Pinderjeet Gill, professor of Asian Languages and Culture and this year’s Golden Apple Award winner, delivered her speech “Diversity Makes Us Stronger” at Rackham Auditorium on Friday. Three students introduced the event as part of the Golden Apple Award Committee: School of Education junior Emily Bergstrom, LSA junior Evelyn Plonsker and LSA junior Maddy Mayer.
Gill has been teaching Punjabi and Hindi in the Department of Asian Languages and Culture at the University of Michigan since 2005. In her speech, Gill started by thanking her students for the award and sharing a story about her childhood.
This year marks the 31st annual Golden Apple Awards, a student-awarded recognition for faculty members with exceptional dedication to teaching. The selected staff member is also given the chance to give a lecture open to the Ann Arbor community.
Gill, who earned her Ph.D. at 27, cites her mother as a major factor in her academic journey and desire to pursue higher education. Gill said her mother was not afforded the opportunity to attend school due to the circumstances brought by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 that led to the displacement of millions of South Asians.
“My family had to migrate to India, leaving behind everything they owned in what we know as Pakistan today,” Gill said. “There were many families that were displaced at that time. And many, many children were separated from their families. My mother set out to live on her dreams through me, and I hope her dreams have come true today.”
Gill later discussed how moving to the United States was difficult because she had to adapt to a new language and culture. She told a story of the moment she first felt welcomed in the United States, when a woman greeted her and her husband in her native language.
“She rolled down her window. I was very confused and rolled down my window. She must have seen that my husband was wearing a turban. She smiled and said, ‘Sat sri akaal,’” Gill said. “At that moment, she and I connected with a welcome. My husband and I were so incredibly happy that someone had recognized us and our culture.”
Rackham student Conner VanderBeek expressed their own appreciation and ties to the Punjabi language, explaining that they learned Punjabi growing up. However, they said it was difficult because they lived in a mixed household.
“For me, learning Punjabi was a way to connect with my grandparents and my family and my heritage, because language is obviously a form of communication,” VanderBeek said. “It opens up worlds that you wouldn’t necessarily have known.”
LSA senior Ramneet Chauhan, who has previously taken a class with Gill, reflected on how Gill brought attention to the Punjabi language as a native speaker.
“I took her class and she was a great professor,” Chauhan said. “She’s very accommodating. She was just really passionate. And I really love that she’s bringing our beautiful language to light.”
Gill also shared some words and phrases from her native language of Punjabi with the audience, including “Bhale Bhale” (encouragement or excitement), “Sadke jawan” (self sacrifice for mothers), “Main vari jawan” (older mother figure or grandmother expressing love for a child), and “Meharbani” and “Shukriya” (thank you).
“Language is not just a mode of communication, it is a valuable treasure of people and reflects the growth of nations,” Gill said. “It reveals all the deeper layers of the spiritual life of people, their historical memory, which happens to be the most valuable heritage of centuries. Every language is gifted with some beautiful words and phrases that express emotions of love, praise, passion, as well as condolences.”
Gill discussed how words from South Asian languages, including Punjabi, have begun to establish a presence and importance in the Western world. She specifically cited examples of words included in the Oxford English Dictionary that originate from South Asian dialects.
“Interestingly, the Oxford Dictionary has many Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu words, especially from clothing and food domains that have been recognized on a global scale,” Gill said. “Words like lassi, khichdi, paupad, gulab jamun, masala, puri, chutney. … These were different things in South Asian culture, things that have traveled around the world with South Asian people.”
Gill noted that India has approximately 120 languages, each of which has its own greetings, and said understanding them is a way to connect. “Knowing many languages is like having many keys to the same lock,” Gill said. “We may not understand the chords of different languages, may not understand the songs and grammars of all entities, but by relishing the beauty of these multiple languages, we can actually connect.”
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