Let's Talk About It: Do You Speak English?

Monday, September 11, 2017 - 8:31pm


Illustration by Rabab Jafri


English is the language my tongue commands with the most power and versatility, yet it is the one from which I feel the most estranged — or almost unwelcome. I perform spoken-word poetry in English, I write articles for The Michigan Daily and I plan to teach English in secondary schools. Despite that English is my first and most fluent language I know others will not fully accept me as a native English speaker because when they see my hijab, or Muslim headscarf, they question whether I speak it before any words leave my mouth.

The notion that I do not speak English is even more peculiar when considering English is my primary language. To some, my knowledge of English only serves as evidence that the British colonized the countries of my parents and ancestors. In one of my classes last fall, I brought up that European accents are thought of as superior, despite their difference from American accents, while other non-European accents like the South Asian accent are often mocked. I talked about how, although my parents learned English at school in their home countries, their miniscule South Asian accents — or perceived accents — can still be mocked as comedic. My professor then returned my comment with a question that made me stumble: “Isn’t the fact that they learned English in their schools eurocentrism?” I was taken aback as I realized the language I hold such strong command over, that was taught to my parents and grandparents, was only a language learned because of European colonization.

This made me think of how English came to be the primary language spoken in my home — because of my eldest brother’s kindergarten teacher. She called my parents one day deeply concerned that he was speaking to her in Urdu — my parents’ native language — instead of English. My parents decided it would best if they stopped teaching us Urdu altogether, a flawed solution that came as a result of my teacher’s idea that bilingualism is problematic.  

In my School of Education courses, I learned this episode was hardly unique to my family. Many children that were originally bilingual are discouraged from speaking their home language. This creates a conflict of demands that is impossible to satisfy. Even when in public, people have questioned my and my family’s English. How is it that people can want others to know English, and yet, even when they do, it is never considered “good enough?” How is it that I can speak, read and write in English just as well as the average English speaker, and yet my English ability is still questioned?

Growing up, not being fluent in Urdu was frustrating for me. In the mosque I grew up in, Urdu is a big part of the culture and adults and friends often mocked me, asking me how much I understood.

“Do you know what ‘cow’ is in Urdu?” “Do you understand what I am saying?” “You don’t know Urdu, right?”

I was treated as inferior by many of my friends because Urdu was such a central part of their lives. It was only because of my childhood friend and her parents that I know as much Urdu as I do now, and they were the only ones who did not judge me for how much I knew. I spent many of my summers listening to them speak to one another or to me in Urdu, and sometimes responded when I felt brave enough. Consequently, I know enough to get by and even help some of my friends by translating for them when sermons are in Urdu at my mosque, but the obstacles that I face with Urdu still frustrate me.

At first glance, not many people know how far my interest in language stretches. I’ve spent much of my life studying Arabic and recently used this knowledge when traveling abroad. I am currently learning Farsi and slowly building up my Urdu with practice. I find myself trying to hide the amount I know, and often do not respond to people in Urdu when they speak to me.

It was only when I asked my mother that I fully understood what my feelings on this are. Her response was, as always, about the importance of good values. “I think it was more important that we taught you how to be good people, and so I don’t think it really makes a difference whether we taught you Urdu or not.” Her response made me think about all the good that I did learn from my parents.

Language is not about superiority, and knowing one better than another does not make a person better or worse, or more or less intelligent. I have been viewed as inferior because of my experiences being an English speaker who wears a hijab and being a South Asian that does not speak her mother tongue fluently. Yet, it was the more important lessons that were taught in my house — values of treating others with kindness regardless of their background, as well as other religious values — that formed a culture in my home stronger than my South Asian culture.