family, thoughts

The Power of Language

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.

18 thoughts on “The Power of Language”

  1. This has really touched my heart. I have been meaning to write on a similar topic. This is so important especially for those with children. I know what you are saying. I know well.


  2. Yay, you’re posting! πŸ˜€ (unlike me, haha) I’m always jealous of my friends who are bilingual. Freshman year of college, I was the only person on my hallway who was not fluent in at least two languages. I’d love for my children to be bilingual, though I cannot be the one to teach them. One thing that’s always bothered me, though, is your example about the “green-haired man.” Lots of my bilingual friends tell me that they often use their “second language” to talk about people within their earshot without fear of them knowing. More than once I’ve had Mandarin-speaking people in the elevator fall silent when I get on because they think that I know what they’re saying. I take offense to the idea that people think that they can talk about me in front of my face simply because they presume I can’t understand. One day the gori in front of you might turn around and respond to you in Hindi after you’ve made some comment about her. It’s definitely happened to some of my friends.


  3. An amazing post Aisha!Your post touched me because as a child I thought my parents were silly to insist we learn urdu and french. As an adult now I cant think how many times both languages have helped me get out of situations. perfect exxample was when we went to france and the customs guys stopped us and asked to check our bags. Even after seeing the maple leaf on our passports, he asked his collegue in french if he should continue his search…imagine the look on his face when I told him “Please go ahead, you wont find anything but dirty laundry..” in french:) priceless…truely it is a blessing and a gift that we should make a sincere effort in passing to our kids..


  4. The gift of their heritage is the best thing you can give them. I didn’t grow bilingual (irish background) and I’m so jealous of those who did.


  5. Achelois, I’m glad this post meant something to you. Its a dilemma when one has children indeed.Rehtwo, yep still blogging, you need to pick it up too!! I miss my old blogging community. You are right about the whole using language to speak badly thing. Its happened on numerous occassions where someone does not seem desi but is. I’ve even been on the receiving end where I was obscured from view and they thought I was hispanic. But in my defense, I usually don’t use the language to make fun of people… I used it in the post to illustrate a point. I do use it ask someon elike “so do you think this is a good deal” or “I think I saw it cheaper elsewhere” things that I’d prob tell someone else by pulling aside which I dont need to when the person speaks the other language to. I think you bring up a good point though for others who do this. You really never do know.Anon- I’m glad it meant something to you! LOL about the replying in French. Did you resist it as ac hild? I know I resisted learning Punjabi as a child… but again I’m grateful now. Pixie, amen to that…. and even though your kids may not learn another language through you can still provide them with opportunities in the community to pick up other languages. I know my husband wants to make sure our kids leran Arabic a language neither of us understand (though know how to read)


  6. I hope that you do. You’re incredibly blessed to have been taught so many languages. My husband and I have both tried teaching the children Spanish but like most American born Hispanics, they prefer English. It is hard to teach them because we don’t want to force them and make it a negative thing, but when left up to them, they don’t care to learn it. Before one has children it’s easy to say, “We will teach our child this or that” – but it’s much harder once you realize the child has some say in the matter. I hope that your child(ren) will see what a treasure you are trying to pass on to them, and will accept it.


  7. Tee, you’re right, I dont have kids so its easy for me to say this. If it helps though, I hated learning it too growing up, we all did. We resisted it too… and now as adults we dont have negative asociations with it. A lot of the kids who resisted whished they hadn’t back then, etc etc. The good thing is Spanish is prevalent enough in the US that hopefully with the background they now have, later they will be able to take classes etc an pick it up on their own.


  8. What a wonderful and true post. Being American the only language I can shamefully admit to knowing is english – when I am with my fiance, who knows 7 languages and therefore can make it in and out of situations more easily than I can, I realize that this is one of my biggest regrets of life. He’s slowly teaching me farsi and urdu but it can be painful πŸ™‚ Thank you for such insight.


  9. Hey. I googled my full name some time ago and came across your blog. Although both the sur- and lastname are very common, it was still surprising to come across your blog. The likeness doesn’t end there either, I plan on becoming a lawyer one day too πŸ™‚ Anywho, on subject: I’m half pakistani and half finnish, and to complicate matters even more I am living in Sweden. Because of this, I’ve only learned to speak swedish and urdu and never learned any finnish. I find it pretty sad that my mother never taught me to speak any finnish (don’t get me wrong, I bet it was hard enough for her to get one language to stick!) and I plan on taking language courses for finnish in future, as I feel it is still part of heritage. I bet your kids would feel the same way.Likewise my sister has kids, and at first she and her husband couldn’t decide on how to teach them both urdu and swedish at the same time, and so they divided it amongst them. Their dad always speaks urdu to them and mom always speaks swedish. Now as they’re growing up (they’re both still 4ish though) they can pretty well understand both the languages. You could do that, or if all else fails, send them to Pakistan for a year or two! πŸ˜› (Oh and by the way, I also read your entry about “struggle for identity” and I really can relate to that on so many levels)


  10. Zeens, glad you’re back πŸ™‚ I will link to your new blog! What does the little girl speak btw?Seeklight, 7 languages, wow!! I really want to learn Farsi. Rumi/Hafiz are beautiful poets but I know that to hear them in the true language of their thoughts would be another experience all together.Ashes, very cool that we share names and job ambitions :). It must be so difficult like you said for a parent to impart one language much less so many. I hope you will have a chance to learn Finnish though. I’m glad you could relate to the struggle for identity post.Anon, thanks πŸ™‚


  11. i can’t speak urdu very well, but i can understand it. i have always been so grateful my mom spoke to me in this language as a baby. language is so powerful. great post.


  12. Anisa, thank you, I’m glad you liked the post. Language is hard to instill in a child in a different country but in the end there are so many benefits. Hope you are well!


  13. good post. I regret that as second generation Pakistani-American, I cannot speak or understand Urdu. Curious as to the difference between Urdu and Hindu ? Are the not really “distant cousins” (if at all) instead of “close cousins” as you mention ? I thought culturally and phonetically and grammatically, it was different than Urdu ?


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