Urdu for the Frustrated English Speaker's Soul
I had been told I "have a good ear" by my piano teacher for years, her way of saying that I should enter the aural skills portion of the Pennsylvania Piano Guild exam instead of the other one requiring me to memorize every one of the minor scales. I thought this was true, too. I never had much trouble learning French in high school, and my accent turned out well because I was one of the few willing to listen and imitate the droning instructional tapes we used. When I learned my first ever roommate at Oberlin was an international student, I was worried about a multitude of things (Would we get along? Would I be sexiled constantly? Would she be utterly repulsed by my tendency to not bother with cleaning?), but when friends and family asked "Do you think you'll be able to understand her accent?" I was always confident that it wouldn't be very difficult.
It wasn't. My roommate is wonderful: clean and kind and much too nice to lock me out of our room on purpose. She is perfectly fluent, and our only lingual mix-ups have been ones that any English speakers could make. After a few days of tentative friendship, she introduced me to her parents over Skype and acted as a partial interpreter. When the call ended, she turned to me and said, "They say I should teach you to speak Urdu!"
Some brief stats: Urdu is the national language of Pakistan (roomie's home), though it is also spoken in India. Despite sounding incredibly similar to Hindi, it is more influenced by Arabic, Turkic, and Persian, but the two tongues still share many words. (I myself figured out that "What?" is the same in both Hindi and Urdu by watching South Asian films. Margaret Saunders, Lingual Detective.) Eager to learn new things—and be able to gossip with my roommate knowing that no one else could possibly eavesdrop—I agreed.
Now, let me speculate for a moment. Despite having no official national language (look it up, it's true!), most Americans are remarkably monolingual. I knew very few truly multilingual speakers in high school, and even students who had taken language classes for years could never pass as fluent. Perhaps our deeply-engrained ethnocentrism has made us unwilling to learn anything but English, or perhaps there just isn't enough pressure on fluency in language classes; but whatever the case, for most of us, English is our one and only tongue.
Therefore, I blame the entirety of American culture as the reason I am so terrible at Urdu.
We started very simple, with basic and words phrases you'd use in ordinary conversation. I can say the following*:
"Shukriya" = "Thank you"
"Chalo" = "Let's walk / go"
"Bolo" = "Speak / Go on"
"Acha" = "Good / Yes / Okay / Really?"
They look so simple, don't they? That's where Urdu deceives you, English speaker. That's why you are so confused when you can't pronounce anything correctly. That's why you are furious at the whole of the American English-speaking world, for concentrating on a language where the sounds your mouth makes are just so...flat.
My roommate is an exceedingly patient teacher. She repeats words five, ten times, listening as I botch them over and over and over. Did you know that in Urdu, there are at least two different ways of pronouncing th? That English speakers are almost physically incapable of deepening their d's? That we have trained ourselves to listen for a few sounds and nothing more, and as a result we have the most trouble understanding the amazing scale of tones to which other languages assign sounds? It hurts a little to discover your native tongue is comparatively cumbersome, to realize that there are some things your "good ear" will never be fully able to hear.
Mind you, my Urdu lessons are far from formal, but at last my "good ear" is finally serving some actual use. It picks apart sentences now, searching for the familiars in my roommate's Skype calls home. I rarely ever know what she's talking about, but I can hear her tone and emotions and with the help of a phrase or two in English, the puzzle pieces begin to fit together. I've started to forgive America and the English language a little. No one is at fault for the flatness of English, of the variance of Urdu, or the ups and downs of any other language: language is something that evolves, that is constantly created and recreated in dictionaries, literature, and daily speech. It is something that speakers mold every time they open their mouths. It is a music that may take a little time to appreciate, but once you learn the notes, scales, and melodies, you find yourself wanting to sing as many songs as you can.
So, bolo. Kaho. Speak. Go on.
*Some translations are approximate.