Languages fascinate me. But from as far as I can remember, I took the ability to speak more than 1 language completely for granted. It wasn’t until I became an expat and met my husband-to-be and built a life around speaking and hearing at least 4 foreign languages everyday that I started thinking consciously about so many questions on languages – what makes certain languages so influential around the world? Why do some countries take such great pride in speaking their native language, while others seem to be ashamed of theirs? Why are some languages considered superior to others? Is it all about access, economic reach or the one that has the most speakers on a global stage? Or are there several different historical and cultural reasons of how we all perceive different foreign languages? Is there a hierarchy of world languages and if so what is it and why does it exist?
15 years as an expat, 7 countries and 3 continents later, I still feel bewildered by these questions. Living around the world and trying to learn new foreign languages, while simultaneously scrutinizing my own languages, has brought forth many revelations and probably started many a discussion at the family dinner table.
Here’s what I have learned about languages while living around the world.
But first a disclaimer; I am not a trained linguist and neither have I studied linguistics on any formal level. I will attempt to share some answers to these questions, simply based on my own experiences of being raised bilingually in the East, marrying a partner who was also raised bilingually in the West, trying to raise our multilingual children with 4 native languages, and as expats who keep moving from one country to the next and keep adding another local language to the mix of languages we hear and speak in everyday life. On any given day, we are thus dealing with 5 different languages and somehow each language, each expat posting and each country has widened my opinions on foreign languages and multilingualism, but it has also really challenged my way of thinking and my view of the world.
MY LINGUISTIC BACKGROUND (Urdu, Hindi, English):
Before I go on, I feel I must provide some clarity on my linguistic background. My grandparents hail from India. My father was born in New Delhi too. I though am a first generation Pakistani. This means when I am in Pakistan I converse with family and friends in Urdu and we are known as an “Urdu-speaking family” (It may surprise you to learn that although Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, only about 9% of the population are actually native Urdu speakers!) When I meet Indian friends, I am able to converse with them with ease in Hindi – give or take a few words. Urdu and Hindi are sister languages – if you can speak one, you can speak the other. Interestingly I would have an easier time conversing with someone from New Delhi, than I would conversing with a farmer in rural Sindh (the province in Pakistan that I have lived in and come from). I tried it, but my knowledge of local Sindhi (despite learning it at school as a mandatory language) was minimal to say the least.
I have spent many years living in the United States as well – first with my parents in the mid 80’s and then later by myself for higher studies and university. When we lived in New York City, our language rule was “speak English outside the home and Urdu at home”. Or in other words “majority language outside, minority language inside”. I grew up speaking both Urdu and English as native languages. Even in Pakistan, I attended a British school where the curriculum was taught solely in English, even Islamic Studies! However like all good Pakistani children, I learned how to read the Quran in Arabic from an early age via a personal religious tutor who would come to our house to make sure our Arabic pronunciations were spot on. I must add, I cannot speak Arabic, and I cannot understand Arabic, but I can read it fluently. This has helped enormously as I live currently as an expat in the UAE and can read road signs better than my husband!
Speaking of my husband – he is a native bilingual speaker of German and Italian. He grew up with a German mother and an Italian father, who raised him bilingually (One Parent, One Language) whilst living in Germany. In addition, he is also completely fluent in Spanish, French, and English and has a decent working knowledge of Afrikaans and Urdu. This basically means he is able to order food at a restaurant no matter where we travel to in Europe!
We met in the UK and as a result speak predominantly English together. Our recent expat postings in Denmark, Singapore and Dubai have meant including Danish, Mandarin and Arabic to the language mix as well. I was able to learn sufficient Danish after 4 years of living in Copenhagen and although my accent leaves a lot to be required, I can understand tons and manage simple conversations in Danish too. We became parents in Singapore, where our daughter was exposed to Mandarin from an early age. And we currently live in Dubai, where both of our children are exposed to and are learning Arabic.
Living in Europe and Learning European Languages (German, Italian, and Danish):
My first challenge came, when I met my Italian father-in-law for the first time in Germany, and my husband explained that he didn’t speak any English. At the age of 23 I admit I had a pretty limited knowledge of world languages. My experience and opinions were heavily influenced and skewed towards a very Anglo-Saxon, English speaking world having spent majority of my time in the US or the UK or in Pakistan. All I could think of back then was to imagine how difficult life would be if one didn’t speak English – how did one travel internationally? What did it feel like to only watch dubbed Hollywood movies and not know what Tom Hanks actually sounded like? To only hear Oprah in German or watch “Friends” in Italian?
