Many around me have commented on Anya's Urdu (our native language from Pakistan) and I wanted to share my thoughts on raising a bilingual child. We are still in the beginning of this journey but I hope that she continues to learn Urdu alongside English. And for that will continue to find ways to encourage her. This post is a collection of ideas that we have tried to incorporate.
Even before Anya was born, my husband and I knew that we wanted Anya to be comfortable in understanding and also speaking Urdu. I think I didn't really value our first language till I got married and moved away from Pakistan. Most of urban Pakistan speaks a mix of Urdu and English and English is pretty much the language in school and offices. As a result Urdu seems to lose its importance. Only when I married my husband (Almost all of his immediate family speaks and writes beautiful Urdu) and moved away from Pakistan, did I start to value it and realize how a language contains in itself the essence of a culture.
Growing up in Pakistan you take it for granted but when raising kids abroad you realize how easily kids can get disconnected from their parents language and in extension, their parents/grandparents culture and even their extended family (many grandparents are not as comfortable in English as in their mother language) etc. Because Anya is always going to be connected to Pakistan because of us and her extended family, it is important for us that she understands and speaks the language. I was also inspired by the many families around us whose kids speak beautiful Urdu alongside their American English. And besides all of it, it is a great skill, to know more than one language and our kids are lucky to be growing up in multilingual households. Only when we consider this an advantage and focus on it will we be able to pass on this gift to our kids.
Here are some things I am trying to do to encourage her to learn our native tongue alongside English.
- If you are passionate about keeping your kids connected to your native language, I would recommend reading these two books. The Bilingual Edge and The Bilingual Family are both really useful resources for bilingual families. Both these books address important topics like understanding early language learning, age appropriate tips for teaching a second language, and also addresses common misconceptions that discourage parents (like not wanting to ‘confuse kids’ with two languages, which apparently is a myth).
- Ever since she was a baby, we tried to talk to Anya mostly in Urdu so it was the first language she heard. And as she started speaking words, we tried to teach her Urdu words for as many things as possible. I knew that she would eventually learn English whether we focused on that or not but she would have a hard time learning Urdu at a later stage. Babies and young toddlers listen so intently and if they're exposed to a language from the start, I think it helps a lot. This does not mean that we avoided all English, we just tried to expose her to Urdu as much as English I'd say. I am so glad I did that because I'd say around 2.5 years even though she doesn't go to preschool, just through cartoons and noticing that English is the main language of interaction outside the house, she started switching to mostly English. I usually encourage her to say the same thing in Urdu by repeating it for her. Right now she knows the Urdu and English words for most items and I don’t see her getting confused because of that at all.
- Songs/Stories/Music. Young kids learn best through music so you can start playing poems and songs in the language from an early age. Thanks to the universality of YouTube, these are more and more accessible now. I have a playlist with poems/songs in Urdu that she enjoys and play them for her at random times. Most popular poems have translations in local languages and kids will particularly enjoy them. At bedtimes sometimes I hum my favorite Urdu songs for her as well as some lullabies in Urdu that my mom used to sing to us. You can also tell stories in the second language, and even make your own. Include their favorite characters and friends names to capture interest. The aim is to make the language fun for them so they will pick up the words easily.
- Many families suggest making a family rule that everyone speaks the native language at home. And as Anya grows and starts school, I think we will move towards that too with Urdu becoming our main home language.
- Hanging out with people that speak the same language can give kids the feeling of community and helps them use the language with people outside their family. We are so lucky to have Urdu-speaking friends and because we meet with them on a regular basis, the kids get to see us interacting in Urdu. We also Skype with family in Pakistan who interact with her in Urdu and I specially noticed a push in her Urdu after our trip to Pakistan when she was a little short of 2. America is so multicultural and more often than not you will find at least some people that speak the same language as you and meeting with such families from time to time can help your kids too. Even attending concerts/plays or any events where that language will be spoken will also help.
- TV. Look for TV programs for kids in the language. I found two resources (more on that later) that I really liked and introduced to Anya from the time that she was a year old. They’re two of her favorite things to watch now. Many times she will say a word she has picked up and take me by surprise. Other than making them familiar with the language, watching these shows will also help them connect with and later on understand the culture of their parents. Even programs not necessarily targeted for kids but family friendly enough to watch with kids around can be helpful. I watch a lot of Pakistani dramas and look forward to the day when my daughter is old enough to watch some of them with me. A family friend enjoys watching them with her 19 year old daughter and it has been great for her Urdu while at the same time reconnects her to the culture of her parents and understands some of the things better.
- Books. Kids enjoy books and I think it would help immensely if you’re able to find attractive books in the language that they enjoy as much as the English ones. Anya loves her books so I have been on the lookout for books in Urdu from the beginning. I have to admit, it has been hard finding quality Urdu books and some of the best we have today have been passed on by her cousins or gifted from sweet people. We do have a growing little collection by now though and quite enjoy reading them over and over again.
Check back later for another post with some Urdu specific resources.
Thanks so much for reading and much love. If you are raising a bilingual kid and have some tips to share, I would to hear them in the comments :)