Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Urdu and beyond!

So, it seems every one’s talking ‘Language in blog land! And I seem to recall that a while ago, Lucky Fatima asked me to write about my own journey to fluency in Urdu! So, I’ll talk about that, but in relation to my current battles with learning Farsi!
Battles? You might wonder why I say this, after all, the inherent skills needed to learn one language should be transferable, shouldn’t they? When I asked a German friend who has been living in Tehran for 30 years how she learned Farsi, she said “I just did!”, and here in lies my problem! If you ask me how I came to know Urdu, my answer would be exactly the same! You see, I didn’t come to Urdu through some guy, through work or any other apparent whim, Urdu was a part of me almost from the day I was born! Its hard to explain: Muslims don’t really do the ‘reincarnation concept, but if I were Hindu, I’d swear that’s what had happened to me! I was magnetically drawn to all things Asian, and even had dreams in a language I didn’t understand (which I now know to be Urdu). I used to use the words in my daily vocabulary while playing, till one day, a family friend who worked in India started quizzing me about how I knew this and that! I didn’t have an answer, and when I saw how freaked out every one was I stopped using those words completely! Still, I was drawn to Urdu like a moth towards light! When I was around 11 years old, my mum and I went to see an Indian dance performance. My family would never normally have gone for something like that, but what fascinated them was the fact that all the participating dancers were blind! The performance was mesmerising, for the blind and the sighted alike, and on discussion with the organisers at the end, we learned that they ran community education classes in my area (one of which was for Urdu!). While they were initially reluctant to take me on, I battled with my parents to let me go! I already knew I could do it, not just because of my Urdu passion, but because I was already scoring high when it came to language! As a primary school child, I had the misfortune of attending a school which was exclusively for blind children! The building was dull, under resourced and thoroughly uninspiring in every possible way! moreover, as most of the students had additional support needs beyond their vision, I found I was being taught absolutely nothing, as the so-called teachers simply didn’t have time! Now, some one, who apparently saw some potential in me, suggested I join the senior kids, in their French classes for something to do! And while they too resented having a 9-year-old in their senior study groups, It soon became apparent that language was my home! Within 6 months I was sitting (and passing!) oral exam papers, and found the whole experience a total joy, even when the tests before me were tough! I always say that, had I not married at 18, I could have easily realised my dream and become a linguist within GCHQ! Any way, I joined the Urdu class, and found equal, (if not more!) pleasure and satisfaction through learning! The structure of these classes was very different from my school French: as a blind person, no one over there had any idea how to teach me! It would have been pointless for me to learn the Urdu Braille code, all I wanted was to be able to understand, and speak! The teachers couldn’t get this however, so I resorted to making notes on an old fashioned Braille Type writer (I just let them think I was noting down their Class dictation), and as long as I could recite it back to them from my phonetic English copy, they were satisfied! The classes were only taking me so far however! Most of the class attendees were young children, who needed much more attention! The only other students apart from me, were 2 middle-aged male social workers who now had an ‘Ethnic remit, and thought Urdu would be helpful to them! In reality, it was me who was helpful to them: spending most of my class time correcting their very ‘gora pronunciations! I knew early on that to get speaking, I needed something more! I believe that what made my French classes work for me, was the fact that our teacher lived, breathed and adored France! She was a native speaker, who just emanated ‘Culture from every inch of her being! She got us reading French literature, singing French Songs, and we even spent one lesson sampling a variety of French Cheeses! The ‘Real live Language was what I needed! As it was, my Urdu classes were now Teaching me more Gujerati than any thing else, because one of the mother’s was a Gujju speaker, who spent time with me while her daughters studied! I was not Muslim at this point, however had an interest in world religions, so asked my teacher if she would permit me to accompany her to the mandir! As a devoted ‘pooja Devi, she had no issue with that at all! The Mandir was a revelation to me, (and deserves a whole post on its own!), but once I’d got my head around the religious aspects, I soon began to make friends, and see how these friendships would elevate my language expertise! I started attending the mandir in secret (you’ll appreciate that, in a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren family, you don’t mouth off about how you now spend Sunday in a Hindu Centre!). I took my meals there, took an Indian dance class, and volunteered to clean the Pooja Thaalis so that I could practise with all the aunties! They were all fascinated by me! It was their curiosity, rather than genuine friendship that brought them to me, but that didn’t bother me much! they would invite me to their homes, give me Hindi films to watch and got me in to playback songs! This is where I’d say the law of attraction comes in to its own: as my soul was seeking Urdu, so it came to me! A Pakistani woman moved in next door to us, and she soon took over my daily lessons! My family also had cable TV fitted right about then (that was a big deal back in the day you know!), but cable, meant Zee TV on tap! At this point, I could easily spend 24 hours a day, thoroughly steeped in Urdu and never even having to think English! After that, I only went to one other language class! This was a one-on-one session, taught by a retired doctor! I met him at the home of another friend, and requested him to do some work with me on Grammar (any one who’s studied Urdu knows just how complex the grammar can be). I won’t say I’ve really come to understand how each of the rules (or lack of them!), work, but I know the principals and despite the odd pathan inspired error, I get it right, 99% of the time! In those early days, I had some confidence issues around speaking, even though in theory, I knew the language well enough, but through my reversion and later marriage, (and of course working in Pakistan!), I soon got myself over all of that! And the rest, as they say, is history!