It was a world I just couldn’t relate to and had trouble understanding. After I moved to Germany, I started learning German, every day for 5 hours a day. I soon realized that the first criteria every German will judge you on, is how well can you speak German? Because if you come to live in Germany, there is the expectation to “integrate” by first of all learning the local language. Aside from the fact that life in Germany without speaking any German is very, very, hard, not to mention, completely isolating. Before you think I was living in some small town in the middle of Bavaria, let me assure you I was living in Berlin – the biggest, most cosmopolitan city in all of Germany and of course it’s capital.
I soon came to learn that in Germany there is an unspoken rule: “Wir sind in Deutschland und wir sprechen Deutsch hier” (We are in Germany and we speak German here). The average German (even in spite of knowing English and having studied it in school since Grade 3) would not like to be put out of his/her comfort zone and be put in an uncomfortable situation where they have to speak a foreign language (and maybe make a mistake or two) while in Germany. The same German will be happy to speak English or Spanish or French when traveling, or spending time abroad but not on their own home turf. In Germany, most Germans expect to speak German and expect expats, immigrants, etc. to speak German as well. Perhaps this would explain why a friend of my mother-in-law would sit next to me at dinner and not say a word of English (even though she was an English teacher at an elementary school!), but that this same woman would greet me warmly and talk enthusiastically to me as soon as I learnt German and could converse with her.
Living in Germany helped to shake me out of my Anglo-Saxon bubble and with time I learned to understand the pride that Germans took in speaking and promoting their language. My initial surprise at how seriously Germans took the matter of speaking German soon turned into full-blown respect and admiration. In addition, I also came to appreciate their learning methods – in German class, we were never allowed to speak in English, or Turkish or Russian. It was German all the way, and I found that I picked up the language really quickly as a result of this total immersion method.
As the years passed by, and I would make visits back to my home country in Pakistan, I would grow quite envious in fact of Germans who were so proud to speak German, because Pakistanis never seemed to take any pride in speaking Urdu. The educated elite in Pakistan speaks predominantly English such that when I would tell family and friends that I was teaching my children how to speak Urdu, I would be met with stares, and comments such as “why do you want them to learn Urdu?”, “But you aren’t even living in Pakistan!” and my futile attempts at buying Urdu books for children left me feeling hopeless and close to giving up.
All of this led me to question why we as a country and as a nation, feel absolutely zero pride in our language? Was it a result of British colonial rule for more than 200 years over British India and current day Pakistan that had turned us into these language snobs; shunning our own mother tongues and preferring to speak only in English? Was it a consequence of the consumerism and globalization which has unofficially declared English as the global language one must know in order to progress and prosper? Was it because in Pakistan and India, English truly is our national language given the multitude and plethora of other regional languages abound in the subcontinent? Was it unfair to compare ourselves to countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain, China or Turkey and wonder why they speak their national languages with such pride and fervor, whereas we look down on ours?
Through talks with a close Indian friend, I discovered that the situation in India was not that different – she complained about how her visits to Delhi with her son were frustrating, since the prevailing status quo of speaking in English meant that her son barely understood Hindi and had started rebelling against her efforts to speak Hindi with him.
Somehow learning a foreign language made me even more protective of my own native language, and this is one of the primary reasons why I am adamant in speaking and teaching Urdu to my two children today. I feel I can no longer take my own native tongue for granted, especially because I am not living in Pakistan and am not married to a Pakistani either.
Moving to Denmark in 2008 for a new expat posting provided an interesting comparison. With Denmark being a smaller European country, the Danes are extremely comfortable with speaking English, in fact they will prefer to put you as a foreigner out of your misery and just switch to English instead. But it became clear that if I were to penetrate through local circles and make some Danish friends, knowing Danish would definitely help. Thus followed many months of intensive Danish classes, although it didn’t help that my Danish teacher was from the tiny island of Bornholm; situated nearer to Sweden, but belonging to Denmark. No wonder, the people at my neighbourhood coffee shop in Copenhagen always thought I was speaking some strange dialect of Swedish when I tried to order my café’ lattes!
