Five years ago in the slums of Paris, clutching our bags, K and I wandered into a tiny smoky convenience store after an hour of confused wandering. A desi man with a scowl sat hunched on a stool at the counter and squinted his eyes at us as we walked in. Unable to speak French, we asked if he spoke Urdu. He did. Three minutes later we turned the proper corner and quickly boarded the train.
Three years ago I stood in a school corridor when I saw a small girl in hijab looking at her feet as she stood in line, overwhelmed. I remember our eyes meeting and the look of relief as I spoke to her in Urdu. She never left my side. She gripped my hand tightly when the fire drill came on and her shoulders softened as I explained what it was. A young girl fleeing Afghanistan would naturally be horrified to hear the piercing shrieks of the fire drill without explanation. Madiha and I remain close to this day.
This Memorial day weekend at a wedding on K’s side of the family, I spent time with his uncles. They’re the type of people whose goodness and warmth is contagious. We spoke in Punjabi and this weekend I fell in love again with Punjabi and the ease with which the words rolled off my tongue, the inherent warmth in the delivery. No matter what anyone says, its a beautiful language. Because I know Punjabi I understood their jokes which lose the full humor in translation, I understood their references and could respond properly to their delight, because I understood them.
Today I answered the help line at work by accident. The man spoke in broken English struggling with each word as though stepping on splinters. I recognized his accent. Urdu? I asked. Hindi. He sighed. I spoke to him in Hindi, a close cousin to Urdu, a language I know. His tone softened, his voice relaxed as we spoke.
The loss of language. Some say its inevitable. K says it’ll happen to our kids as it does to the kids of others. Sometimes I think he’s right. Sometimes I think that this language will end with us. That this is inevitable.
But this thought breaks my heart. Will they never be able to sit with my chachi and tease chacha to make another round of chai and truly understand the subtlety that defined the humor of the moment? Language is so powerful. It connects us, it eases our loneliness. It helps us truly understand each other, not through translation which evaporates so much of the true meaning of the words spoken. I know that when I have children i’A that I must pass this gift on to them because Language is so much more than a hat trick. Its so much more than a resume booster or a way to whisper about the green haired man behind you without fear that he understands. Its important for all the reasons I can list, but even more so for all the reasons that defy explanation. Language is one of the few priceless gifts you can pass on. I thank my parents for teaching me. I always wondered if I would pass my language on, pay it forward, I know it would take a great deal of effort, but now I know I will.