April 18, 2016
Most of us who are first generation immigrants grow up surrounded by different languages. Most people from other countries speak more than one language. For me, any sort of access to knowledge is necessary and ongoing. Personally, I love being an amalgamation of cultures and identities. I love that I have familiarity with and can speak multiple languages. My adventures in multilingualism have ranged from the fearful to the comical to the sublime.
Being a fearful little girl, I used to get nervous speaking Punjabi. We were literally the only family in my neighborhood who spoke the language. I had my own brand of it that my family members could understand, but it was suspect if anyone else could. I made blatant errors that no one would correct because they didn’t want to discourage me. They probably figured I wouldn’t run into anybody else I had to speak with anyway, so it didn’t matter. What was really interesting was that I would be filled with anxiety when my father or my two uncles who lived near us would speak in Punjabi to me. I was afraid I wouldn’t understand them, or they wouldn’t understand me. My mother and my aunt were the only two people that I completely understood when they spoke to me in Punjabi and who I felt completely comfortable with when I spoke it. No butterflies flitted around in my stomach when I spoke Punjabi with them. I mentioned that to a professor I was working with once, and he actually said I could be a case study in anxiety in language acquisition or something of that sort. True story.
Now, I don’t have the anxiety because I just pick the language that will convey my meaning best. I have fun with my mistakes, too. I actually grew up in a household that snuck in vocabulary from a language that in no way resembles, Urdu, Hindi, or Punjabi: Swahili. So unknown to me, I used words from Swahili while speaking in Punjabi. I was following my family’s lead, but no one bothered to distinguish which words were Swahili and which were Punjabi. For this, I am grateful because it led me to one of my more comical foibles in my life. One time I was speaking with my Pakistani sister-in-law about a family of rabbits that had claimed squatter’s rights in her front yard. I referred to the rabbits as “sangora.” She had no idea what I was talking about. Then, I said, “You know, rabbit.” My cousin looked at me and said, “Sangora is Swahili.” No wonder, she didn’t know what I was talking about. Oh, well. I am happy that I literally know five words in Swahili.
On the flip side, there are those in this country who feel one language is enough, especially if that language is English. Most people in this country only speak English. Most of the rest of the world speak at least two languages. I have run into people who wear their monolingualism like a badge of honor and take a self-righteous approach to it. I remember a grocery store clerk who said, “There’s no need to learn another language because most of the world speaks English.” I just stayed quiet. I was just trying to get groceries, not trying to subdue the stereotypical American arrogance. If I was, I would have told him that actually most of the world speaks Mandarin. The second most spoken language is Spanish. English is actually third. My fellow Americans, let me take this moment to say that it is not just our culture and language that is the be all and end all for the world. Many other cultures and languages thrive and are as valid ours.
For this reason, I am so grateful for my exposure to and familiarity with other languages. Learning Urdu poetry has been a delight because I get to dissect a language I am still learning. The nuances and uses of different words are so fulfilling to learn. Before I’m done, I intend to speak fluently in Urdu and Spanish. I plan to be fully literate in both languages at some point, as well. I’m not sure when or how I will do it but it is an adventure I look forward to. That is exactly how I see my exposure to and lifelong learning of other languages.
Until next time… look behind and beyond the veil…
Sameena K. Mughal, Author, Freelance Writer