Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Language and the inevitability of rip currents

Despite my best efforts to speak Urdu around the clock, buying Urdu books, singing Urdu songs, these are the most commonly uttered phrases out of my little boy's mouth:

Where are you [baba, mama, aloo]
Love you [baba, mama, aloo]
What's this?
This mine!
See you later!
No 'ew' in bubbles [translation: don't poop in the tub]

While he says it all in an adorable desi accent, accents do not a dual language make. To be fair, we do have Urdu words, many of them in fact, like kidhki [window], bus [stop, done], dudu [milk], aam [mango], but when it comes to conversation, English is pulling full steam ahead.

I can't blame him. Nor can I fully blame myself. I'm fluent, but things were different for me. Despite English everywhere, I grew up in a greenhouse of language. My parents spoke Punjabi and Urdu, as did their friends whose homes we shuttled to and from on weekends, as did my cousins who immigrated over the years, and the Hindi movies I watched as a kid [Hindi is its own distinct language, but spoken, its virtually the same as Urdu].

It's different for my son. K and I speak English to each other, our siblings, our friends, the cashier at the grocery store. At storytime, Gymboree, with his cousins, and many of his budding friends, he is in an ocean of English. And me? I'm a leaky faucet of Urdu.

To be clear, I don't regret speaking to him in Urdu. I can't underestimate this contribution, however small it may ultimately be. He understands Urdu. Fluently. Considering 90% of our one-on-one time is Urdu, we've had no language barrier and I believe he's better off for knowing Urdu even if its ultimately a temporary state of being.

But considering his English proclivities, how do we go forward?

Some options I'm considering:
  • Switch entirely to English. I have to translate everything for little guy at Storytime and Gymboree and most places we go and I worry that since he's speaking English the most, I'm hindering him by not giving him more. A friend's neighbor, a language specialist, said you hurt your kids when you don't speak in your native tongue, and though I speak Urdu well, its my third language. As fluent as I am, I'm not nearly as fluent as I am in English.
  • Speak Urdu at limited times. Maybe switch to speaking Urdu only when its just us and speak English everywhere else. Or perhaps, take it a step further and speak English all the time, save 1-2 hours each day when we speak only in Urdu.
  • Stick to what I'm doing now. This is status quo and though it was hard to get here, I'm very comfortable speaking to him entirely in Urdu. Just don't know if its the best option to help him gain the most vocabulary and speaking skills.
It's not an easy solution and I don't want to sacrifice the long term benefit of dual language for the short term one turning him into a talky talker. But, in trying to hold on to the Urdu-only, I feel like I'm in a rip current, trying to pull one way when the stream is undeniably taking me a completely different and inevitable direction.

Thoughts? Anyone reading ever been in these shoes? Advice or perspective much appreciated.


Anonymous said...


I am not a parent so I don't know if my comment is going to be of any use but since I grew up in a bilingual home, I thought I'd share my experience.
I grew up in India and my parents were from two different regions so I spoke to my mother in Bengali and my father in Hindi. Everybody thought that I will not end up learning either of the languages properly (and not to mention, English!) but speaking two different languages from such an early age not only made me fluent but also instilled in me a certain interest in languages.
I also consider myself fluent in English. Also, I can read and write Nastaliq, too.
My point is that growing up with such different linguistic influences only helped me. It made it that much easier to understand and learn new languages and appreciate different cultures and literatures.


jenicini said...

I think what you are doing is great. I've never had a student who is exposed to two languages consistently be behind when they hit school. As long as there is fluency being developed, the students benefit from the exposure. Just my two cents. ;)

Mina said...

Oh, words and languages... George says the last syllable of words, and not knowing which language they come from, it makes things quite challenging. The basic words are in De (the one language he has for now limited exposure to, go figure...). He understands Ro perfectly, has a few words, mainly food, and then there is En. The funny thing is that he has both Ro and En words for body parts, but uses them randomly (he only says ear in En and nose in Ro, for example). And then here is the massive amount of one syllable words I have no idea what they mean. He is cool as a cucumber, not botherer that what he says is sometimes lost, but I am surely frustrated. Because I don't understand what he says sometimes, or know which language he uses, pr because he is so stubborn and refuses to repeat when I try to teach him but then pops out words out f the blue

Mina said...

I speak mainly Ro with him, watch tv in En and De and then use the respective language. And we read in all three, with a clear preference for Dr. Seuss in En. When he ignores me, I don't know if it's because he doesmnot understand or because he is 2 going on 15 and willingly ignores me when I say it's time to put the toys back, or eat veggies, or stop banging, etc. Luckily, he always gets his message across. Not always valid for me.
I think you're doing your best with Urdu. The thing is, he will have a different experience with languages from yours (obviously). But he will have one, and it depends on you know to make it fun. Fun is what works best when learning is involved.
Best of luck.

Susan Jett said...

Interesting--but, you know, I think all the language acquisition studies show that kids who are raised in a bilingual household come out ahead of the vocab game in the long run--and that's not even taking into effect the creation of different brain pathways & neural connections that learning 2 languages for one's 'first' language is supposed to confer.

