language, motherhood, parenting

The importance of language. And the difficulty of imparting it.

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.

32 thoughts on “The importance of language. And the difficulty of imparting it.”

  1. I speak/read/write three languages (Hindi, English and Bengali, learning another right now (Telugu). My husband speaks/reads/writes English. Hindi and Telugu. What we do is speak all these languages with D! I speak in Hindi and Bangla. M speaks in English and M's Granny speaks in Telugu. D is picking up all four! The most difficult language to teach is Bangla as I am the only one in the family who speaks it. We hope to teach D to write and read these languages too. It is very important to us. I guess of of you will have to talk to him in Urdu all*the*time. It will happen I promise 🙂


  2. This post really hit home to me! I only really speak English fluently 😦 I can carry a conversation in Urdu or Punjabi fine, but I am much more confident and comfortable with English. I can hold a conversation in Arabic, although my reading and writing is probably better and I'm at intermediate level French. My kids speak English and Arabic and are learning French. BUT I need to impart MY ancestral language/s on them. I keep thinking that my parents can do it but it's my responsibility not theirs. I'm considering starting off with having “Urdu Day” once a week!!!


  3. I am not bilingual, but since we are expats now and there are 80% chances we remain as such, my son will have to speak more than one language.
    So, I speak with him in my native tongue most of the day and night, because it is very difficult, highly inflected and full of exceptions. He will not speak it that well, but at least he will understand.
    I also speak with him in English – always when we are outside or with friends (most of them speak en). I read to him in both languages and I hope that he will pick both of them up.
    And then there is German. He will pick it up in the kindergarten and most probably will correct me every time I mix up an article or whatnot.
    Poor little guy. And then there is French and/or Spanish that will most probably be school subjects.

    Thank God for sponge-like baby brains.


  4. Well that's what I plan to do myself! Being Pakistani, these days we are obsessed with anything/everything foreign. Not that I am against English (which is foreign language to us), but I want my kids to speak/understand Punjabi, as my parents wanted me to do. There is so much to it than just a language, it is our history, our heritage.

    But again this is just a PLAN. I am sure kids will learn English at school and hopefully Urdu as well, but Punjabi plan needs to be agreed with my future wife, lol.


  5. Great post, as usual.
    I am not a parent but a phupo (aunt) to two lovely nephews and I do wish for them to know the ancestral language.
    My elder nephew is a little less than 3. He understands and finds it easier to respond when talked to in English and it is so very tempting cauz he says the cutest things!
    I guess disciplining ourselves and being mindful is the key. After all, a language carries so much!
    These kids will find ample oportunities to learn English, Spanish, French etc. etc.
    We just need to create opportunities for them to learn Urdu/ Punjabi.
    All the best in your efforts 🙂


  6. C- wow that is impressive- so far what language is he responding most in? All the same? Or does he have a preference. I hope he can pick them up- they are like sponges- its just me, as the parent who ish aving a hard time [though I feel silly now since you are teaching so many! lol]

    Fruitful, are your parents nearby? They are the richest source and opportunity for teaching the mother tongue- for me, mine and K's live in other cities and while we see them its us he interacts with most. Still, impressive your kids are bilingual as it is- I think “Urdu” day is a good idea. I was considering putting aside two hours a day in which I made a concerted effort to speak in Urdu in the hopes that at least he'll get 2 hours daily which is better than nothing.

    Mina, I have to ask, are you Icelandic or Finnish? I ask because I know those are very complex languages and yours sounds similar to that. Your child has a lot of languages to pick up! German for sure, English helps make them verstatile in the international marketplace, and then your mother tongue- wow. That's impressive, and here I am confused about teaching one!

    Tauqeer you are SO right. It breaks my heart that I'm choosing Urdu but my brothers only speak Punjabi and I see them struggle to speak to anyone outside of our family when they start talking Urdu. Its a sad situation that many Punjabis taught only Urdu to their children and left PUnjabi behind- many consider Punjabi uncultured and uncivilized and wanted to teach the more sophisticated tongue- and its SO sad because this is how a language dies out- and Punjabi is beautiful- it is hearty and you are right its heritage- so much more than just a language- I am thankful it is the language of the Sikh people because it is only through them that it will not die out. I hop eyou do teach Punjabi to your children.

    A, exactly! its so easy to respond in English! Mindfulness is very important- its heartening to know that at about three he is understanding. Many kids now a days don't even understand a single word- and that's just sad.


