In many communities throughout the country, learning a second language is a privilege enjoyed by few. English is everywhere, and it has left little room for other languages; even when the opportunity to learn a second language presents itself, if you are part of the 20 percent of students in America enrolled in a foreign language class, you will likely be boxed into Spanish, French or German. Given these obstacles, it was inevitable that picking up my mother tongue of Punjabi while perfecting English and Spanish at school was not an easy feat.
My childhood memories are filled with dreaded hour-long drives to Punjabi School every Sunday and endless parental lectures on why it was important to learn the language. From third to eighth grade, I dedicated countless hours memorizing the 35-letter alphabet and practicing the different sounds. And although my 11-year-old self saw little value in the seemingly tedious tasks, I’ve since learned to appreciate the skills I developed. Now, I can read, write and understand Punjabi at a limited working proficiency.
Learning to speak Punjabi fluently, on the other hand, has been a challenge that I’ve made little progress on. Growing up surrounded by English, I lacked the opportunities outside of my family to converse in Punjabi. As much as my parents dislike when I respond to their elegant Punjabi in informal English, no matter how hard I try, I find it nearly impossible to say a single coherent sentence in the language.
Still, my ability to comprehend spoken Punjabi has allowed me to hold on to parts of my culture that are nested deeply in language. From understanding the lyrics of Bhangra music in traditional Punjabi dances to communicating with Indian relatives, I’ve found that my Punjabi skills—as limited as they may be—are an integral part of who I am. Just over two generations ago, my relatives spoke solely in Punjabi; many of their traditions may have been carried on, but they are hidden behind a language barrier. Each step I take in learning my mother tongue brings me closer to decoding the picture of where I truly come from.
I hope national curricula become more inviting of new languages, as there is a lot of value in multilingualism. Language is a core part of any culture, and by focusing solely on English, we are not making use of the unique diversity that makes up our surroundings. By creating an environment that fosters different languages, people will be more inclined to pick up their mother tongue and carry forward their heritage.