I only recently learned the term passive bilingualist - ‘a person who can understand a language fluently, but cannot speak it.’ It describes me and my experiences to the T.
Belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community (a Shia Islamic community with origins from India/Pakistan) and going to the Bohra mosque has never been easy for me for a variety of reasons, a major reason being I’m a passive bilingualist.
I understand the languages being spoken at the mosque - Gujarati, Urdu, Lisan al-Dawat (well, mostly understand), but I can’t speak them.
A fear overcomes me at the thought of having to utter even one word in these languages to a fluent speaker - it has been this way since I was a child. Only as an adult, do I understand and recognize how language has traumatized my being.
Lisan al-Dawat is considered the official language of the Dawoodi Bohras. It is an arabicized form of Gujarati with Arabic, Urdu, and Persian mixed in. The name of the language, Arabic itself, means “language of the Dawat” (the Imam-led community).
Gujarati and Urdu are unofficial langauges for the community, often used at mosques due to the reality most Dawoodi Bohras live in India and Pakistan and/or originate from there, hence the languages are their native tongues.
My father’s side speaks Urdu. My mother’s side speaks Gujarati. Perhaps then I’m a passive trilingualist. I speak English, having been born in the U.S. and surrounded most of my life by this language.
Not being able to speak in my parents’ tongues has always been a barrier for me in terms of connection to my cultural roots, and, of course, to my relatives.
I recall silence when summers rolled around and I visited my paternal grandmother in India. She did not speak English.
There were silent signs of love from her.
Every morning, I would wake up and go to her room to do salaam (a gesture of respect where you take one’s hand, raise it to your forehead, and kiss it). When I had my misaq performed (equivalent of a bar mitzvah in Judaisim) at thirteen, I went to her room to do salaam. She sat at the edge of her bed, a prayer mat or masala draped over a pillow that rested on a chair in front of her. Due to being unable to sit up and down easily, she prayed her namaz in this modified manner. She beckoned me over with a finger. Then she glided a gold necklace with an amber stone pendant around my neck. Enscripted on the pendant in miniscule Arabic was a Quaranic verse. A family heirloom, the history of which I do not know because of my inability to ask her a question about it in her mother tongue.
These memories make me recognize the loss of my ancestors, a shared history, a sense of connection to those who came before me. I do mourn for it.
It was not as if I didn’t try to learn the languages. I have tried, but I was always met with disappointment. The words always struggled to come to the surface for me, I mixed the languages up, my American accent had me pronouncing words incorrectly.
Relatives, though not intending maliciousness, poked fun at how I enunciated words or mistakes I made in the languages, not recognizing the harm it did to my childhood psyche.
My anxiety grew.
Language has a vastitude of power: the ability to be healing and a source of comfort. Language can also be an identity marker, one that may help a community to grow and connect. The flipside of language is that it can also be divisive, separating out individuals, providing power to those who speak the dominant language, and alienating those who do not.
My parents sought to raise their children in the Dawoodi Bohra tradition, and had us attending madrasa (equivalent to Sunday school) several times a week. At madrasa, our teachers were all women, although I did not feel a maternal touch from most of them. Instead, each attendance in their class produced a shame that had my heart racing and sweat glands pouring. I would remain silent and appear mute, rather than attempt to incorrectly speak the highly regarded language, Lisan al-Dawat.
As I grew up, I heard religious clergy as well as our madrasa teachers exhort that Lisan al-Dawat should be the only language spoken at home, especially by followers living in diasporic countries.
Behind this proclamation laid the fear that diasporic communities would otherwise lose ties with the culture, faith, and heritage inherently linked to the languages. Essentially, they would become like me, passive bilingualists, or worse, monolingual in English, and somehow, that evolution of the mother tongue between generations and geographies was problematic, or more sufficiently - WRONG.
The concept of a holy language or one language held in higher regard than others is by no means unique to the Dawoodi Bohra religion. For years, Catholics heard mass exclusively in Latin, until in 1964, at the second Vatican Council, they decreed mass could be spoken in other languages.