…, You might think I’m being a bit simplistic or flippant about this, but seriously, that’s just how it was! I never continued with my French, yet recently, when I took myself along to a conversational class at the French Embassy, I was blown away by just how much I had retained! A teacher once said to me, that you know when you’ve truly mastered a new language, when you can think in it, and now, I really can do that! I often think in Urdu, and often get frustrated when I can’t express my feelings in that language, particularly if I’m stressed out or emotional about something! When I returned from Pakistan, my English grammar was shocking, because I’d got so lost in the whole Urdu zone as it were! Now, obviously, every one learns differently, and what worked/works for me won’t necessarily work for any one else, but here in lies my second difficulty! If you ask me how I learned Urdu, I’d have to recount all of the above, and let you make of it what you wanted! A bit of classes, a bit of culture, and a whole lot of immersion! Those are the reoccurring themes I know, but they don’t really combined to make much of a structure for learning a language properly do they! Besides, there is definitely something about being young and being a sponge for learning almost any thing! (OK, I’m only 28, but you get the point don’t you!).
Before I met my husband, I knew it was time for a new language. I was toying with Arabic (for religious reasons), and Russian, (because I had just taken the Civil Service Exams, and all the diplomatic jobs were demanding it), but then I met my man, and of course, Farsi became the order of the day! I didn’t think much about how I was going to master it! after all, Urdu was born out of Farsi, and every one kept telling me that if I could speak one, I’d totally walk the other! So with my ego sky high, I began, (only to come crashing down much sooner than I thought!). You see, while I’d got on by the seat of my pants with Urdu, I couldn’t do that with Farsi! My new man wasn’t around 24/7 to drown me in his new poetic language, and there wasn’t much of an Iranian community here to speak of! I got the conventional ‘teach yourself Farsi CDs, but they only taught me what I already knew! And all the more advanced software on the market simply wouldn’t work with my screen reader! I put adds online, on Email lists and in shop windows for a Farsi teacher, but no one got back to me! I found a website where I could watch Farsi TV, and even got myself a sky connection to it! this provided some of the immersion I was seeking, and the best part was, I could now see that part of what my friends had been telling me was indeed true! I could listen to spoken Farsi, and get the basic just of a conversation! (currently, I’d say this comprehension is around the 35% mark!). While that’s not bad going for a beginner, it doesn’t address my speech problem! I went to Tehran for the wedding, all broken and dejected that I couldn’t engage with my in-laws the way I wanted to! So much of Iranian life is about talking, there is really no such thing as non-verbal communication among Iranians! You talk it all out! Even when you are between the lines as it were, you talk! You talk when its good, when its bad and when all you can do is talk yourself around in circles! You talk, (unless you are Rosha that is!). They talked, I listened! And responded with the few stock phrases I knew could be relied upon to generate a reaction! We were far too busy during the wedding period to fret over my lack of language, however, when I was alone at home with mum, I realised that if I could only spend a few months in Tehran, I could master Farsi within weeks! Seriously! Forget CDs and husbands and classes, mum was my best teacher yet! She was calm, patient, and despite knowing virtually no English, she did know precisely how to get through to me. She’d speak to me slowly (without being patronising though), with a great deal of animation! She’d repeat things over and over till I got them in to my head! Even if I didn’t know all the words, I’d repeat them and show some degree of comprehension, before checking the words out later on. She would bring me objects and name them, or take me to things, or simply keep rephrasing sentences till I got the just of what she wanted to convey! My mother-in-law rocks any way, but the whole language thing brought us closer than we perhaps would have become during such a short visit, Mashallah! But when the wedding was all over, and we returned to our countries to fight the good visa fight, I didn’t have my new mother to teach me! I had no one to teach me in fact, and this is my problem! In my nightmares, I see me and my kids stuck in a stuffy classroom, trying to learn Farsi together (and that’s so not on my agenda!). I don’t subscribe to the American concept of one language per parent, I want us to speak to our kids fluently in both languages, so that both become as natural to them as any thing else, and Iran isn’t just ‘dad’s thing (marriages break down due to that level of fragmentation). When I married, I took on Iranian Nationality myself, something I’d retain even if this relationship broke down, and what’s unique about this set of circumstances is that, I see myself as Iranian in a way that I perhaps wouldn’t did I not have a Persian passport of my own! I have become part of this country, and language is a basic fundamental pivotal to this ‘Fitting in process!
So, while this post probably poses more questions than it answers, what I’d say to you is, if you are struggling with Urdu (or any other language for that matter), maybe the book isn’t for you, and perhaps some culture, some real life and a whole lot of immersion might equally do the business for you, as it did for me. Don’t learn a language because you feel you have to, do it because you desire it, for you! Language is a living entity, it grows and evolves with every new speaker! If I learned Farsi simply for my in-laws, I doubt I’d be motivated in the long term to stick with it! look beyond your family at all the possibilities it opens up for you (in the case of Farsi, I can study poetry, go to Hawza, become an interpreter, or even a human rights activist for my people!). Integrate the new language in to your life, try and visit the country, make friends, watch TV in that language, adapt your life to fit your new vocabulary! (I even sleep with Farsi TV on, because I believe the subconscious picks up on way more than we fully understand!). Finally, but by no means least, keep speaking! Even when you are talking rubbish and your speech resembles that of a 4-year-old, do it any way! surround yourself with 2/3 trusted speakers who will laugh with you (rather than at you), and keep putting words together, making sentences and experimenting with what you know, most of the time you’ll be surprised with how much you’ve already absorbed!
Insha Allah my experiences will help you, (if not just proving to be an interesting read!). And, if you fancy spreading a little love/thanks my way, maybe you could direct a Farsi teacher in the direction of the tubelight please! Believe me, you shall be rewarded! By me, by the man, and by both universes: now and always! So get to it!