  7. Hey! Me again. D responds most to Hindi, English and Telugu. He is getting there with Bangla. You are right, this IS the age to teach them. I can understand it being tough for you, but I seriously feel if either you or your spouse converse with him in Urdu, he will learn quickly. Also don't mind me saying it, why not teach him Punjabi too? I think Punjabi is a beautiful language too! Keep saying some words in Punjabi once in a while maybe? Sorry for rambling, but I love languages 🙂


  8. As you know, a lot of my blog is about the trials and tribulations of living in a bilingual/bicultural house, and trying to raise our children with fluency in Spanish.

    It is probably one of the most difficult things I've ever done. It requires persistence, patience and determination. It takes creativity, energy, stubbornness in the face of rebelling troops! It's exhausting, the source of real physical headaches as I try to not only wrap my brain around a language that is not my native tongue, but pass it on to my kids – and pass it on correctly – not half-assed.

    I think I've done well for a non-native speaker but though my kids are nearly fluent in understanding the language, they are not fluent otherwise. They can speak on a conversational level but not fluently.

    Unexpected oddities have shown up – Our oldest son who loves to talk and is very social, has a good conversational vocabulary though he isn't perfect with verb conjugation. His accent in Spanish, between you and me, leaves something to be desired. It's a little painful for me to listen to.

    Our youngest son has been hard headed about speaking until recently and is far behind his brother in vocabulary — yet his accent sounds magically like a native speaker most of the time.

    Why the difference in ability? I have no idea.

    They can both read, but not fluently. They can barely write it at all.

    Saying your children will be bilingual, (or my gosh, TRILINGUAL!) is admirable, but doing it takes commitment. As you said though, it's priceless and worth every effort.

    My tips – keep trying. Be consistent. Keep self correcting. One day the words will come out of your mouth in Urdu first… then the scary moment comes when you can't think of the word in English. LOL.

    My favorite website to consult is run by my friends Ana and Roxana. It's called — It isn't just about raising a Spanish/English speaking child though – it's about raising bilingual children. Go there, read.

    And thanks for the reminder to keep it up. I've gotten lazy lately. 50/50 English/Spanish isn't enough. I need to push the Spanish harder. They get plenty of English at school.


  9. I miserably failed there. I took easy path to speak and communicate in english and now I speak in Urdu and they reply in English. I am trying now but I guess damage is done! But as I tell them stories in Urdu – they know all words like Jin, Shehzadi, Pahar, darya, kashti…(But I like it when they ask: “So what does that mean – “Ghora chala gaya”?)


  10. I speak passable Urdu (but sadly can't read/write it) and my hubby speaks Punjabi/Urdu. He's definitely more comfortable in Urdu, than English (English being his 3rd language). While I'm more comfortable in English. We speak in a combo of Urdu and English with each other and the baby. I'm also trying to teach her some ASL. But, we probably focus on Urdu more heavily as Rania get older. She'll learn English at school anyway!


  11. We're raising K in German and English. I'm thinking of sending her to French immersion when she starts school. DH speaks to her in German (he's a native speaker), I speak mostly in German, just in English when other people are around, and she gets English from our nanny and people outside the home.
    From the little reading I've done, you need to do either minority language at home or one parent one language. We started off the second way, with me speaking English to her, but we think it will be less confusing (since we speak German to each other) if we just keep it to German at home and English with other people. Who knows how it will work. It does take effort for me to keep speaking German at times, even though I'm pretty fluent.


  12. C, I would never mind- you're right it would be nice if he could learn a little bit of Punjabi too- I think since I am more fluent in it,and speak to my parents in Punjabi that its inevitable that he will pick up words. Thanks for the encouragement, sounds like your'e doing an amazing job!

    Tracy, you've always impressed me- and if my kids could speak like your kids do I would be THRILLED beyond words- I mean youv'e given them the foundations- beyond that they can learn more if they wish- but they have the building blocks- thanks for your well thought out comments. I appreciate it since I really admire how you've imparted language to your children.

    Mystic, its never too late to try 🙂 And like you pointed out they know some words, lol about the gora comment 🙂

    Jamila, I think the fact that you speak to your hubby in Urdu at least sometimes will go an amazing way in imparting language- it sounds like you are very committed!

    Thanks Anon 🙂

    Kate, wow I had no idea you were teaching her so many different languages! Thanks for sharing your perspectives of it, I did not think to read up on this- [duh!] I will do that- thanks for your suggestions.

    Raising, thanks 🙂 It's a blessing and a burden- I just hope I can do it properly! 🙂


  13. We speak English when we are all together, but my husband only speaks in Italian to Gabriel. My cousin is married to a Chinese woman…they used the method where she only speaks Mandarin to the kids and he only speaks English to them. The last time I saw them the kids were back and forth in both languages. They recently moved to China, so I suspect it will be FULLY imparted to them. I think something will always be lost if you aren't immersed to that extent.

