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Why I'm Raising My British-Born Child to Speak Urdu

Nigel Farage has strong ideas about immigrants speaking perfect English, but, as part of a Pakistani immigrant family, I'm living proof of how having English as a first language doesn't count for everything.
January 7, 2015, 2:00pm

Nigel Farage: "Don't we want to live in a country where we speak the same language?" Image via Chatham House

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Like an untied balloon filled with methane, Nigel Farage continues to release his stink over the immigrant population.

This time, he's said that doctors who can't speak "very good English" shouldn't be practicing medicine in the UK, which is a groundless issue seeing as all medical practitioners in Britain are required to pass a language test before being registered. Boris Johnson has since chimed in, adding that immigrants are so tuned in to their own communities that they don't feel the need to learn English and that the "multi-culti, balkanization" of society has been "disastrous" for London primary schools.

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This is a damaging, sweeping generalization, and I'm living proof as to why.

I was born and brought up in the UK by Pakistani immigrant parents and did not learn any English at home. Instead, I learned Urdu. I have a two-year-old daughter now and don't speak to her in English, either. But why, considering I make my living from writing—in English—and feel more at ease speaking with it than Urdu?

Firstly, Urdu is a part of my daughter's cultural heritage. It will allow her to speak to her grandparents, great aunts, and uncles without constraint, giving her the chance to soak up her family history—the best pieces of advice, life lessons, and funny anecdotes. Translating those valuable memories into English just isn't the same. The magic of the words dissipate. Speaking Urdu allows me to talk to older members of my family easily, but the language itself also envelopes me with its history, idioms, cadence, and poetry. Why wouldn't I want to pass on such an extraordinary heirloom?

Secondly, being bilingual will allow my daughter to become a bridge between two communities and enjoy double the books, films, conversations, music, and politics. She'll take on more than one perspective and benefit from having a diverse vantage point, which is a huge positive in today's connected world. She is still picking up plenty of English from storybooks, cartoons, and preschool but she can only learn Urdu from me and her dad.

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Who cares if other kids like her take a couple more months to master English than their peers? Short-term challenges can become long-term assets and a new language will give her unhindered access to her history, add depth to her world view, and ultimately affect the trajectory of her life. It's about playing the long game.

Of course, I absolutely agree that learning English is essential to living in the UK. That is a given. But harshly criticizing those adults and children who are in the process of learning it but haven't quite got there yet is harmful. Immigrant communities aren't avoiding English to remove themselves from British society and singling them out for being purposefully detached is simply false. It will only work to alienate them even further.

The people who continue to place a great emphasis on their native languages are trying to retain a piece of their cultural heritage, something that is integral to their personal identity. Their language and customs are the things that give them respite from feeling "other" in a country they are trying to find their place in. Their language is a gift that they want to pass onto their children. They shouldn't be vilified before being given the time and the opportunity to learn English at their own pace.

And although I recognize that Johnson isn't asking immigrants to assimilate but integrate, encouragement will go a lot further than admonition in helping those communities learn English. And so will recognizing the multitude of reasons why some people may find it challenging to pick up an entirely new lexicon in an alien environment.

It feels like we've lost a human-ness here. We've turned people into numbers, viewing our differences as aberrant peculiarities. People have forgotten to make each other feel valued and important. Scaring people into severing their heritage can be damaging in the long-term because, without roots, nothing grows.

Why not give immigrants them the space and the opportunity to feel at home in Britain? They will soak up the language if environment is warm enough, just like I did. In return we will imbibe their skills and talents as our own. Immigrants are not refusing to communicate with the English and neither are they trying to create divisions within the UK.

Maybe they just don't want to speak to cantankerous old dinosaurs who they have absolutely nothing in common with.

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