I am in year two and have just changed primary schools. I find myself sitting alongside a boy called Dennis on an itchy green carpet with a picture of the beach in front of us.
Somehow, we have been earmarked for English as a second language (ESL) class, despite English being my first language. I think it might have something to do with my name. Dennis’ parents are from Turkey, so I’m pretty sure that is how he finds himself in this predicament.
We are asked to name as many items as we can from the picture. Eager student that I am, my hand immediately shoots up.
‘Beach ball, sand, umbrella,’ I reel off eagerly.
I am not invited to attend ESL again.
As much as I feel like I belong to English, I’m not sure it belongs to me. It feels like English has always tried to remove me from its embrace. Growing up, every time I was complimented on my English or sent to an ESL class I clearly didn’t need, it reinforced how somehow despite whatever dazzling proficiency I attained, I would always somehow be outside English. Even being complimented on my great English reinforced the lower standard that existed for me, the expectation that I was not supposed to be this good.
Even being complimented on my great English reinforced the lower standard that existed for me, the expectation that I was not supposed to be this good.
You see I also speak Urdu, courtesy of my Pakistani parents. In Urdu I often have to think twice before I speak and search for a word, but in English I have no such trouble. I never have to think twice. I live, breathe and dream in English.
Like many children of migrants who feel at times inferiorised in wider western society by their parents’ accent and broken English, I now expertly wield the language with pride. I am reminded of the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s words: “You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you.” In some ways English does own me. But it is an awkward ownership, like a couture dress that was made for someone else, yet somehow fits you perfectly.
Ultimately, I am glad for all the times English has rejected me because being bilingual has opened up so many worlds for me. Growing up bilingual in an environment where there were two words for everything, has given me a sense of the multiplicity of experience and meaning that sits behind everything.
Like many children of migrants who feel at times inferiorised by their parents’ accent and broken English, I now expertly wield the language with pride.
I know there are as many ways of seeing the world as they are languages. I understand how linked we are through culture and history. For example, the fact that the word bungalow has its origins in Hindi reveals not just the historical fact of English colonialism in the subcontinent but is also a bridge between two different parts of me.
Language is a transmitter of power and values. It is why so many debates around belonging, citizenship and cultural identity centre on language.
As a lawyer, I now spend my days parsing through the minutiae of the English language.
I know language as power to both communicate and illuminate but also to exclude and maintain hierarchies. As James Baldwin said, “language is experience and language is power”.
Being bilingual has opened up so many worlds for me.
I have seen its power when I have helped a client from a non-English speaking background access much needed legal services. I instinctively help Aunties on planes struggling with their tiny font travel forms. I am not flustered when I can’t communicate with someone because of language. I can comfortably have long chats in foreign countries with people who don’t speak the same language as me because I am used to translating and code-switching, understanding the body language and intention in communication that exists beyond words.
This ability to glide between worlds and understand myself and others through multiple prisms is not one I would trade for anything else.
These days I embrace my status as an outsider to English. I know for many, my face does not match the words coming out of it or the accent those words are spoken with. But now when the store clerk compliments me on my English, I don’t protest, instead I just smile and say, ‘thank you’.
Fatima Malik is a lawyer from Sydney.