language, motherhood, parenting

Notes on the journey through language

It seems my son is learning Urdu. He claps to thali bajao, points to his kaan [ears] baal [hair], closes doors, turns off lights, all with Urdu commands. It seems things are moving well on the path to bilingualism but considering he’s primarily nonverbal, and raising a kid is a work in progress its hard to know when I can declare victory. When he’s 2? 5? 35? I know many of you reading are planning to teach [or are teaching] a second language so I thought I’d share what I’m doing now incase its helpful.

 1. Focused Language. I have to be realistic. I speak to K, my friends, my brothers, in English. To try otherwise is forced. Regardless of how fluent Waleed becomes, English will be his stronger language because English is my stronger language [unless he chooses to pursue Urdu studies when he grows up, and then I can perhaps learn from him]. Instead of forcing a 100% Urdu-environment I simply speak English to him when its inconvenient not to and otherwise, I speak exclusively in Urdu. Our time at home, is 90% Urdu. It’s not always easy but the more I do it, the more natural it gets.

2. Engaging fluent speakers. If I want to teach him fluent Urdu- I need to hone my own skills.When I encounter fluent Urdu-speakers, we usually resort to speaking in English and its hard to mess with the status quo. I’m afraid I’ll mess up, that they’ll laugh at me, but I’m doing my best to overcome this and try my best to convince native-speakers to engage me in an Urdu-language conversation.

3. Reading stories. In both languages. I read English-language stories to Waleed in Urdu, while K reads the same stories in English. In this way he gets the the rhyme, meter and prose of how the book was intended, and the urdu-version as well.

4. Making an alphabet book. Most alphabet books give letters that correspond with pictures for that letter [duh]. And as awesome as ‘A is for apple’ alphabet books are, I’m making my own Urdu-English hybrid alphabet picture book where A is for atta [flour] and B is for bandar [monkey]. Imperfect but as perfect as it can get at this point.

While, I’ll definitely add to this list as I go along, the ultimate question is: will these measures work? I don’t know. It’s entirely possible five years hence, he’ll be speaking with a southern accent and think Urdu is the funny way mama speaks when she doesn’t want him to understand her. 

Some think its great I’m trying to impart language. Some make fun of me. Some point out Urdu isn’t exactly Mandarin. It’s spoken by some but not all that important in the grander scheme. But it is. If I spoke Arabic, Finnish, Swahili, I would do all in my power to impart these too. As beautiful and rich as English is, if I can give my son the ability to speak another language, he’ll have another angle from which to view the world. I know its not important for everyone, and I respect that, but for me? It’s very important. It doesn’t mean I won’t fail. I might. Spectacularly. But if he doesn’t learn what was in my capacity to give him and what I want so passionately for him, I will see it for what it is without rationalization of any sort– my failure. I guess I’ll just try the best that I can.

No pressure or anything.

Any tips or ideas on teaching language to your kids?

17 thoughts on “Notes on the journey through language”

  1. i grew up in north america and although my parents spoke to me primarily in hindi, and i understood the command words no problem, of course they 'babied' the words too so when i was taken to India to visit family at age 6 – it was tough but i learned fairly quickly (we were there 3 months). I went again a few years later and same thing, it was touch but my baby vocab which was accepted at age 6 grew to be a young child's vocab (still couldnt really read a whole lot, despite my mom spending EVERY SINGLE SUMMER day making me go through inane stories about the khargoosh and his khanna (the rabbit and his food). i hated those stupid books.
    i went back as a teenager for 6 months and was put in english medium school – and i could speak hindi pretty well but no one in my class knew that because i was the 'amreekan' girl. so i listened to them gossip and just did my own thing in english. When i went back again as a young adult – 10 years later, my accent was/is horrible so i could only get away with speaking Hindi (conversational and without really specific words – i get stumped alot) in Delhi and kolkota. but i can still make out words and find myself trying to sound out Hindi-script words and spelling out friends names in 'Indian' at henna parties.

