recommend

  • Sane

    You speak, think and pray in English. You are alien to this country as you are among the fractions of the percentage of Pakistani population.Recommend

  • Ali

    I’d give anything to stop being associated with this country in every way.Recommend

  • abhi

    If you have lived in England all your life and english is more natural language for you then it is fine.Recommend

  • Sane

    No one begs your association. You are alien too.Recommend

  • mustafa

    prove it.Recommend

  • Prakash

    One should / must know one’s mother tongue whether its Urdu or any other language. If you can’t pass on the gift of Urdu to your children its your failure. Don’t give excuses.
    But guys plz don’t give it religious color.! Finally its his choice, nothing to do with religion !Recommend

  • Anonymous

    Language is a form of communication. We’ve been given the ability to speak a certain language or multiple languages so us humans would be able to form connections and understand each other. It really doesn’t matter what language you speak with your children unless not speaking a certain language is hindering their communication with the locals/citizens of the country where they reside. Please ignore anyone who tells you otherwise. I’ve never been able to understand the debate over urdu and English. Why can’t people just speak whatever they’re comfortable with it? No one has a monopoly over a certain language so speak whatever it is you wish to and live your life on your own terms.Recommend

  • Jim Bo

    The author has written well to express a taboo in the west……children be taught to speak Urdu when for the majority of their waking hours are spent speaking the local language (English/French/German/norwegian, etc.). While I condone what she argues, I too was born outside Pakistan, speaking amongst other languages, predominantly English, I confess knowing the basics of Urdu & Punjabi not only helped me in my adult years but also let me appreciate aspects of another language that may not have had a bearing on my profession or relations with family. So, while her arguments are fair not to play a guilt on the children or her parenting, keeping within what benefits the children most, I’d encourage her to attempt teaching, atleast spoken Urdu/Hindi/Punjabi, as a second language, considered a positive to the intellectual attributes as that child grows older. Its a known fact that bilingual children are more intelligent and accommodating in society, than singular linguistics. I’m a mid-60s retired professional, speaking with personal experienceRecommend

  • Ahmar

    Can someone direct me to the local page of express blogs where I can read articles from people who actually live in Pakistan?

    I am kinda fed up reading the first world problems of ex-pat Pakistanis.Recommend

  • Humza

    You are obviously not Pakistani then. Pakistanis overseas make a point of being associated with Pakistan in every possible way. You should have seen the cricket celebrations across North America. Back to the article, I don’t it matters whether you speak or understand Urdu / Hindi to keep your Pakistani link. I don’t watch Bollywood films but I enjoy music in Punjabi, Pashtu and other folk languages of Pakistan but I don’t think Urdu / Hindi is essential to maintain our link and heritage.Recommend

  • ab

    People like you should remember donald trump.Recommend

  • Bonga

    Please tell languages which are Islamic?

    English – out

  • Baingan

    Whats the problem here, speak what ever, who cares.

    ET…please have mercy, publish some readable stuff yaar.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Calm down. OK. Look. At this point, nobody gives a doozy where the blogger was born. Whether it was Nigeria, Timbukto, Elan Bator, Siberia, Outer Hebrides, Somalia or Afghanistan, or Bhutan. Well, getting back to the topic, nobody will
    gives a two day old samosa, about her particular predicament
    Nor does anyone cares whether she speaks, thinks, dreams and prays in a Adivasi dialect, French, German, Swahili, Bantu or Eskimo Language, or Burusho or Gujrati or Pashto.
    Seriously, if her triplets can’t speak Urdu then it’s their loss. They can learn Russian. Recommend

  • asad

    One day they would blame you while reading Iqbal and, Ghalib; poetry in Urdu/Persian/Arabic go so peacefully togetherRecommend

  • Acorn Guts

    This was so confusing to read .. no idea where author is trying to go with her arguments.Recommend

