Today I got language-shamed by the man who came to my home to fix my closet doors. I was speaking English, and not my “own language” to my children.
My own language. I had to think about that for a minute. He asked me if I knew my “own language.” I said yes.
“Fluently?” he asked in a slightly obnoxious way.
“I think so,” I responded, feeling my heart speed up in my chest.
He was only here to make sure my door fit with my newly installed carpet, not make me feel like a bad parent as I try to discipline three rowdy kids.
I smiled at him and explained my thought process. By the time I have to practice the entire sentence in my head, making sure it’s grammatically correct, it’s just easier and faster to speak English. But even with my explanation, inside I felt sad and disappointed in myself.
Born and raised in America to immigrant parents, I spoke their mother-tongue, Urdu, at home until I was about ten. Nothing else was allowed. Even if I was dying of thirst, I had to ask my mom for water in Urdu. She refused to answer or acknowledge me if it was any other way. There were lot’s of battles on that one growing up in a two-language home.
While I learned Urdu pretty well, there were always those who spoke it better than me – and they made sure to poke fun at my accent or grammar.
To this day, I only speak Urdu confidently with my siblings, husband and, ironically, my husbands’ grandmother. I actually love speaking to her because she never laughs or makes me feel incompetent when I say something wrong, and will just correct my grammar or vocabulary without even a blink of an eye. But I digress.
Did I try to teach my kids Urdu? Yes! I spent the first year of their lives speaking Urdu to them. I bought DVDs, CDs, and books that I couldn’t even read – but talking to a baby doesn’t consist of deep thought or complicated story telling.
I know I am blessed to speak another language, and passing on more of my heritage to them would be an honor. But my thought process was this: Once they grow up and start going to school, they’ll begin asking me “why” all the time. For me, it was just practical and more efficient to speak English.
Yes, I have read all the studies that say bilingual children are more successful in life and have better test scores. And although I may feel guilt from time to time for not speaking Urdu to the kids, on a practical level, there is just so much to teach them in such a short period of time – and Urdu had to take the back of the line for now.
Here is what I am doing with my children, though. With the little time we have, I have invested in teaching them Arabic so they will be able to read the Quran with ease – and hopefully one day understand what they are reading.
When it comes to any language, practice makes perfect. Since I live in America and don’t have anyone to practice my Urdu with on a regular basis, I’ve become a bit rusty. It is what it is.
In my defense, if Urdu was my “mother-tongue” and the easier way to communicate with my children, then of course I would speak to them in that language. But it’s not.
Do I think that my kids will marry another Pakistani person, especially one NOT raised in America and pass on Urdu to their children? Maybe they will – and if they do, then their spouse will have a better handle on the whole Urdu language thing than I did. But I can’t live on hypothetical “if” conditions. For now, English is the easier route for us.
I will not deny all the positives that come from learning another language. My children know a few phrases, like “Stop that! Put that down! That’s dirty! Sit down! Come here! Be quiet!” I probably should add something more positive in there, but with kids, you’re really not having philosophical conversations with them. You’re most likely trying to keep them from getting hurt.
Sometimes when I am trying to discipline them in public I grit my teeth and tell them to behave in Urdu. They just call me out and expose me by questioning “What are you saying, Mama?”
As my children grow older they seem to be more interested in learning Urdu. Most likely because they want to know what their father and I are talking about when they are around. It’s usually about them so I translate when I don’t mind sharing our thoughts.
Now that my two older ones are school-aged, they seem interested in learning the language – and I want to teach it to them. My goal is to not force them, but teach them enough to have casual conversations with close friends and family.
They may never be fluent or flawless in the Urdu language, but I know one thing for sure – I will never make fun of their grammar or accent.