But I DO understand the worry when language isn't progressing the way 'it's supposed to'. (And, for the record, although learning bits & pieces of ASL as spoken by the beauteous Rachel isn't the same as being raised bilingual, it was certainly Hen's first form of communication. And he was--I believe--as a result, slow to start speaking or even making sounds. But when he took off? Oh my. He rocketed to the head of the playgroup, incorporating vocab he had learned in sign, and immediately applying the words/concepts in English. Rather awesome to watch.) It worked out exactly the way everyone said it would, it just took quite a bit longer than I'd anticipated, and that's with EVERYONE speaking English at him all day long.

If you're looking for a compromise to make sure W's getting enough English vocab, how about just switching his reading material over to English language books? It seems like for a little boy being raised here, being able to speak with friends & family in Urdu (as well as retaining enough language ability to have that comfort of shared heritage) is the most important thing--and your conversations with him, no matter how mundane, will assure that. (As well as being a lovely shared bond between you. I would have loved to have a 'secret language' to share with my mom when I was a kid!) But if he's reading books in English, that will provide him with a nice healthy dollop of English vocab & reading practice that will help him out in school/making friends.

I'll be really interested to hear what you decide to do with this--please do post again to let us know what you decide and how it works out!

Tracy said...

Raising bilingual children is always complicated! You know my very long story so I won't repeat it here.

My advice is to choose a method and stick to it consistently. Whether you choose ML@H (minority language at home), OPOL (one parent, one language), or T&P (Time and Place.)

There's a lot of excellent information at SpanglishBaby.com - Disclosure: I work for them as you know :) Here's a link to help you pick your method: http://spanglishbaby.com/2011/11/3-methods-to-raise-bilingual-children/

Anonymous said...

keep speaking the Urdu. you won't regret it. W will flourish in both soon.

Anonymous said...

hi I teach my child Urdu and yes I have to translate for my child where we go, but have heard over and over once they start school, they will pick up English easily, so I would keep doing the urdu! good luck!

Cat said...

I'm not an expert, but I have several friends who are raising bilingual children. I think it is common for children in such an environment to prioritize one language over another for periods of time.

It sounds like he is doing fine with English (gradually expanding vocabulary and using small sentences, etc.) If he understands you when you speak Urdu, I would keep doing it. It indicates his receptive language in that second language is good. It doesn't seem to be hindering him in English at all.

There are so many benefits he will get from early exposure to another language, even if he doesn't speak the second equally well, though he probably will.

Anonymous said...

I would keep doing what you are doing too. My daughter was exposed to both Arabic and English at a young age too and even though at first, there were instances I had to "translate" (in fact, when she started going to daycare at 2.3 she didn't know much English), she caught on soon enough.


Anonymous said...

I don't think the language specialist advice applies neatly to people like us. Even though your strongest language is English, you probably learned Urdu first. What exactly is a "native language" for someone like us?


Aisha said...

S, thanks for sharing your perspective, this makes me hopeful!

Jenicini, thanks for the teaching-related perspective, I appreciate it!

Mina, I can definitely relate. He uses different languages for different things. And like your little guy, mine is nonplussed by any of this, it is me who worries and wonders, lol.

Aisha said...

Susan, well ASL is a different language and it is different than spoken English so in some ways Hen *is* bilingual in the practical sense of the word. Glad to know it hasn't hindered him too much. I am going to do some research and I will definitely post regarding what Id o ultimately decide. thanks!!

Aisha said...

Tracy, you and I have had tons of conversations on this topic, thanks for your point of view always, and I look forward to reading this link. Thanks!!!!

Thank you to both anonymous for your perspectives!

RuhguZar said...

Hi there, I am a regular reader of urs..
My daughter just turned 4 and we only spoke to her in Urdu since she was born. She picked the english from Cartoons and movies and friends.
We are surprised how well she picked up on English even though we still speak to her in Urdu.
Her cousins who are 15 + say she speaks better urdu than them and sure her vocabulary is great.
When she sees something new like a fountain...I say Urdu mein fawwara , english mein fountain, now she does this on her own.hope this helps!

Aisha said...

Cat, thanks for the encouragement, I appreciate it. I am not sure what will happen, but like you said, the receptive language IS there, and that is not valueless. I hadnt' really considered that fully. Thanks!

Rasha, hm, I think I learned Punjabi first, Urdu second [around three years of age] and then English came around 3-4 years old. So yes it definitely preceded English. does your daughter talk to you in Arabic now? Or is it mostly English? How do you respond if she speaks in Arabic?

Kris said...

Do what's best for you, but know that there are many benefits to what you're doing now. My spouse works in this area and has shared that there are many benefits to being bilingual (in addition to the whole cultural heritage that you may want to convey, too).

Interestingly, some research shows that some of the benefits of bilingualism only attach if the languages are spoken, not signed (this is not because ASL is not a language - it is! - but because signing involves a different modality, so the brain gets a different kind of workout, apparently). My children have fairly very large signed vocabularies and while their initial speech was delayed, they caught up and are very verbal (and literate) for kids their ages.

katery said...

in my uneducated opinion, i think you should speak to him in urdu as much as possible. you live in an english speaking country and i don't think he'll have any trouble picking it up, but if you limit the urdu i think he might not learn it as well. i can't tell you how much i wish i could teach louise two languages, but since both her father and i speak only english, it's not really an option.

mystic said...

