Language in the British Afghan community

About the author: Peymana Assad was born in Kabul and grew up in London. She has a Masters of Arts from Kings College London in Conflict, Security and Development and currently works in Local Government in London. She advises on government relations for Women for Peace and Participation, a non-profit organisation working on getting young female voices in the peace process in Afghanistan.

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It’s a Friday night at my house and all my uncles and cousins have gathered for our usual family gatherings. The evening is usually filled with eating and laughing as entertainment is provided in the form of my brother singing Afghan songs whilst playing his harmonium and my uncle hitting away on the tabla as company. Once their hands and voices are exhausted, my uncle decides it’s time to ask that fatal question, the room is silent; all you can hear are sips of the freshly made Shnei chai and the crunching of nuqul.

“What is a mockingbird?” My Kako asks in Pashto. All my cousins look at each other, ultimately looking for an answer, everyone shakes their heads. “Ok fine say this rhyme in Pashto and tell me what it means”. The whole room bursts into laughter. None of us can adhere to his request so we start blabbing in English to one another. Then my Ana gets angry. “Why do you speak to each other in English? Speak Pashto”. And this makes me think about the language difficulties facing other British Afghans.

The Afghan Association of the United Kingdom estimates that there are currently 70 thousand Afghans living in Britain, this number is currently contested by the Office for national statistics. But whether the number is higher or lower, imagine the sound of Pashto and Dari missing in that number of Afghans in London! Some of you may say ‘so what if British Afghans don’t speak Pashto/Dari, what do they need it for anyway? We are better off with a universal language, English.’

But there is so much more to language than enabling one human to express his/her thoughts to another. Language gives one their identity, traditions, history and values of society. When we move to a foreign country, we start to adapt to other languages and change our lifestyles, and Afghans have started to adapt. However, different languages can co-exist in one society and the Afghan community needs to make a bigger effort to keep Pashto/Dari alive in Britain.

I have come across British Afghan parents who speak to their children in English in order for their own English to get better. Then I have seen parents who speak to their children in Dari/Pashto and their children respond in English. Whilst in these situations the problem of communication is solved as both parties understand what the other is saying, the problem of Pashto/Dari being completely wiped from British Afghan life is very truly alive.

Imagine the next generation of British Afghans speaking only in English?

I don’t even have to imagine it; I see it happening before me, I myself an example. I speak English with my siblings, cousins, young uncles and aunts, just the same way all other young British Afghans do. We opt for this because we are educated in English; we speak it in school, write it for our class assignments and interact with our friends in it. We then bring it home with us because it is easier for us. We don’t get stuck on which tense or word to use like we would whilst speaking Pashto or Dari. How can we learn what a mockingbird is in Pashto/Dari, if we spend most of our time working and studying in institutions that speak and write in English? How can we gain the knowledge of the language of our mothers and fathers if all we learn at home are the simple instructions of daily life?

This is not an excuse or an explanation but rather a reality.

Language defines us and explains us to other human beings. It also keeps our culture alive. We need to articulate to young British Afghans the importance of their mother tongues. We need to hand them responsibility and understanding that as British Afghans we have become unintentional ambassadors of Afghan culture and of Afghan languages. We must uphold Pashto and Dari, to keep it alive in British Afghan life and attach British Afghans to their heritage.

Afghans have started to realise this. We now have Saturday schools and classes for the learning of Pashto and Dari. A small minority of youngsters now pass their GCSE exam qualification in Persian (Farsi-Irani) and even go on to pursue it for A levels. Pashto/Dari has not yet come into the mainstream and this is an issue that Afghans must tackle by demanding it from the local authorities. The situation won’t change fast as this is a small minority of British Afghans, what can change overnight is the speaking culture.

What we must not forget is that our neighbours, the Iranian and Pakistani communities are also facing the same problem. Some believe that the Iranian community has been most active at tackling this issue, but the keeping alive of language does not get solved simply by having many Saturday schools around London, it is about actively speaking, reading and writing it, out of one’s own CHOICE.

Maybe if I too had understood my unintentional ambassadorship from a young age, I would have made more of an effort not to speak English with my siblings. Maybe then the room wouldn’t have burst into laughter at the shame of not knowing what a mockingbird is in Pashto, we may have instead proudly proclaimed a nice little poem to go with what a mockingbird is.1200px-2011_Afghan_Youth_Voices_Festival