When I moved to Canada the first time I was 7 years old and fluent in both Urdu and English. With each passing year my fluency in Urdu waned. When we returned to Pakistan at 11 years old I had to relearn to read and write in Urdu. My spoken skills were marred by a Canadian accent and my grammar was terrible. I was exempt from taking regular Urdu classes in school provided I took ‘easy Urdu’ and slowly transitioned back to my grade level.
Determined to fit in and annoyed to be referred to as the ‘foreign-return’ I tried hard to mask my accent and worked diligently on the language till I proudly sat for my O-Levels (grade 11) along with the rest of my class year and achieved an 80%+ or B grade in the international Urdu exam.
To this day I can read, write and speak in Urdu although English is the language that comes most naturally to me. However, depending on who you ask my spoken Urdu fluctuates from average to atrocious when it comes to my grammar. I still have not mastered masculine and feminine nouns. Urdu is similar to French when it comes to gender words.
As with any language, fluency comes with frequency of use and how natural it comes to you depends largely on what your parents spoke to you at home. My parents with their respective families frequently relocated between countries during their key formative years and were exposed to Farsi, Bengali and Gujrati in addition to Urdu and English. At the end of the day however they too are most comfortable speaking in English.
This brings me to our 4-year-old daughter and our ability (or lack of) to teach her a language that my husband and I feel is important to help her cultivate a continued link to her cultural identity.
Knowing Urdu, which is very similar to Hindi will connect her to a whole sub-continent, and make her appreciate the subtle nuances of a rich and vibrant South Asian heritage.
Since she was a little more than a year old when we moved to Canada, she could easily lose that opportunity if we as her parents don’t make an effort.
Although we travel to Pakistan once a year, the time spent there is definitely not enough for her to pick up the language on her own. At home we speak enough of Urdu that she understands it well but is not too keen on speaking it. This disinterest began with the start of pre-school and I can only imagine it will get worse when she joins Kindergarten this fall.
I have spoken to many parents with the same desire to teach their children their mother tongue; some successful in their efforts of solely exposing them to Urdu from their early years to those struggling because they are not comfortable with their own spoken Urdu. The one thing that stood out was how much exposure those children had to grandparents who were more comfortable speaking in Urdu living in the same household.
My own interest and determination in ensuring I learned Urdu I owe to my late Dadi (paternal grandmother) who we lived with for the first 7 years of my life. I was very close to her and even though she knew her English, she preferred to communicate in Urdu. This attachment and association of my love for her and the language we spoke went a long way.
So what happens if your family is not set up that like that? What if, like many of us it’s just Mom, Dad and the Kid(s) living in a city mostly surrounded by people who only speak English and to top it off your own Urdu isn’t so great either. Does that mean it is a lost cause for your kids?
Well, of course not. It sure can feel like that on most days when you’re tired and your brain barely functions with basic English let alone a language you speak now only with your elders and remember being snickered at by Urdu speaking literati who just wouldn’t give you the ‘foreign-return’ a break. It is confidence shattering and just not cool. What is important is that you avoid doing the same to your children. Do not laugh and do not jest if they mispronounce words. Remember they have been brought up here in a Western society and will have a decidedly heavier accent than yours.
For families with a limited exposure to Urdu, who have the desire to pass the love of the language on to their children, I do think Urdu language classes are a great option, especially when many school boards such as Peel Region and the Toronto District School Board have integrated it into their school programs. They offer various weekly language classes starting from Kindergarten that are about two and half hours long. The classes don’t just teach oral communication but reading and writing skills as well. The latter two skills are much harder to teach at home unless you are blessed with the patience of a teacher (which I admittedly do not possess) and are of course well versed in the same.
Some may argue that once a week is not enough to learn a language and if that is the only learning the kids are getting, I would agree. I believe it’s a great start in engaging them with a community of like-minded children surrounded by a positive atmosphere of language learning. It will build their confidence and hopefully they will feel less pressure about disappointing the parents if they don’t learn the language right away. But it is also important to make sure Urdu is being reinforced at home. Your child will never learn if they are being forced to. They will rebel instead.
So create a love for the language with how you talk about it with them, link it up with their current interests, associate happy memories of relatives and visits to Pakistan if they have that chance. When they hear excitement in your voice rather than urgency and frustration, they will want to love the language the same way you do. I know it is difficult and I know everyone says be consistent about it. But if you are like me, days will go by of not speaking any Urdu and suddenly you’ll panic and all day you will grill your kid with Urdu sentences and forcing her to repeat after you till she yells out in disgust that she never wants to speak Urdu again.
Then there are days like today when I came across a free trial video online on teaching Urdu and my daughter immediately took to it and wanted to sit and learn what she could, completely unprompted. She even told me later on that she wants to learn Urdu so she can surprise her Dadi when she comes to visit.
Fellow parents don’t despair. If you indeed love the language, do whatever it takes to pass that same love onto your children. For some it will stick, for others perhaps not. But do try, because if you don’t your child might grow up forever resenting why you didn’t make them learn. Which of course is easier said than done. (This is to my half Persian mother, whom I scold every day for not teaching me Farsi! Ha, I still love you though)
Do you feel it is important your children learn their mother tongue, living in a Western society? What are some of the ways you integrate language learning in your family?
We would love to hear your thoughts!
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