The Dane’s approach to learning Danish was extremely different from the German one, despite being neighbours and despite the two languages being rather closely related. The Danes did not dub their TV and shows – all TV and movies were shown in their original language with Danish subtitles. This would explain why the average Dane spoke perfect, unaccented English. This was a refreshing change after my time in Germany, although the flip side was my Danish was never as good as my German, because I wasn’t always forced to speak it in Copenhagen.
Probably the most laissez faire approach to learning languages came from my Italian side of the family. When I expressed interest in taking Italian language classes, my family told me it was best I learn Italian by picking it up from my husband. As one cousin put it “just learn the gestures and you’ll be 70% fluent in Italian!” My knowledge of Italian therefore is purely through passive learning, through hearing my husband speak Italian, through family conversations at the dinner table and through repeated trips to Italy. My love and appreciation of the Italian language knows no bounds, and I have since to come to consider it as one of the most beautiful languages spoken in the world. No matter what my husband says to me in Italian sounds like music to my ears (yes, even if all he’s saying is “honey, can you please put my dirty socks in the laundry?”)! 🙂
Raising Multilingual Children in South-East Asia and the Middle East: (CHINESE & ARABIC)
My expat journey meant that I became a parent first in Singapore and then in Dubai. Raising children in both of these cultural melting points added an interesting dimension to our everyday mix of languages and provided further insight into shaping my opinion on two very important and influential world languages.
Mandarin, widely spoken in Singapore was the language my daughter heard everyday at kindergarden and started to become very comfortable in. She would sing songs in Mandarin, count in Mandarin and yes, even converse with the taxi drivers in Mandarin, much to my amusement! Even though she had almost 2 hours of Mandarin everyday at her kindergarten, I noticed an interesting trend amongst the other Singaporean Chinese families – people spoke to their parents and elders in Mandarin, but spoke to their children in English! They wanted their kids to be fluent in English from a very young age. Again, Singapore’s colonial past, was a contributing factor but I found it interesting that the perception that English not Mandarin was the global language was prevalent in Singapore, too.
We moved to Dubai two years ago, and now our daughters Mandarin in school has been replaced by Arabic. The first thing I realized when I heard local parents asking the Arabic teacher where she was from, was the strict hierarchy that exists amongst the Arab world itself. Arabic from Egypt is considered far better than the Arabic spoken in Lebanon for example! Different accents, colloquial slang, and different histories mean that the Arabic-speaking world is extremely nuanced and far from monolithic, even if it may seem so to the outside world.
I find it refreshing to see menus in English and Arabic at restaurants in Dubai. Arabic, although spoken by the locals who are in a clear minority (only 9-11% of the UAE’s population are locals!) is still very much a part of life here. Road signs, official documentation, government offices etc. all use Arabic daily and the many different projects and efforts at school in relation to learning Arabic has made me deeply appreciative of the balance that is somehow struck here in the UAE. Business is done in English, but customs and traditions and holidays are celebrated in Arabic. The perfect balance between being worldly and global, but not forgetting their roots and their native language.
They say to speak more than one language is to look at the world with more than one pair of eyes. I feel like I am constantly looking at the world with about 5 pairs of eyes…each new language that I learn or am exposed to, adds a new dimension to my understanding of the world, and simultaneously challenges my own world view.
I don’t have all the answers yet as to why some languages become global while others get left behind, and I probably never will, but what I do know is that probably the best gift that I’ve received from life as an expat, are the foreign languages that I have learned along the way and come to appreciate. Long after I leave a country, the language remains in my head and I continue to read, speak, practice and butcher it with my mispronunciation any chance I get. 🙂
It’s a gift, that keeps giving and no one can ever take this gift away from me.
About the Author:
Mariam is an eternal expat who 15 years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, is embarrassingly a seasoned expert at getting lost in every new city she calls home, and butchering words in every new foreign language she picks up along the way. She is the founder and writer of the blog “And Then We Moved To” and writes mostly about life as an expat, trying to raise her multilingual and multicultural children in her East-meets-West marriage and of course traveling the world. Her work has been published on the Huffington Post, Expat Living Singapore, Expat Living Hong Kong, Expat Connect Dubai and Sassy Mama Dubai. You can connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Instagram @andthenwemovedto