Second generation Americans have often faced difficulty in learning and retaining their native languages. For children in Little Pakistan, however, the situation is more complicated.
In this neighborhood in Brooklyn, children have to grapple with three, and sometimes, four different languages simultaneously because each one of these languages holds special importance for their parents. Children here are expected to learn English to adapt to life in the States, Urdu because it is the national language of Pakistan; regional Pakistani languages Punjabi, Potohari or Pushto, and Arabic as it is required to read the holy book, Quran.
According to the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), an organization that studies language and culture, there immigrant families strongly believe that it is important to preserve ties with their old country and to maintain their language. This is exactly why Pakistani parents’ first priority is often to make sure that their children know how to speak Urdu.
Naveeda Tahir, mother of four, came to the States 15 years ago. Standing in the playground of her children’s school, she explains that over the years she taught her children to speak, read and write Urdu with mixed results. Her eldest son, 17, can read, speak and write Urdu, Iqra, 12, can speak and read, but not write. Tahir explains, “That is because I wasn’t able to give Iqra as much time as I could give my son.” Her youngest two talk to the parents in Urdu but speak English with each other. “They should know Urdu. Otherwise when they visit Pakistan, they can’t even read the signs,” says Tahir.
Tahir complains the community has not taken any steps to propagate Urdu in the neighborhood. Although there are English language classes being offered by Council of Peoples Organization (COPO), the area’s community center, there are no sessions in Urdu. Mohammad Razvi, the Executive Director of COPO says that he has been receiving requests to initiate Urdu classes “for quite some time” and “is working on it”.
The absence of formal Urdu classes and the inability of parents to find the time to teach Urdu at home is echoed by Abdul Rasheed, the business manager of a local Urdu weekly newspaper, Sada-e-Pakistan. He admits his readers are almost exclusively first generation Pakistani immigrants who still prefer to read news in Urdu. “The younger ones can’t even speak the language fluently, let alone read it,” says Rasheed.
Even those who have managed to become fluent in Urdu have a hard time passing that tradition on to the next generation. A.C. Razvi, a second generation Pakistani, who came to the States 30 years ago when he was two, was able to learn to speak, read and write Urdu, and even the regional language Punjabi while living in the States. His mother taught him to read and write different languages. Today, his three sons can speak Urdu but when asked if they can read, Razvi pauses for a few seconds and almost stumbles upon words before slowly uttering, “I’m not sure. Maybe they do!”
A study by CAL points out that when children start going to school and their interaction with English speaking peers begin, their practice of the native language depletes gradually. The mothers at Public School 217 at Coney Island Avenue say that children spend seven hours at school communicating in English and continue doing so when they return home.
It is also a challenge for second generation American children to speak the native language when they visit their native countries. Tanveer Fatima, mother of 9-year-old Mustafa recalls the time when they visited Pakistan, “His cousins would get frustrated—they used to joke that no matter what they explained to Mustafa, he wouldn’t understand.”
However, in some cases, learning one of Pakistan’s more than 70 regional languages is as important as knowing Urdu. The last time Tahir visited Potohar, northern Pakistan, her children could not speak to their grandmother who speaks only Potohari, the regional language more widely spoken in the area than Urdu. The issue is common in Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan where many of the families have immigrated from rural areas of Pakistan where regional languages are more common than Urdu.
A lot of Pakistani parents, like Fatima, also say learning Arabic is important for their children because they want the kids to read the Quran. Mustafa, had to undergo speech therapy before he was two in order to prevent a delay in speech that may have been caused due to confusion of languages among bilingual children. Although Mustafa is well-versed in English and can speak Urdu, he goes to the mosque everyday to learn to read the Quran, which is in Arabic. “It’s important for us to teach him the Quran. I’m okay with the fact that he can’t read or write Urdu because it has no religious value, it is purely cultural. But he should know how to read Arabic,” explains Tanveer.
However, when the children go to Quran classes they are not made to understand the Arabic language but simply to recognize written letters, and pronounce the words formed with them. The result—they can read, but cannot comprehend, the Quran.
Experts say that in the next few years the children would have complete command over English and their Arabic would be limited to reading. Fatima agrees, “Urdu will probably die out in New York with no institutions teaching it formally and our children not knowing how to read and write it themselves.”