Mother tongue: Being an Urdu Lisper

Khatt-e_NastaliqI have 40 pages of dense reading to do for my classes tomorrow, so in the spirit of procrastination, I’m going to put this essay up. My major is a BA, so it demands proficiency in a second language; as such, I was required to write an essay detailing my proficiency in and relationship with Urdu to waive the language requirement. I’m still taking French, but I figure if somewhere down the line I have to take extra electives, I want to be able to drop French.

Fun fact: my essay was accepted and my language requirement is waived.


I debated, initially, changing this essay’s title to “Tongue-tied Mother tongue” but I felt like that would be betraying my recently established confidence in the language I was raised with. Instead, I decided to lay my interesting history with my beautiful native language plain in this essay:

I was born and raised in Pakistan, in the vibrant city of Lahore, speaking (an admittedly skewed, slightly urbanized and Punjabi-fused version of) Urdu and studying the language til the end of 7th grade, when my family relocated to Dubai. My relationship with Urdu in those early years was definitely less than ideal, but as I mature as a person, I recognize just how beautiful my language is; and for the purposes of this essay specifically, just how fluent I actually am in Urdu. Revisiting my tumultuous foray through Urdu, however, is still a bitter feeling. I was what we call in Urdu ṭoṭli – that is to say, I had a lisp unlike a conventional English lisp. This lisp serves as a testament to the complexities of the Urdu language: with 38 letters, it’s no wonder I couldn’t pronounce most of the different T, D and R sounds that really have no representation in English. Once I became aware that this lisp was a hindrance and not just something adults would condescendingly chuckle over, I resented the language. I dreaded being called on to read a piece of Urdu literature in class. I knew from experience how terrible the exasperated sighs and amused snorts were for my self-esteem.

For a girl as patriotic as me, that was painful. So I strived, instead, to excel in English, but there was still a distinct void in my life that could only be filled by Urdu. I still spoke the language at home with my family and, interestingly, with my Pakistani and Indian friends at school.

In a way, it’s strange how moving to a country other than Pakistan helped me gain such a heightened love for Urdu. There was a surprising factor in addition to that, however, and in retrospect it makes sense; I found that certain words in English did not have the depth their Urdu counterpart(s) did. I pride myself on my vast English vocabulary, but Urdu is a language that trembles with sheer poetry; English may have love, but Urdu has ishq, muhabbat, pyaar, dewangi…it is a language tailored to fit the needs of the literarily inclined, thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib and Pakistan’s own national poet Allama Iqbal have crafted intensely beautiful works of art with its nuanced palette of words.

Upon this realization, I took it upon myself to download Urdu dictionaries, pick up Urdu books, and immerse myself in this linguistic Nirvana; and certainly, it helped me break out of that cycle of resentment and bitterness that I had built. Prior to this, I had taken to replying with a tentative “Yeah, I speak Urdu but English might as well be my native tongue” whenever I was asked if I knew Urdu. Looking back, it breaks my heart that I had distanced myself from Urdu, and it further scatters those broken fragments to think that this was the result of a young girl being so negatively impacted by the words of her peers and the adults who should have encouraged her instead of deluging her drive with patronizing chortles.

But few things remain broken – I piece together my heart by realizing that in my moments of pain, my mind’s voice resorts to Urdu; that I can read Urdu to myself with complete accuracy, if not yet aloud; that Urdu music resonates with me on a level as deep as – if not more so than – English music; and that no matter what, Urdu still remains my mother language – a mother that coos sweet words and has a soft, familiar embrace.

As I bring this essay to an end, I’d like to point out that word I italicized: familiar. The point of this essay, despite my emotional spiel, is to underscore my proficiency in Urdu. The bottom line is that I spent 13 years of my life in Pakistan, formally learning Urdu, and a further five years in a foreign country surrounded by Hindi and Urdu speakers; as much as I had convinced myself otherwise, I never lost my mother tongue. It evolved with me. It matured with me as much as it helped mature me. I can converse fluently in Urdu, and with a distinctly Lahore accent at that, if one slightly injected with a Karachi twist; I can read and write the language; most importantly, I can recognize that it is my language in a way English will never be. Urdu meri zubaan hai; and no one can take that away from me, least of all myself. And so, it is with extremely happy confidence that I sign this essay off with the knowledge that my Urdu is more than sufficient to waive a BA language requirement – and I hope that whoever reads this essay can see that.

