We Have A Language Problem

Mar 29, 2019

Every night, I cuddle with my preschooler and I tell him he’s my prince. Not just my prince — “Mera shehaazda.”

“Shehaazda” is the Urdu word for prince, but somehow conveys so much more.

In my mind, it takes me to a place of beauty, of mothers who look like me, and brown babies who grow up to be powerful leaders.

I feel the same way when I call any person I love “meri jaan.” Roughly translated, “jaan” means life. But it’s a word without any real English translation. It speaks of life, but also spirit. It speaks more to a feeling.

When I call someone my “jaan,” I'm saying they are part of my essence.

That’s the beauty of there being such a wealth of languages, all of which conjure feelings and emotions, connect people by a shared understanding of meaning.

Urdu ties me to my parents, and the world they left behind, in order to raise my siblings and me in America.

I say the ability to speak multiple languages is about the most American thing about me.

Not everyone shares that opinion.

In January, a Duke professor advised foreign students from China to only speak English in public. And last month, writer Barbara Ehrenreich equated decluttering maven Marie Kondo’s popularity as a sign of our decline as a nation because she isn’t fluent in English.

These views are not surprising. We have a language problem in the United States, where using English — as opposed to any other language — is too often equated with a higher level of intellect and professionalism. 

To dare speak another language shows an unwillingness to belong. It’s to be un-American.

It’s a fallacy that’s plagued us at least as far back as the era of Benjamin Franklin, who warned society about the dangers of “ignorant” German immigrants who couldn’t speak English.

But we should know better than to still prescribe to such flawed, racist views.

On a purely scientific basis, we know that being multilingual actually makes people smarter by improving executive functioning.

The U.S. doesn’t even mandate English as our official language. The only people who have ever forced people to speak only English were those subjugating African slaves and indigenous people to keep them from communicating and rising up. 

The mere notion that we must speak English is rooted in oppression. That’s not a legacy this American wishes to embrace.

Shaheen Pasha is a journalist and teaches in the journalism department at UMass Amherst. A version of this commentary was originally published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette.