by Rameeza Ahmad
"As the world becomes more of a global village, we are hopefully at the dawn of the realisation that fluency in English is not the barometer for greatness."
My mother recalls her maternal grandmother. She did not have a lot of formal education, but according to my mom, when she spoke, it sounded like poetry.
I grew up in a middle class Urdu speaking family in Pakistan, and my mother herself is an Urdu teacher. Coming from a tradition of people who prided themselves over their command of the language, something must have gone really wrong to cause me to grow an aversion to it.
Today, a lot of Pakistanis confuse a mastery of English with being ‘well-educated’.
My family made a point to send us to English medium schools. In fact, the school was so focused on English, that for O’levels, it offered us Urdu as a second language.
Not only was Urdu as a subject not given any importance, it was largely discouraged. Sometimes when the school would be in a particular episode of ‘anti-Urdu’ frenzy they would go as far as penalizing students for speaking the language.
My mother recalls with amusement the ‘celebration’ after my O’levels exams that I would never have to read Urdu again. In university, my Urdu was so bad it would take me a full minute even to read the most basic sentence. But this did not bother me because my English was fine. Better than fine. My English was great. So who cared, really?
In 2019, this all changed. On the request of a BTS fan, I listened to a few of their songs with translations. And I became obsessed. I found Korean incredibly beautiful.
I soon found myself signing up for Korean classes to understand them better. When I started to learn the language, I saw the similarities it had with Urdu. The alphabets had similar sounds and the sentences were structured in the same way!
And it hit me: why had I never found Urdu beautiful?
I decided to start working on my Urdu as well. I started writing captions on social media in the language. I began reading Urdu novels, even calling my (rather shocked) grandparents for recommendations.
Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s comment at the 2020 Oscars about the barrier of translations really struck a chord with a lot of non-native English speakers. The Western media’s hegemony in this digital age is being challenged by artists and content creators in other parts of the world.
As the world becomes more of a global village, we are hopefully at the dawn of the realisation that fluency in English is not the barometer for greatness.
And I hope we find a collective cure for this post-colonial hangover soon. And until then, I will be translating BTS songs from Korean to Urdu as my contribution to the cure.
Rameeza Ahmad is a freelance journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Read some of her previous published works.