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66 thoughts on “Mother tongue: Being an Urdu Lisper

  1. What a beautifully written essay and an inspiring blog you have, glad this essay got accepted for your language requirement! May you succeed in what ever it is that you are doing!

      1. very good article thank u so much for such a beautiful wordings and love Urdu
        kifayat Urdu teacher, Bangalore.India

  2. Lovely essay! Kudos for including “dewangi” with other Urdu words equated with love. 🙂
    Best wishes in all your endeavors….

  3. Many years ago I made several trips to Islamabad, Quetta and Lahore. In the work I was doing, I met many men and women in the Pakistani intelligentsia, and it seemed to me that more of these people showed me poems they had written than in any other country I traversed. I was amazed at how many Pakistanis thought of themselves as poets. Your essay on the depth and beauty of Urdu gives some insight into why Pakistan is a nation of poets.

    1. Goodness, that’s amazing! I can definitely believe that – at any gathering of Pakistanis, there’s always that one person who is cajoled into reciting poetry, usually their own originals! Thank you very much for your comment 🙂

    1. Ooh that’s a good question! I think it kinda does, but depending on who I’m addressing. Because Urdu is so polite, I’m compelled to talk that way to my elders or to strangers (not to say i’m not polite when I speak English!). But among my friends, I sound a little brash and crude. The dialect of Urdu I speak is Lahori, which has a lot of Punjabi and urban influence.

      1. Interesting, my Chinese has deteriorated tons. So I end up sounding hard and blunt…but that’s partially because of lack of sufficient nuanced vocabulary.

        Cantonese (I speak a peasant variant of this, Toishanese), causes loud-speaking, fast talking conversation which to others watching, we look angry. But no, just excited in speech.

      2. It sure does. I’m sure my mother, who still doesn’t speak much English after being in Canada for over 50 yrs. of her life (she’s 79), has to remind herself, her children don’t intend to sound harsh.

  4. Learning a language is like creating a parallel world for yourself. I am trying to learn french too. Your post is very well crafted and many congrats on being “Freshly Pressed”! well deserved. 🙂

  5. I understand this feeling, I study in english and my mother language is Arabic, it such a wonderful and meaningful language. I hated that I’m losing it.

  6. What a fantastic piece of writing. Thank you for sharing. Reading it I felt my heart swell for my own mother tongue, Irish. Living in Ireland, growing up in Ireland, speaking the language only during my school years and for examinations part of the language was lost on me. But growing older my pride for being able to speak as gaelige is immense. Our mother tongues are our mother tongues, our link back to our ancestors, to history, our umbilical cord to life!

  7. Very cool. 😀 I’m really glad you’ve kept your native tongue alive and your love for it has found its renaissance. I’ve an interesting experience with Ukrainian since living in Ukraine for three years – I love this language almost as much as I love English. The complexities, the poetry, and the soul of the language come out every day.

  8. What a wonderful essay. I’ve never had the chance of learning other language and I kind of envy you that even though you are not able to use Urdu language as you want. Still I am amazed at the love you have for own.

  9. I love the joy and passion you show for your language and your culture. Your energy in learning is so infectious. I thank WordPress for helping me find you and I’ve started reading more of your writing, including your articles on Phoebus Online too. Thank you for this beautiful piece of work. Thank you for writing this blog.

  10. I thought English in itself was a tough language to comprehend, much less writing about it. But 38 letters, wow, certainly offers greater flexibility in the expression of various words. I’m currently working towards a BA as a Plant Scientist.

    It’s somewhat like reading and speaking another language, except for plants (i.e. Andrewsii Gentaii, Magnolia Grandifloria, Stokes Aster, Crussalean Acid Metabolism,etc… the biology of plants itself is unique, if not interesting, or so totally not.)

    Thank you for the post!

  11. Beautifully written. Coming from an urdu speaking background myself, though living in the west, I have always delighted in saying how willingly I want to speak and learn my mother tongue. I always say to my family. There are certain words and phrases in urdu that simply cannot be translated in English.