  • Sane

    There is no Islamic language like there is no christian, Buddhist or Hindu language. Languages are regional throughout the world not based on religion. Anyways, while you offer your pray (Namaz) you are bound to be in Arabic, the language in which Holy Quran was revealed. In other prays (not in Namaz) you can use any other language; like Dua. In Hajj and Umrah also, Quranic verses are recited in Arabic not in any other language. Don’t make things complicated and debated for nothing.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Keep working at it. In double time. Including the fancy terms
    you Googled and got them backwards. Be a little more
    innovative. Seems like you are working too hard in grappling
    with all these pidgin verses.
    Try a soliloquy, In colloquial Punjabi. See how it pans out.
    Might be better in front of a mirror. With a white shirt on.
    Otherwise you will not find yourself in the mirror.
    And what expats? The woman was not born in the Land
    of the Pure. Possibly Burkina Faso. Her tent is now pitched in
    Canada. So what expat?Recommend

  • Humza

    Try to read a bit about Nastaleeq which is the modified Persian used in Punjabi. Cuneiform has nothing to do with the Arabic script or the subsequent Persian script. Persian script may have derived from Arabic but there is no relation to cuneiform. Incidentally I have seen the cuneiform script carved in the laws of Hammurabai.Look at it yourself and see if there is any relation to the Persian Arabic script or the modified Persian script used for Punjabi. Bulleh Shah and most original Punjabi poetry is written in the modifed Persian script centuries ago. I can’t blame you for not knowing much about native Pakistani culture and languages. I confess I don’t know that much about your Indian homeland either. For example Tamil, Telagu, Bihari, and Marratta are as foreign to me as Swahili. I understand you hate Punjabis who are the largest native population of Pakistan at over 60 % of the population. Since you hate most Pakistanis why not just focus on your Indian roots and the multi Again the only white shirt that should be worn would be those still suffering India’s cricket loss to Pakistan!Recommend

  • Humza

    Let’ see. You claim to be obsessed with Pakistan because you are Pakistani but then you say you can’t get rid of your origin. First you said you are ashamed of your association and you want to burn your passport and celebrate with champagne. Come on know, we all know you have a blue Indian passport and your wife has a bindi along with a sari ! Sure you may not care a rat’s behind about your Indian homeland but spare me the anti Pakistani drivel and own up to being the Indian you are. I have never met a real Pakistani who hates his own country but I have met many Indians who hate theirs.Recommend

  • Humza

    Read up what diatribe means. No diatribe but love. Love to be at Baba Bulleh Shah’s mausloleum in Kasur or any of the great Sufi poets of Pakistan , whether in Sindi or Seraiki ( Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai) or Baba Rahman ( Pashtu) or countless others because it is my heritage. With nihari or chappati even more so!
    Al the while you can enjoy your Thali under the Indian sun of Madya Pradesh or Utter Pradesh listening to Bhajjans. We can all be happy. Pakistanis and Indians both !Recommend

  • Patwari

    Here is the thing, On any occasion that you get trounced
    in a discourse, the other person or persons immediately become “Indian”.
    You stream of consciousness refuses to accept that your point of view is flawed. Badly. Literally jingoist
    That leads us all back to square one. Sons of the Soil have
    nearly destroyed Pakland. By electing incompetent thugs again
    and again and again. Must be in the DNA. it’s called ethnic provincialism. Just vote for a Punjabi, never mind that he looted
    and plundered to the tune of $3.8 billion [USD].
    After all there are 120 million voting Punjabis. 70% illiterate.
    There is no escape from provincialism. Is there,… now?
    Oh! You forgot Lal Shahbaz Qalander. But his durgah is in Sindh. Typical thing for a Son of the Soil from Poonjab to do.Recommend

  • Ali

    Read up on this logical fallacy called the True Scotsman fallacy.Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    No Hindi and English. The rest are Islamically halal.Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    You cannot speak against religion. You need faith to believe it.Recommend

  • SkepticalFaraz

    I have lived in Canada for 15 years, all my schooling was done in English. I suddenly realized i think in English when i speak or write in English and think in Urdu/ Punjabi when i speak/ write in Urdu/ Punjabi.Recommend