    We have another Chinese/Italian couple as friends and their son only speaks in Italian (lives in Italy), though his mother has only spoken to him in her native language since birth. He understands her, but since Italian is the primary language spoken in the home he really never was forced to express himself in the second language.



    Not enough sleep. (Though no crying tonight!) Off to bed now. 🙂


  14. Murgdan, I think I need to be the one who speaks Urdu the way you are explaining it. Thanks for sharing your take on it- I don't think I'll be moving to Pakistan [nor you guys to Italy], so I guess we'll have to immerse them as best as we can!


  15. We're only at the beginning of the path, since my daughter is not quite two yet. I speak in German with her and my husband in Arabic (respective mother tongues). At daycare, she's now totally immersed in English.
    I think the challenge is starting now that she's bringing back English words from daycare. I'm trying to simply respond to her with the corresponding German word, but it's tempting to just take up the English she's used.
    Another challenge is that my husband and I speak English to each other. He doesn't understand German and my Arabic is fairly limited. There's moment when we actually have to translate for each other what we've just said to the little one 🙂

    All I can say is keep it up. However much or little of your language(s) you manage to impart to your son, it'll be part of his connection to his heritage. And who knows, he might just become fluent 😀


  16. We try to speak to each other and to my daughter in Arabic only at home. And then she speaks in English at dayacare, of course. We have tried to buy DVDs of children programming and kids books in Arabic too though she watches TV and has books in English too.

    If we live in an area with Islamic school, where Arabic is taught as a subject matter, we're planning on enrolling her there and that should help too; along with visits to the country my parents and husband immigrated from and visits from her grandparents who only speak Arabic here.



  17. Chiming in as the monolingual child of two bilingual speakers–as the previous comments reflect, it is incredibly difficult to raise a truly bilingual child in this day and age (and in the English-dominated culture), BUT I do think your son will appreciate both your efforts and whatever knowledge he is able to retain as he grows up.

    As I may have mentioned before, I have real, lasting bitterness towards my parents that they didn't even make the effort to teach me Spanish growing up. I don't know if they would have been successful, but I do know they didn't even try, and I feel like an important part of my heritage, of what makes me who I am, was taken from me without my consent. And ANYTHING they could have imparted to me would have been better than the nothing they gave me. I have had to spend a lot of money and effort trying to learn it as an adult, and have come away with less proficiency than a slower-than-average two year old. (And sadly, I speak the “best” Spanish out of all of my cousins). Learning languages as and adult is so difficult. I believe that if my parents had TRIED to teach me during childhood I would have a much easier time gaining fluency as an adult, even if I didn't gain it as a child, due to the changes the brain undergoes when learning languages as a child.

    So I applaud your desire to make the effort with your little one–it is a gift that he will one day treasure. I encourage you to not view success in terms of how fluent he ultimately becomes from your instruction, but rather in terms of exposing him to his heritage and laying a solid foundation for any future efforts to learn the language he may make independently.


  18. Rasha, are you and your husband both native speakers of Arabic? I see that people who are both fluent and speak to one another hav ea much easier time imparting- for me, I talk to K in English. He speaks and understands urdu but his vocabulary is very limited and he is not comfortable speaking it for that reason because he can't express the full range of what he is thinking and feeling to Waleed [and ofcourse I am limited too but not the same extent]. Was curious if you had dealt with this.

    Cylinda, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, I remember us talking about this some time back. I have seen that many of my friends whose parents did not even make an effort, they are indeed upset about it now. I do wonder, in perhaps trying to understand your parents, and their reasoning, if it had to do with teachers and schooling? Kashif spoke fluent urdu as a little kid- but when he began kindergarten his teacher told his parents not to speak to him in Urdu or Punjabi and focus on English alone because too many languages would hinder his development. So despite the fact that they are FARRRR more fluent in their mother tongues than in English, Kashif grew up with English spoken to him by his parents. He still can understand it and speak it to some extent because of his childhood I think and just hearing it spoken around him, but he lost a lot of his language because of stupid ignorant teachers. I'm wondering if that happened with your parents? I know my brother's wife told us that her parents were given similar advice when she was young and as a result her urdu skills are siginificantly limited. Thank you for the powerful reminder though. I can give this to him free now but should he choose to learn this all from scratch later it might as well be impossible.