  12. Hi, I would really like to what brought you closer to the language, the fact that it connected you to your roots better than English (this is your zubaan) or is it a more personal search of identity while distancing yourself from Arabic and Hindi. Well written. I think it is important for people to know their mother tongue and feel proud of it as it is a direct representation of their culture,history and religion. 🙂

  13. Great piece! I’ve been totla since I started to talk and I can understand where you’re coming from with the fear of being called on to read aloud in class! Classmates (as well as teachers sadly) can be quite remorseless when it comes to ridiculing what is different. I was always conscious of my lisp in school but when I moved to England for my studies, I was surprised to find my lisp being mistaken for an accent, with people mistaking me for Arabic or Italian instead of Pakistani! Now, I’m no longer conscious of my ‘accent’ and embrace it as an integral part of my personality. Without it, I simply wouldn’t be me.

  14. Fascinating…..I have always envied those people who are bilingual, or more…..I believe their lives and their relationship with the rest of the world is so much richer than those of us who have only grown up in a monolinguistic culture. Im working on learning another language As an adult and its difficult but I love the challenge and the richness that goes with it.

  15. Great post! and I see what you mean about trying to distance yourself from your mother tongue. At one point in my life, I did it too, although I’m not proud of it now. Great Article. The waiver is well deserved.

  16. Thank you for writing so eloquently about this particular topic. I am not Pakistani and I do not speak Urdu but I can relate to your essay completely. I am half Mexican and half Mongolian, and though English has dominated my schooling years, Spanish and Mongolian have this familiar coo that you have described. I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you.

  17. Urdu and I have always had a love hate relationship. I used to hate it when my father would start a conversation by quoting a couplet or verse and asking us to explain it. But as I grew older I realised I was too immature to realise just how beautiful the language is and how in times of great vocal need it is the only language I can express myself in to my satisfaction.

    Thank you for the article! It was a wonderful read.

  18. Very well written Neiha. Love Urdu too *-*

    Rehman, Alnafey, Saima, Niha, Haya, Kashish, Jannat, Nural, Falah, Ahad and Sheeba. These are not the names of my friends but some of the shops I passed by while enjoying a rickshaw ride in the heart of the city of Rampur,India, a city once ruled by the Nawabs. And I was telling myself that how beautiful it would be, and convenient to put all these words together and come up with a beautiful poem. It’s like a city reciting a poem, a city telling its story. And then I thought of the ghastly contrast If I were to pick a few shop names in a Delhi market and try and make a poem out of them ( Seems like a waste of time, but behraal ). And I decided on what my daughters would be called. Either Saima or Falah hahah

  19. I loved your essay. I took a break from college and went overseas to Afghanistan to work in government reconstruction and had the opportunity of meeting several Urdu speakers. It is indeed a beautiful language. It also fascinates me how accents and dialects can change so much from place to place so I liked how you described yours as “an admittedly skewed, slightly urbanized and Punjabi-fused version of” haha.

  20. language always plays important role. Glad to see that someone has creative writing style to make people believe what he/she thinks needs to be believed.
    I never feel confident with Urdu, but i have now realized that i wasn’t right. 🙂

  21. It’s a beautifully written essay and hence the well deserved language waiver.
    Having lived in the UK for over 25 years my only bugbear is that immigrant parents (specially Indians and Pakistanis) tend to speak to their children in English rather than in their own mother tongue.

  22. As someone who was raised in Pakistan for the first sixteen years of her life, I wanted to say that I loved this piece. My family is closer to the Indian culture however so I don’t speak Urdu so much as I speak Bollywood-style Hindi. In fact, when I tell people I grew up speaking Urdu, and when they ask, “What’s that?” I’m forced to say, “It’s kinda like Hindi.”

    But the one thing I’ve noticed that people who speak Urdu, and I mean REALLY speak the language, proper accent and everything, Urdu sounds like poetry. And I never thought it did until I moved to the US and hearing it being spoken the way it’s meant to be spoken became a rarity.

  23. Hi Neiha, I am Azfar. This is the first time I read any of your writings, and frankly, I am happy I chose this one to be the debutante. What you wrote struck a chord with me- being born in a Muslim family, initially being taught Urdu, then dropping it just for no sake (I think that stays exclusive to me). Not to boast, even I take pride in my English vocabulary and in my love for literature. However as and when I expand my knowledge in poetry, I find it almost too dominant to be overlooked upon that Urdu is a far more poetical language with a unique sweetness to it. I think I am going to brush up my Urdu soon… 😉

    Thanks for writing this piece. Lovely essay. Stay blessed.

  24. Excellent blog, a real thumbs up! The accent doesn’t matter instead it lends Urdu its most strategic depth. The ability to assimilate everything and everyone.

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