The problems of being bilingual in Pakistan…
By Fareeha Qayoom
am bilingual. (I might have mentioned that earlier). You might be forgiven for thinking, so what?
Well, I didn’t think it was a big deal either except in academic circles till the other day. (I interviewed with a couple of academic institutions a few years back for marketing management and print media management jobs – it’s a double negative in those circles. You are allowed to know only one language and that’s English! I am not going to name names but these two institutions are big shots in academic circles when it comes to private schools and graduate and post graduate schools in Lahore – both of them are top- of-the- tree places in terms of school fees! Both sets of people insisted on speaking to me in English throughout the interview process, even when I completed a sentence in Urdu here and there in conversation; before that I never realized private schools are terribly pretentious places; even though I studied in a couple of private schools myself! If you can’t speak in “British” English 24/7– you don’t make the grade even if you are not applying to teach English!)
The problem with my being bilingual is simple – I speak in ‘Urlish’ and it’s automatic.
Meaning I might end up saying ‘Inshallah” meaning “God Willing” (or “jee” meaning respectfully yes) to my once upon a time American buyers – (I did it a few times when speaking to a VP! Funnily enough, she knew the meaning of the word! And we had a short and witty conversation on the word) or I might end up saying “Yar” meaning ‘friend’ or I might say “Teek hai” or “Acha” meaning ‘fine’ and “yes” or okay respectively to my Sri Lankan counter parts (again, funnily enough, one of the Business unit managers knew the meanings of these words too and we had a short and funny conversation on that as well! She had worked in Middle East and had picked up a smattering of Urdu).
The other day, I called up London to speak to an IT help desk person regarding a problem with the customer portal. I again said “Acha” and “Teek hai” during conversation (it was automatic); the girl actually understood – she in turn dropped a couple of Urdu words here and there and we had a short and humorous conversation on that – she told me she was a Brit with Indian origins and she did understand a little bit of ‘Hindi’ but she didn’t speak Urdu!)
It also means that I might end up saying a few words of English when talking to people who apparently don’t speak English like my gardener or cleaning lady or kitchen maid or office peons or car mechanics or electricians or carpenters or security guards or shop keepers – funny thing, they understand me perfectly too…we never have a problem communicating with each other.
I didn’t think it was weird till the other day though. A local vendor remarked on this phenomenon. (I was talking to him on the office land line when I received a call on my cell phone from a customer in Sri Lanka; I told him to hold on while I talked to the customer) – He remarked smilingly after I had concluded my conversation (with the customer), “Fareeha, you know you said “acha” when talking to XYZ?”
I said, “So what?”
“Well, he couldn’t have understood you,” he replied.
I replied, “Well, he didn’t stop me to ask the meaning of the word – he must have understood me from the context or the sound of my voice. I was just making okay noises to encourage him to continue…know what I mean…”
“Funny, when you speak to me you converse in perfect idiomatic English,” he said.
I replied, “Nothing funny about it; I am bilingual and I am actually not consciously speaking in Urdu or indeed English – I am just talking you know besides, I constantly switch between the two. You probably don’t even notice since you can speak both languages too!”
This got me thinking though. We are a nation with lots of hang ups.
Communication is not the issue here. It’s a status thing; (If you can speak fluent idiomatic English 24/7 in a good accent – by extrapolation, you must have gone to a good private school and therefore, you must be rich or at the very least middle class to afford the private school fees!) or maybe it’s a colonial nation mind set – you know a brown sahib thing; we are deeply ashamed if we can’t speak perfect English effortlessly at all times. On the other hand, if you let the native language creep in (while talking in English), even if it’s a couple of words here and there, you let your side down – ‘oh, you are so Urdu Medium!’ (It’s beside the point that Urdu is not my native language either – it’s supposed to be Punjabi! Funny, I am not fluent in Punjabi –which is by the way, another sign that I am educated or at least literate!)
We hold it against ourselves if we end up saying a few words in our native or local language when communicating with each other in English or with people of other nationalities. Funnily enough, they never do. They find it interesting to learn a few words of our local language and it’s always a good ice-breaker.