Columnist Shaheen Pasha: We have a language problem in the United States


Published: 2/14/2019 8:49:39 AM

Every night, I cuddle with my preschooler and I tell him he’s my prince. Not just my prince. Mera shehzaada. It’s the Urdu word for prince but somehow conveys so much more. In my mind, it takes me to a place of beauty, of monuments built on eternal love, of mothers who look like me clad in silk and gold, and brown babies who grow up to be powerful leaders. 

I feel the same way when I smile at a person I love and call them “meri jaan.” Roughly translated, jaan means life. But it’s a word that I’ve found doesn’t have any real English translation. It speaks of life but also spirit. It’s an endearment with connotations that go beyond the tangible and speak more to a feeling. When I call the person I love my jaan, I am saying they are part of my essence as a person. 

That is the beauty of different languages. Language conjures feelings and emotions of uniting individuals in a community with a shared knowledge of meaning. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, it’s also a tie to my parents and the world they left behind in order to raise my siblings and me in America — a country of immigrants. For me, the ability to speak multiple languages is about the most American thing about me. 

Unfortunately, not everyone shares that opinion. Last month, a Duke University professor advised foreign students from China to speak English 100 percent of the time in public areas, citing complaints from other professors who felt that by speaking their native language among themselves, they weren’t working to improve their English. While the professor apologized after the furor over her comments were made public, her view is hardly surprising.

We have a language problem in the United States, where English is somehow equated with a higher level of intellect and professionalism. English is considered the language of assimilation and the mere act of a person speaking another language somehow proves their unwillingness to be a part of the fabric of the United States. 

It’s a flawed opinion that has plagued this country for centuries, even before the official founding of the United States. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin in comments about German immigrants said “those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation ... Few of their children in the Country learn English.” He went on to warn that the influx of these foreigners, speaking languages incomprehensible to English speakers, would soon change the landscape of society with their German-language books and multilingual signs and legal notices. In essence, English speakers and their way of life would be in jeopardy.

Fast forward to current times. Just last week, writer Barbara Ehrenreich created a firestorm when she tweeted her views on the language capabilities of Japanese organization maven Marie Kondo. In a since-deleted tweet, Ehrenreich wrote: “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English.” 

The assumption that America is declining because society is embracing a woman who lacks fluency in English is racist and offensive. It’s also dead wrong. Studies indicate that being multilingual actually makes people smarter. To be able to navigate and appreciate more than one language actually creates a larger working memory, makes people better at multitasking and problem-solving. And from a purely biological standpoint, it creates more gray matter in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which deals with language control and executive functioning. Better executive functioning is a stronger predictor of success — hardly things that would denote a decline in society.

And it is a fallacy to assume that just because someone is more adept at communicating in a language other than English they are somehow rejecting American culture. As an international journalist, I’ve seen how American culture — from its food to its entertainment to its values — permeates countries everywhere, for good or bad. A person doesn’t need to be fluent in English to embrace aspects of American culture. They certainly don’t need to do away with their own ancestral languages to prove to Americans that they belong. As it is, the U.S. does not mandate English as the official language of the state. It may be the de facto language in usage but it was never codified in the Constitution, in part because there was a recognition that to do so would alienate people from other countries who helped fight for U.S. independence. If anything, efforts to force people to speak only English came from those who sought to subjugate African slaves and indigenous people in order to prevent them from communicating among themselves and revolting. The mere notion that we must speak English is rooted in oppression. That’s not a legacy that everyday Americans should want to embrace.

As the child of immigrants, I do try to hold on to my parents’ native tongue. But it’s becoming harder for my children who are third-generation Americans and have never even visited Pakistan. For them, the language is once removed, not always relevant to their everyday lives or experiences. But I still see them trying to keep some tie to this culture that runs through their DNA. My daughter will go online and watch YouTube videos of American shows dubbed in Urdu to help make connections. My middle child asks me to teach him what certain words and phrases mean, as he eavesdrops on my conversations.

As for my little one, he’s still figuring out the whole language thing. But I know some of it is seeping in. When I hug him in the morning before school, I ask him who he is and he never fails to tell me in one word: “shehzaada.”

Shaheen Pasha teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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