I met an old friend the other day. Her daughter, who I last saw as a grinning three month old was now seven and clutching a Harry Potter book, looking anywhere but in the general vicinity of this auntie who may want to pinch her cheeks and remind her she knew her when.
Ami, can I go to the basement and read? She asked. You can, but come back upwhen its dinner time, her mother responded. I will, she said I can help watch the other kids too! she added before skipping downstairs. The entire conversation was in Urdu.
When I complimented her daughter’s fluency, she looked at me, surprised, saying, you’re the reason she is. Come again? When we last met you told me how you hoped to raise bilingual children and that your parents spoke to you in Punjabi, pretended not to understand when you resisted and tried speaking English instead. It made me realize the importance of imparting language.
Her response made me think a) how amazing to leave such a lasting impression and b) how easy it is to have lofty visions of parenthood when you are not yet a parent.
I’ve written at length about my gratitude for being fluent in Urdu and Punjabi, and my desire to impart at least one of these languages to my child. I chose Urdu though I’m more fluent in Punjabi since the former is spoken more prevalently. But picking language is one thing; imparting it? Another matter entirely, particularly when I speak to my husband, friends, brothers, in English and when I read, write, think, in English. [though my dreams strange enough, are often in Punjabi]. Yes I can carry a fluent conversation in Punjabi, but my knowledge of English is more studied simply because it is the language of my surroundings and my vocabulary as a consequence is more rich in complexity.
All of this to say that as much as I desire to impart my ancestral tongue to my child it is easier said than done because speaking English is as natural and easy as breathing and speaking Urdu to Waleed requires mindfulness. Counting his toes I start to say one, two, three before I pause and try again aik do theen. Eat your food. Khana Khao. Had fun? Maza Aya? And so it goes- each word said twice as I self-correct along the way.
While I hold no illusions that I will impart language rich enough to turn my son into the next Mirza Ghalib, I want him to be able to understand the language, for the words to sound not exotic, but familiar. There is so much I would do for my son that is beyond my reach, but I have the language of my ancestors- it costs me nothing to impart while its value is priceless. The thing about priceless gifts? By their very nature they are a thing not easily obtained. Will I succeed? I do not know. I’m just going to try my best and hope that I can give him what I believe is his birthright to possess.
If you are bilingual how are you handling this, or planning to? How do you work on improving your child’s fluency particularly when your mother tongue is English? Any advice or perspectives most appreciated.