Learning my mother tongue

For one month now I have been intensively studying and learning Urdu through the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). I have primarily been focusing on my writing and reading skills. As a native speaker of Urdu I came to Lucknow with the naive belief that I already knew the language and that I would spend the majority of my time concentrating on learning how to write the Nastaliq script but as usual, I was mistaken.

After a month, the biggest lesson I have learned is that in fact, I do not know Urdu – at least not as well as I thought I did. There is so much high-register vocabulary that I have yet to learn and though I can comfortably communicate with other native speakers, I have to acquire the appropriate vocabulary to be able to utilize Urdu in scholarship and research. If you speak Urdu and grew up in an English speaking country, I encourage you to pay attention to the next time you have a conversation in the language and note all of the English words you use – do you know the Urdu translation of these words? I think often we think (or at least I do) that some English words do not have an Urdu equivalent because people can understand the English term just fine but this is incorrect – Urdu is as robust and thorough as any other language.

Chota Imambara built by the third Nawab of Avadh, Muhammad Ali Shah

There are two tricky things about studying Urdu in India. The first is that Urdu is usually spoken by Muslims and because Muslim communities are subjugated by Hindu nationalists there is a negative stigma associated with the language. The second point is that many people in India also speak English so if these people can tell that I am a foreigner or if I don’t understand one thing they say they will start speaking to me in English. A guest speaker who used to be a Russian teacher told us to tell these people, in Urdu, of course, that we speak German or Russian and not English because very few people know these languages here.

Being a native speaker is definitely an enormous asset particularly in grammar constructions and the pronunciation of words. From what I hear from other students, grammar is one of the hardest parts of the language but because of my background it is not as difficult for me since I have the ability to construct a sentence simply by what sounds correct. This does not mean that I do not make errors because I definitely do especially in gender agreements and I also speak more colloquially which is not always the accurate way of forming a proper sentence. So as a native speaker though I have some advantages I am still learning different sentence constructions, grammatical terms (like postpositions and subjunctive and conditional tenses) and of course, new vocabulary just like everyone else.

Jama Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri, a small city founded by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century

There are many perks to studying Urdu in Lucknow and particularly through the AIIS program. Language learning is intimately connected to cultural awareness so a lot of the work we do teaches us something about Lucknow and its people. For example, we learned right from the beginning that ‘adaab’ is a common greeting here that has been used since the time of the Nawabs. It was used as a secular greeting so that no one could identify another person’s creed simply by his/her salutation. Besides vocabulary and reading and writing, my classes help me work on my listening skills through audio recordings and songs, I learn about fun idioms and phrases that are commonly used, and I have also discovered a new love for Urdu literature and especially poetry. I have had the opportunity to read works by Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Allama Iqbal and other renowned poets.

Furthermore, I believe the most rewarding aspect of studying Urdu is learning about my roots and heritage. Much of the Urdu work that originated from Lucknow is also well known in Pakistan and taught in schools and universities there. Learning from my instructors has allowed me to tremendously appreciate my mom’s background and her skills because she was a professor of Urdu literature in Attock before she immigrated to the US. Her experiences make me feel more connected to the works I study and moreover she is a useful resource to refer to when I have trouble understanding a literature piece or unmasking the significance of a poem.

Second time in Agra – it was a lot hotter this time but just as spectacular!

My dad, who does not have the same experiences as my mom, is also still an incredible tool for me because Urdu is his first language and he too studied similar works when he was in school. Once when I asked him if he was sure about the spelling of a certain word he replied, “I may not be able to help you with English but you can’t question me about my own language”. To my fellow native Urdu speakers who grew up in an anglophone nation, our parents who know the language better than any of us are living, breathing vaults full of experiences and memories that we may never fully understand or experience ourselves. And if your parents are anything like mine, you could make their day simply by asking them about their Urdu skills or school memories, something they themselves might not think about too much.

If you grew up similarly to me as an Urdu speaker who cannot speak, read or write Urdu as comfortably or as fluently as in English, it does not mean that you do not know Urdu but it is unfortunate that we are missing out on some important pieces of a beautiful and poetic language. Still, these things can be learned and acquired. Studying another tongue is a lifelong journey. After all, who really knows a language in its entirety (every word, dialect, phrase, and expression)?  Language learning ventures beyond so much more than just the language itself. It includes culture and history that gives it its unique characteristics and qualities and that goes for every language, not only Urdu.


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