    My little bros on the other hand never got the summer hindi-a-thon (“aaaray! i'm too tired for that…if they speak english that will be good enough, they are boys”) and only were taken to india 2x in their life. Now in their mid 20's they understand conversational speech but have NEVER EVER spoken a word of hindi. ever. when they went to india last year, they only spoke english.

    i married an american caucasian guy and the first thing he did was buy audio CDs to learn hindi. I'm kind of excited by listening to him to that – it only means that hopefully when we have kids they will be understanding of hindi, even if they cant speak it. exposure is sufficient for me to be happy.


  2. ps. the “secret language with my parents while in public” thing….it totally is awesome and a great incentive to get kids to learn the language. I loved it. I still do it when my husband is around if i want to gossip about stuff. 😉


  3. This is a great post. I wish I had the ability to try to teach Henry another language. My niece is fluent in Vietnamese as well as English, thanks to her mom's efforts, and I truly do believe it's the best thing for a kid. And I don't think it's important whether it's a 'popular' language at all. As you say–it's all about giving kids different lenses through which to view the world. And thanks to your efforts, Waleed will have that whether or not he ever goes on to speak fluently. The seeds are there. Well done!


  4. PJ thanks for sharing your personal take on this– it was a fascinating read- it sounds like your family did a LOT to help you learn language and its so awesome that your husband is now doing his best to learn too! It's interesting though bceause I never really went to Pakistan except as a young child- but I speak Punjabi like its my native tongue [it was my first language] and I'm not shy with Urdu anymore either. . . . I wonder how that is when I didn't have immersion experiences like you did. Thanks for the food for thought!

    YM- I'll put it back up soon, I had some technical reasons to take it down but soon though. I liked the comments too.

    Susan, Thanks for your take on this- exxactly, I want to give him the seeds, so that if he wants to later excel in the language he has the basics. At least I hope.


  5. I am from Pakistan and my husband is from Bangladesh. I want to teach my daughter 4 languages Urdu, Bangla, Punjabi and English. I know I can't get her to be fluent in all 4 but I am aiming for at least 2. I will definately be on the look out for all your posts in regards to Waleed's bilinguilism.
    You mentioned making an Urdu alphabet book. How about buying him one from Pakistan along with childrens short stories in Urdu which may be his nana and nani can read to him when they come or you can get transliterated and then read to him?




  6. Aisha – as you know, I support raising children bilingually 100%! … As for how to know when you've been successful, I don't know if there is a definitive point. I have had ups and downs while teaching kids Spanish. Sometimes I think I'm failing them terribly and other times I'm so proud of their achievements and what I've managed to pass onto them as a non-native speaker.

    Waleed will go through times of rebellion and times of curiosity – it isn't easy! In the end, you just have to push ahead and be consistent because you know it is one of the best gifts you can give him. He will appreciate it one day.

    Sounds like you are using the OPOL method which is very popular. (One Parent, One Language.) … You're doing a great job. Here are some links you may like: — Although mostly aimed at parents raising Spanish/English bilinguals, the site has A LOT of information and research on how to do this successfully in any language. They also have a great “Ask the Experts” feature with great advice. (And if you have a question, send it in!)

    And I found these specifically for you:

    Love the book you're making for him!

    …Oh, and I know you don't allow him to watch TV/video but a study just came out. They allowed one group of kids to watch Spongebob, one group to watch a slower paced educational show (Calliou), and one grew spent the time drawing pictures.

    They tested all 3 groups afterward. The Spongebob group performed worse than the Calliou and picture drawing group — The Calliou and picture drawing group performed EQUALLY well.

    Pretty interesting! … So not trying to pressure you into letting him watch videos/TV, but *what* he watches matters greatly – and as a lot of other bilingual parents can tell you, videos/shows in the target language are an excellent tool!


  7. Unn, that is very ambitious of you! I really feel sad that I'm letting punjabi go, but considering I speak it with my family I think his urdu will end up being a punjabi-urdu-hybrid anyways. I definitely plan to get him some urdu alphabet books to help him learn the urdu letters, but since I also want him to learn english letters, and urdu words that is where the idea for making an english-urdu alphabet book came from. Have you seen that around? As for urdu language stories- alhamdullilah I can read urdu so hopefully over time I can get a collection of urdu language stories to read to him- that is a really really good idea- I didnt even think of that, thanks!!