My modus operandi is....

I speak in URDU, they answer in english. (I am ok with it). Now they fully understand what I mean.

Actually, in last 2 years, Hindi movies with subtitles have done a good job to at least make them understand Urdu so full.

Aisha said...

Kris, thanks for your comment and perspective. How fascinating about ASL--- its a good reminder that dual language [including ASL] does trigger different parts of the brain and give it a work out. Even if he forgets all of this, its worth it. Thank you.

Kate, thanks for your opinion on this, I really appreciate it! I hope your'e doing well.

Mystic, how old are your kids? If my kids can just understand even if they responded in English I would consider myself a lucky girl! Thanks for the hope!

Aisha said...

Sorry I missed your comment rhuguzar! Thanks for that fantastic idea to say the word in both languages. I love that. Are you a native Urdu speaker?

mystic said...

My kids are 11 and 8 now.

I also use technique described by RahGuzar - saying twice - once in English and once in Urdu like (We are going outside - hum bahir ja rahe hain)

Anonymous said...

I'd say continue what you were doing so far. I really don't think you have to worry about his English, not least because he hears his parents speak it.
See, we were worried that our daughter would pick up English from us, because we speak it to each other (both non-native speakers) but did not want her to end up with an accent. We needn't worry - these days my parents laugh because she has a Canadian accent when she speaks German. But, she does speak German and I'm really happy about that.
At the beginning, I read all books in German to her (translating if necessary), tried to expose her to German songs etc. I've become more lenient. I still speak exclusively in German, and try to have as many German as English books on hand. But now I do read her the English books in English. When she talks, it's situational, even with her little sister. Playing is in English, but some stuff always happens in German.
I'm a bit weary of non-native speaker trying to teach their kids a language, because as a linguist, I see a huge difference - for most people anyways - between native and non-native language, even when fluent. But you did learn Urdu as a kid, and to me, that is an important difference. You might reach your limits at some point, but by then, he'll be old enough to continue using his Urdu with the grandparents or so. Does he hear anyone else speak Urdu, even just from time to time?

Sorry for the lengthy comment, it's a topic very close to my heart, as a linguist but also as a parent who's struggling with some of the same questions.

Keep it up!

RuhguZar said...

Bilqul ! I am from Karachi Pakistan :)

Aisha said...

Mystic, I've been trying RuhuguZar's idea today and its been helpful! Thanks again RuhguZar!

Natalie, I am also considering switching to reading English books in English. Translating is fine but you do miss a lot of rhyming opportunities, and jokes and sayings that can't properly be translated. I might switch over soon enough. I guess I feel bad because I can tell him, "don't be: picky, finicky, choosy" tons of word choices for a similar sentiment but in Urdu I know far less, so the opportunity to expand vocabulary is by consequence limited, maybe like you said, when that time comes, we can naturally transition over. Thanks!

Azra Sheriff said...

wow, I am totally in the same boat as you. Gukarati is my mother tongue but basically a second language for me, i talk to my 3 kids only in Gujarati and they seem to be picking up English just fine, but I wonder if I could have parented better/explained things better/ scolded them with more authority (!) if I had been speaking in the language I was most comfortable with (English). WRT the short term benefit of being a 'talky talker' I think its totally overrated- as long as they can express themselves fully with you, the rest is just details.

hausmilleradventure said...

I would, personally, keep going as you are. He is still VERY young so language will continue to evolve and get better. If you notice he's not getting better in, say, 3 months, then re-evaluate and make necessary changes. If he's acquiring more vocabulary and speaking more, keep at it! There are a lot of us that wish we had a second language to be able to teach our children.

I only speak English, but I'm trying to learn German because we're now living in Germany. If I know the German word I try to incorporate it into my speaking. I've found that if I say the word in German first Big Ive is more apt to use the German word. If I use the English word first she won't even utter the German word that I follow. She knows when she needs to greet people in German vs. English based on what language they speak to her. It'll be interesting to see what she does when she starts at the German Kindergarten in 2 weeks where they speak almost entirely in German.

I don't agree with your neighbor that said, "you hurt your kids when you don't speak in your native tongue". I think that you limit so much potential when you choose to not give them more than one language, even if it's not your first/native language. Small children are wired to learn languages, multiple languages!

Sure, you may not have a thesaurus worth of words in Urdu, but you have Urdu. That's more than just English. Think about it that way.

Kate said...

Keep going the way you are. I'm a native English speaker but fluent in German. DH is German. At the start, I was speaking to K in English and DH in German, but we soon switched over to German at home unless someone English-speaking is there with us, and then we'll add more English in. If she responds to something I say in English, I repeat it back to her in German. I've started saying words for things in German and English, identifying the language for each.
Don't worry at this point. Boys tend to develop a little later than girls, but K has really had a speech explosion in the last few months.
From what I hear, some people even pretend they don't understand what the child is asking for/saying if they don't speak to them in the non-English language, which I think eventually I'll do too.

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