When I was born, my mom spoke to me in Urdu, just as her parents had spoken to her in Urdu during her childhood in Chicago. But one day my paternal grandfather noticed this and urged her to speak to me in English instead. Since I was going to grow up in America, he reasoned that I should grow up learning the language of the mainstream. When she recounts this story, my mom mentions that it was one of the only times she had seen him get angry.
Before they passed away, both of my father’s parents lived with us, as is a typical practice in our culture. What was a little more unusual was that they were both highly educated and very fluent in English. When looking after my younger siblings and I while my parents were at work, they spoke to us exclusively in English. My younger siblings and I never ended up learning Urdu. Although some people think of Urdu as a solely Pakistani language, a dialect of Urdu is commonly spoken in Hyderabad, India, where my family is originally from.
It’s a little petty to say so, but sometimes my parents would tell each other things in Urdu to obscure what they were saying from us. And though we grew up listening to Bollywood soundtracks on my dad’s stereo, we couldn’t understand the words – so when we watched the actual movies, we’d have to put on the English subtitles. When we visited India several years ago, our relatives made an effort to speak in English but their conversations with my parents would eventually revert back to Urdu. My siblings and I politely sat there, bored, until it was time to leave.
Up until that point, I hadn’t really thought about how, unlike many of my friends, I didn’t grow up with another language. It was this experience that made me finally realize that I was missing something.
I have picked up some bits and pieces over the years: numbers, basic grammar, some everyday words (mostly related to food). Hindi and Urdu conversations are also a little easier to get the gist of when they’re chock-full of English loanwords. But ironically, I know more Spanish than Urdu because I took Spanish classes in high school and college.
I know my family thought that it would be in my best interest to focus on English. Many Americans interpret bilingualism in children of immigrants as a refusal to assimilate. Many have advocated for English to be the United States’ official language, and for schools to shed programs like English as a Second Language (ESL), in favor of English-only instruction for students who are not native English-speakers. And my siblings and I did perform well in school, though recent research findings suggest that being raised bilingual can have academic advantages too. After several generations, descendants of immigrants to the United States are unlikely to retain the language their ancestors brought with them.
In my case, the process was simply accelerated.
As I’ve gotten older, however, my regret and frustration about being raised unilingual have grown. For one thing, there’s simply an intrinsic value in knowing another language – and in fields such as international relations, having a native fluency in a language like Urdu is considered a major selling point in the eyes of employers. But on a deeper level I feel, more strongly than ever, the absence of a vital part of my cultural identity, and a wish that immigrants didn’t feel like this was a price they had to pay for integrating.
It’s something that still haunts me to this day.