  1. Urdu is really a fantastic language. its not a language of some people, some nations, but its a historical language. every one should learn it. its not a difficult task. learn Urdu is a very interesting and informative task.

  2. I agree; Urdu is definitely a very beautiful language, and a pleasure to learn! It can be very difficult though; any foreign language shouldn’t be taken likely, and its sometimes overwhelming how it can take over! that said, difficulty is equally a relative term; if you desire success, you’ll get there in the end, no matter how hard you have to work and how many hardships come your way! so don’t be put off; give it a try at least, if its what you really want.

  3. Wow, what a story. I am sure you will eventually get Farsi down, too. You must have a natural aptitude when it comes to language learning.

    I studied Hindi/Urdu at university and in India, and picked it up from talking to people. I am very fluent in colloquial language, but my book Urdu is very weak. I have committed to improving, and I do try, but it is so hard.

  4. Lol sis my book Urdu is terrible too!! It really is! I remember when I first started giving Urdu presentations, and how laced with English they were when it came to those difficult, technical terms!! And worst of all; when I worked in Pakistani radio, I used to yell at my staff for slipping in to English during their shows; I was quite puritanical about Urdu; I would have had my derrière firmly kicked if they’d heard me! I’m trying to improve on it though; now, if I’m presenting; I have a friend who checks my scripts and is trying to brief me through the technical language thing; I can see improvements, but when I compare my English level to my Urdu level (well …, that’s the thing! They just can’t be compared!) and that bugs me! Then there is Farsi; …, the drama continues! Language does seem to be something I’m not bad at, but it does take time, and the older I get, the more I struggle! But I still find pleasure in it, which is the main thing I guess.


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