The love of language
The Denver Post,
By Asma Gull Hasan
Friday, January 10, 2003 - When I was a baby, I'm sure I dreamt in Urdu because
I'm told my grandmother spoke to me in the language of her home country,
Pakistan, while I slept. As a child, my parents spoke to me in the tongue of
their youth: British English. But when they wanted to tell each other secrets,
they spoke in Urdu, not realizing that my ears had already been tuned to the
sounds of that language. Pueblo locals spoke to me in Spanish, though I knew
hardly a word. When my mom talked to her siblings, she sometimes spoke in
Punjabi, a secondary
language of Pakistan.
I spoke American English, the language taught in school.
In first grade, my teacher told my mother that I was mentally disabled and would
never learn to read or write English without special help. My mother ended the
parent-teacher conference by telling her: "My daughter can read. You just don't
know how to teach her."
Both my parents learned British English and Urdu simultaneously - a classroom
environment to which today's politicians apply the fancy label "dual immersion."
Christian missionary schools all over Pakistan and India had been practicing
dual immersion for years. Even today, American-born people who my parents meet
tell them how impressive their command of the English language
They don't know that my parents think in English just as much as they do in
Urdu, that they have known each language all their lives.
I learned British English from my mother, every day, after school for an
infinitely long hour. The homework my mother sent me off to school with would
read: "colour" instead of "color," "theatre" instead of "theater," and so on,
which my teacher marked as incorrect. "No wonder she thought you couldn't read,"
my mother said. "She can't even spell!" By the end of the year, I was the
strongest reader in my class - in any kind of English. My spelling soon became
perfect. I could tell whether an author was British or American just by reading
their words on the page.
Native Spanish speakers would become very irate when I wouldn't respond "en
Espanol," mumbling in English about how the young Latinos don't care about their
heritage anymore. About the time my sister had to learn a second language at
school, my father laid the down the law. We needed to learn to speak Spanish.
The translators for his Spanish-speaking patients tortured him mentally. They
would reduce the patient's myriad comments to: "His back hurts."
For most of my Spanish classes, we spoke only in Spanish. My ears soon began to
get accustomed to the sound of Spanish, much as they had for Urdu. In high
school, I began dreaming in Spanish. My siblings and I would plan surprises for
my parents in Spanish. Once, on a trip to Italy, I watched the TV show "Friends"
dubbed in Italian. The next day, I could speak rough, simple Italian. My mother
watched in awe as I conversed with a storeowner.
When national law firms came to recruit at my law school, speaking Spanish put
me into a VIP category.
"American-trained, Spanish-speaking lawyers are worth twice their weight in
gold," said the hiring partner at the New York law firm I went to. So much
lucrative corporate legal work comes from Spanish-speaking countries that I did
indeed have my choice of offers, more than many of my classmates who spoke only
About the same time I had visited Italy, I met a Colorado politician who was
Hispanic. When I tried to speak to him in Spanish, he said his parents wouldn't
let him speak Spanish and that he never had a desire to learn. His blase
attitude quietly shook me. How could I tell him what he was missing out on -
this super power that mere mortals can have, yet he had no desire for it!
Politicians like him debate about bilingual education, as if the decision to be
bilingual or trilingual were a choice.
I think and dream in British and American English, in Spanish, Urdu and Punjabi,
even Italian. Why wouldn't we want the same for all our children, whether they
are Latino, Pakistani or white?
Asma Gull Hasan (firstname.lastname@example.org) ) is the author of "American Muslims: The
New Generation," and grew up in Pueblo. Compass is designed to provide a
platform for members of communities that are often under-represented in The
Post's opinion pages. Members of the Compass panel are selected each spring.