My first spoken word was ਮੀਂਹ. As the story goes, I pointed out the window and spoke the Punjabi for “rain,” pronounced “minh.” Although I can’t remember doing so, all these years later, there’s a certain pride that thousands of miles away from the Punjab, as a British citizen whose grandparents had emigrated to the country so many decades before my birth, Punjabi was the first language I had chosen to express myself in.
For children, grandchildren and subsequent generations of immigrants living across the world today, there can be a serious disconnect between the geographical surroundings you inhabit and the culture you originate from. Being part of a diasporic community can be a challenge. Even though I can only really speak for my own experience, as a person of color and third-generation immigrant in the U.K. (where in 2011, BME people made up 13% of the population), it can be hard both having to assimilate with western standards and staying faithful to the traditions both sets of my grandparents brought with them from the Punjab all those years ago, in every part of my life.
Therefore, languages can truly be one of the ways in which people can (to a degree at least) channel all the different sides of their identity and break free of cultural confines, switching word to word, from tongue to tongue if they want to, seamlessly stitching together and rewording their own description of what they are for themselves. In the past, in places like Australia, India, Africa and the Americas where there was such deep-rooted colonialism, stripping groups of people of their languages was a complete and utter restriction on their culture, their heritage and their identity, dehumanizing those colonized and leading to the languages that colonizers used (such as English and French) and their cultures to be deemed as superior.
The year is 2018 and languages like English aren’t the only languages that matter. There can be poetry, emotion, a story or journey in each and every tongue throughout planet Earth and discovering the language your parents or grandparents or great-great grandparents spoke can be an integral part of liberating yourself from the pressures of what you as a second or third immigrant must be. This crafts an identity that is completely your own, so wherever in the world you are, you have that link to the people and place your heritage originates from.
I urge everyone to, please, find out more about yourselves, your native language and the way in which it has the power to shape your identity. I remember being scared or ashamed to speak my fairly broken Punjabi, but I can’t stop myself from unlocking that part of who I am any longer. I have a right to express myself in that tongue, I have a right to learn more of it and gain fluency the more I speak. I owe it to the first word I ever said.
Photo: Katie Manning