Pakistanis Abroad: Teaching Urdu to Our Kids

Posted on April 8, 2009
Filed Under >Aisha PZ, Culture & Heritage, Education, Pakistanis Abroad, Urdu
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Aisha PZ

If, like myself, you are parents of children growing up ‘abroad,’ then we probably share a common angst if our children do not or cannot speak our native language.

Having grown up outside of Pakistan my entire life, save numerous long summers during early schooling years and then later, almost bi-annual winters during college and thereafter, I am able to converse and understand spoken Urdu. It is thanks to my parents, who spoke Urdu throughout my young formative years, and our visits to the motherland, that I am able today, to appreciate more of my rich culture because I have the ability to communicate and comprehend Urdu. My wish and hope is that my children too, are able to have this wonderful gift and opportunity. In the world we now live in, especially for our American/foreign born children, the need for them to have a strong sense of belonging and a positive self-identity in the western societies they live in, is paramount in my opinion.

As a parent of two young children, my husband & I constantly struggle with the fact that our children are not speaking Urdu. We think they understand the language in some minimal capacity, but not nearly enough to elicit proper comprehension or more far flung verbal communication. We – or rather I – think they are in reality absorbing more than we give them credit for, but the reality is that it is not a two way road (yet). I am an optimist in this regard. It really boils down to whether or not we as parents make a consistent effort to actually SPEAK to each other in Urdu, and therefore with our children.

It has been noted that even in households where parents speak Urdu, the children living abroad either stop speaking their native language soon after entering preschool, KG, etc. or never felt comfortable speaking it at all. So, if your children don’t speak Urdu either because you as a parent are not using it as the first language of communication in the household, or even if you are, and your children still either cannot or refuse to, I still feel that there is good in continuing to speak.

There are a lot of theories and much evidence that while children may not speak their native language, if they are around it and hear it being spoken, their young minds may be absorbing more than you think. Language acquisition begins from birth. Many linguistic experts agree for the most part that the years from birth to before puberty is when the brain is able to absorb the most language, as well as the proper accent and more ‘native-like’ fluency and pronounciation. This is considered the ‘critical’ or the milder term, ‘optimal’ period for first and second language acquisition.

Psycholinguists and cognitive scientists have debated this ‘critical period hypothesis’ quite enthusiastically (from: ‘Cognitive Scientists on Bilingual Education’, UPI, Steve Sailer – October 27, 2000):

MIT linguist Noam Chomsky is famous for demonstrating that children are born with an innate ability to learn words and grammar. He suggests caution on the subject but pointed out, ‘There is no dispute about the fact that pre-puberty (in fact, much earlier), children have unusual facility in acquiring new languages.’

Chomsky’s younger MIT colleague, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, [now at Harvard] author of the bestsellers ‘The Language Instinct’ and ‘How the Mind Works, states, ‘When it comes to learning a second language, the younger the better. In a large study of Chinese immigrants who entered the U.S. at different ages, those who arrived after puberty showed the worst English language skills. Still, this finding of ‘younger is better’ extended to far younger ages. People who began to learn English at six ended up on average more proficient than those who began at seven, and so on.’ As an illustration, Pinker points to the famously thick German accent of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who arrived in America at age fourteen. In contrast, his younger brother developed a standard American accent.

Pinker’s arch-rival, Terrence W. Deacon, a biological anthropologist at Boston University and author of ‘The Symbolic Species’ replies, ‘I have to agree with Steve Pinker[on this one particular issue]that learning a language early in life can be an advantage for developing language fluency and sophistication.’

I know from personal experience, that languages in which I was immersed or were spoken to during the ‘critical period’ years, are still with me, and seem to possess the ability to speak with minimal non-native accent. I lived in Thailand until age 14 and also learned French in elementary school (as well as being exposed to French in Laos-French IndoChina- during ages 5-9). Almost 2 decades later I can still converse to some coherent degree in those languages. I learned Spanish in my mid-twenties, and many (!) years later, I can barely remember 5-10 basic sentences!

Aisha PZ is the proud mother of two beautiful children and blogs at Boundless Meanderings. This post was originally published at ATP in September 2006.

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70 responses to “Pakistanis Abroad: Teaching Urdu to Our Kids”

  1. I will apply them to my son.

  2. Sobia says:

    Salaam! I’m working on Urdu letter recognition (huroof ki pehchan). Please check my attempt so far and suggest any improvements:

    http://urduwords.webs.com

    Thanks :))

  3. Ayaz says:

    We have been trying to teach our kids Urdu language. I think this information will help us a lot.

  4. Watan Aziz says:

    Now google translate the poems, the homework, the story!

    Here is Twinkle!

    چمکتے ، چمک ، تھوڑا سا ستارہ ،
    مجھے حیرت ہے کہ کس طرح آپ کیا کر رہے ہیں.
    اوپر اتنا زیادہ دنیا سے اوپر ،
    آسمان میں ایک ہیرے کی طرح.
    چمکتے ، چمک ، تھوڑا سا ستارہ ،
    مجھے حیرت ہے کہ کس طرح تم کیا ہو!

    As you can see, I have gone cut and paste happy!

    There is no limit to knowledge transfer.

    There is no limit to good education of Pakistanis!

  5. Syed Abbas says:

    For all the parents of young and not so young kids who are always mulling over how to teach their kids Urdu there is a new website (www.urduathome.com). Started by Two IT guys in the silicon valley (One from India and One from Pakistan). It’s worth checking it out.

    http://www.urduathome.com

    Happy Learning!

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