  19. I think my parents had their reasons, but I don't think they were the same as those of Kashif's (which is sad and frustrating). My mom has a Master's degree in education/childhood developmental psychology (she diagnoses learning disabilities in children for a living) so hopefully she didn't think learning two languages at once would hinder my development. Plus, to me it seems that two fully bilingual parents (like mine) should be suspicious of such an argument, considering they grew up speaking two separate languages and didn't suffer any developmental setbacks.

    No, with my parents I think it was 2/3 laziness and 1/3 past discrimination they faced growing up as Spanish speaking children in South Texas (where you might think it would be okay or “normal” to speak Spanish, but apparently not). I do think they experienced ill treatment from teachers and other students for speaking Spanish, and maybe they wanted to protect me from the same. But honestly I think it was just too much effort and they didn't understand the value of making the effort. I think people who receive such a gift freely and without personal effort (as they did growing up) have difficulty appreciating the value of the gift of language. Which lead to them taking the easy path with me.

    I take small comfort in the fact that my grandparents were/are equally upset with my parents for not teaching us Spanish 🙂


  20. No, I'm not a native speaker of Arabic but my husband is. I was born here to parents who immigrated from overseas. He, like my paretns, immigrated her from overseas (from the same country). The fact that he is a ntaive speaker does make it easier, though it still takes an effort because I know some couples who are like us (one born here; one not) who have converted the native speaker to an English speaker (at home) and not vice versa.



  21. Cylinda, I can see that. I see that actually with many people I know- its just easier to speak English [SOOOOOO much easier I can attest to] so with all the other stuff you have going on in life you just opt to stick with it. And while I know its hard to focus on language when you have everything else to balance too- I feel like its SUCH a shame that the child sits there oblivious to the conversations going on around them- its not just one kid- its most kids in my generation- the stats say language is lost by the third generation. If its any comfort, your experience makes me doubly motivated to work hard and impart language on Waleed.

    Rasha, I didn't even notice the type-os, lol. Thanks for explaining- yes its still effort even if one person is from overseas. I think I'm going to make an effort while I'm home with him during the day to speak exclusively in Urdu- but when Kashif comes home, English- the fact is that I can give him more language in Egnlish than Urdu because I know more English- but Urdu should not be lost- maybe this is the best balance. Thanks for your take on it all and for clarifying.


  22. I'm the anon above with the German and Arabic mix. So far, my daughter mostly does not distinguish between languages. She uses the words she knows pretty indiscriminately (as a result, I usually scan all 3 languages when I'm trying to figure out what she wants to say ;-)). But I've noticed lately that she's started choosing the appropriate language for a couple of words.
    I'm very curious to see how all that will develop over the next year or so, as her active vocabulary increases.
    I'm optimistic in parts because I see so many bilingual kids around here (we live in eastern Canada). Also, as a kid, I had a friend who spoke Danish with her mom, Italian as a family and German outside the house. It worked out well for her … she's a translator now.



  23. i'm not bilingual so i have no advice to offer, but what i do have to offer is jealousy!! i SO wish that louise could grow up speaking more than one language, if i were rich i would hire a nanny who spoke english as a second language in order to help louise become bilingual, but alas, i am not rich and let's face it, i am also not willing (or able) to put in the time needed to learn another language myself so i can teach it to her.


  24. Natalie, thanks for sharing your name and for your story 🙂 that makes sense that she would interchange the words- but its also nice to see she is learning how to use them in certain contexts- That is inspiring about the friend that learned so many different languages and has ultimately become fluent in them. There is hope!! Thank you 🙂

    Kate, lol, its a blessing but then its a huge burden because you feel the pressure to impart it- I know it will be worth it though!


  25. Being Canadian my languages are French and English. I have no great advice or inspiration to give on this one. Both of my languages are readily used here so I don't face your dilemma. I would note, however that your post is eloquent and thought provoking, as always. All my best


  26. Wil, thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment, its always nice to hear from you. How nice to be able to learn two languages so easily as they are both spoken enough to be picked up and practiced regularly!


  27. My husband and I speak Urdu to our daughters (I am a native English speaking, non-native Urdu speaker and DH is fluent in Urdu and English). My girls fully understand Urdu but answer back in English. I try to encourage the eldest (4) to speak in Urdu, but she says she doesn't have the words. Like you, I am realistic and I know the girls won't be penning poetry in Urdu based on what they learn at home. I'll feel I have achieved enough if they can hold basic convos and understand what is going on around them in an Urdu speaking environment, like when we go to visit the ILs in PK.


  28. I think it's beautiful and wonderful that your son will be able to speak two languages! I wish I could! I spoke several when I was a child, effortlessly. Now they're all gone!


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