Being bilingual

April 30, 2010

I attended college in the US. Before I was leaving Pakistan – with absolutely no idea as to what I should expect, or not expect, from the Americans after 9/11 – I was assured about one thing: I was going to experience some of the best years of my life. And according to the common perception, my years abroad were not spent in blurs of smoke, but instead learning more about myself, and most importantly about our bilingual culture, from the much unbiased viewpoint of foreigners.

My roommate was from California (and no, she wasn’t a dumb blonde). When I first met her, I gave her a few ‘shocks.’ The first and the most obvious one was obviously how I could speak English so well. After explaining that Pakistan was not such a godforsaken place, as she (or most Americans) thought it was, where people lived in the dark ages, she understood that we Pakistanis were an educated lot and a good majority of us grew up being bilingual.

The second surprise – I must confess she is still not over yet – was my ability to switch between the two languages – Urdu and English – at the same time. She found this extremely interesting, and made fun of me for sounding “bizarre” every time I spoke half a sentence in my language and completed it in English. For this quality alone, I was a “muse” to most of my American friends. Being born and brought up in Karachi, it never hit me that the way we Pakistanis speak is actually another vernacular.

Those of us who have grown up here probably never realised how intriguing this tradition can be to the foreigners. I never did. However, at the same time it’s sad that we, the youth, cannot communicate for more than five minutes without throwing in a word or two of our colonial legacy in a sentence. Have we become ‘too cool’ to speak our own lingo? I think we have.

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