  8. I love the idea of doing a Urdu alphabet book! I picked up some urdu flashcards in Pakistan which we have yet to try. We watched “Meena” cartoons in Urdu for awhile. They are Urdu cartoons by Unicef, with morals behind each one. Some were great, some were clearly meant for the uneducated masses (girls should go to school, etc). Check them out.


  9. i wish i had some tips, i would love for louise to be bilingual but unfortunately i only know english. my mom is always saying i should hire a nanny who speaks spanish, i'm like, yeah, i'll be sure and do that as soon as we buy our mansion and rolls royce!!


  10. I have no experience with this, but I think it is very cool that Waleed is learning Urdu from you — and especially cool because it's so important to you to share this language connection with him and give him another angle from which to see the world! Very cool!


  11. I did #4 for my nephew and thoroughly enjoyed the process. Unfortunately, Urdu sounds do not correspond exactly to any English sounds, so the best way is to engage in Urdu conversations, which you are already doing. I think you can declare victory :)))


  12. We're raising K to be bilingual in German and English. Our Filipino nanny speaks to her in English, and we mostly speak to her in German. When we're around other English-speakers and don't want to be rude, we'll all speak in English, but if it's just me and DH, it's German all the way. He's the native speaker, and I picked it up starting in high school. Supposedly mine is pretty good as I also lived in Germany for 5 years. I'm sure I have an accent and there are some words I don't know or grammar mistakes I make, but overall I'm pretty good.
    I've heard the big thing is consistency. There is a family in our neighbourhood who did the OPOL with their daughters. Their 5 year old is wonderfully fluent in German, and speaks English well too. The Mom speaks exclusively in German, even when other non-Germans are around. Dad mostly speaks in English, though he can speak German too and does at times.
    The thing I'm struggling the most with right now as K learns to speak is that she's saying some things in German and some in English. I don't want to discourage her English, but when she points to her nose and says “nose”, I'll say “Ja, Nase” (yes, nose). I hope she's not finding that too confusing. She will say some German words and definitely understands what we say in German, so I'm hoping things will work out in the end.
    Even if Urdu isn't a terribly common language, it will help W be even closer to your family. And learning one language as a child helps you to learn additional languages with greater ease. At least that was my experience with French and German. I also picked up some Spanish in university. Too bad my French and Spanish are so rusty now from disuse.
    When K gets older, I'd like to see if we can meet other children who speak German at home, or possibly send her to German school on a Saturday morning. I think it would be great for her to have more exxposure to German. I'd also love for her to spend part of summer holidays with our relatives in Germany to be immersed. I don't know if that will ever happen, but the idea is nice.


  13. Tracy, I missed your posting- so sorry!!! Thanks as always for your exteremely helpful tips and advice and takes. I read about that tv study- definitely interesting and food for thought! I do let him watch once in a while [more b/c I need him to be occupied while I do something he wants to destroy] but thanks again, will be clicking on those links for sure. [and had no idea I was following a strategy OPOL, lol] For the record, your'e my inpsiration, teaching language to your sons is an amazing accomplishment.

    Jamila, thanks for sharing the link! I didn't know about that- I have tried finding urdu language stuff on youtube for kids but it didnt go so well! Do you talk to your hubby in Urdu?

    Katery, Julia, as always I appreciate your support and words of encouragement 🙂 Thanks.

    A, thanks for reinforcing that some of this stuff actually works!!

    Kate, that is AWESOME how committed you guys are to raising your daughter to be bilingual. WOW. Immersion is definitely the best way to go– I don't really think that will be possible with W as much as I'd want it, but I'm so heartened to know OPOL is working for people you know. Hopefully you and I both ten yaers hence will have bilingual kids :))


  14. You're doing great! That's exactly what our parents did. Yes our Urdu was considered “accented” when we came to Pk (and many years later on, it still is) but there was no lanaguage barrier especially when communicated with extended family etc. Urdu may not have much “value” out there but being bilingual sure does!



  15. That is so cute! I think it is very important for him to learn Urdu! We are trying to speak in (limited) French and Spanish (what we know at least) for our daughter to pick up on things.


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