Sometimes I would try to prove my madrasa teachers wrong, and try to do the homework, prepare for class, and speak the language.
Like many other cultures and religions in the world, there were traditional hymns, or marsiyahs we called them — separate from Quaranic verses, but requiring a melodic voice to read. These marsiyahs were devoted to the feats of religious heroes long past, marking their sacrifices, valor, and martyrdom. Within the poetic stanzas lay the deeper, more profound meanings and/or instructions on how to live a moral life according to the faith’s dictates.
I do not remember the exact marsiyah that my madrasa class was studying, but I dedicated myself to learning the marsiyas and the meaning behind the verses we were asked to study. I used rote memorization to explain each verse’s meaning. I practiced the Lisan al-Dawat pronounciations with my dad several times a day, and his gentle smile and encouraging voice had me hopeful I was on the right path.
I was ready for that next madrasa class.
The time came, and the religious teacher with round glasses and smooth creamy brown skin asked me to recite the meaning behind the verses. I straightened my spine, pushed my chest forward, and in a loud audible voice repeated what all week long I had practiced. I was aware that my American accent made the words sound foreign, but nonethless, my father had understood what I was saying, I was positive the teacher would as well. I was sure she would be proud I used the correct grammar and words the langauge dictated.
Yet, all I found after I finished was a shaking head and upside curve on her face.
To this day, I do not know what it was I did wrong, but I won’t forget that accusatory glare: the look that I had met her expectations of being an inattentive girl who would not amount to much in the Bohra community.
The look that I was stupid due to my loss of an ancestral language.
She asked the student next to me, a girl who wore a round sequin topi on her head and a jhabla izar outfit (short decorated tunic and slacks specifically for Bohra girls). She was the daughter of another religious leader at the mosque. The girl, with a stronger, more appropriate Indian accent than I, spoke the exact same words I had.
She was congratulated. I said nothing. I couldn’t.
I did not have the words, and speaking in English to express myself would have been seen as obstinate or rebellous.
We could only show deference. Tears underlined my eyes, but I did not let them spill until hours later, once I was alone in my room with no witnesses to see.
It amazes me how all these years later, I feel that discomfort. A trauma that lays hidden under the shield I’ve built to prove I’m worthy of who - I’m not even quite sure of at this point.
Would I have liked to learn the languages of my relatives and ancestors?
Is it too late to do so? Of course not.
Do my childhood experiences have an impact on the surrounding emotions that I have felt and do feel when I attempt to try or am asked to speak in Lisan-al-dawat, Urdu, or Gujarati?
Yes, they very much do.
What I understand today that I didn’t understand as a child is it is okay for me to be a passive bilingualist.
There never was anything insufficient or wrong with me because I was unable to pick up the speaking abilities of my parents’ languages.
In college, I minored in socio-cultural linguistics and learned that children with parents whose native language is not English have varying capabilities in picking up their parent’s native tongues.
And, I learned how often a language was spoken to you, specifically, how patient and caring the person was when you were learning, as well as how willing you were yourself in learning it, all play a part in becoming a bilingual child.
My experience was perfectly normal and not uncommon.
I am worthy of connection to my cultural heritage and ancestors, despite not having the ability to communicate verbally with them.
I feel fortunate having grown up in such a multilingual household. My father speaking to us in Urdu, my mother responding in Gujarati, their children all answerings in English.
This environment gave me the opportunity to understand the versatility of not only languages, but also how generations evolve with the langauges, and how people adapt to communicate in their surroundings.
Languages are as versatile as people are versatile. Perhaps, in that truth, the beauty that the human race consists of hundreds of languages should be recognized.
The art of this versatility should be acknowledged. No one language sits above the rest. And a person’s ability or inability to communicate in a language does not and should not dictate the value of their being.
©Mariya Taher and ©Gulabi Stories
Mariya (she/her) is first generation U.S. born to a South Asian Muslim family. She is a social worker, writer, and potter. She also is cofounder and U.S. Executive Director of Sahiyo U.S., an organization working to end gender-based violence and in particular female genital cutting.
Northeast, United States
Social Media: @sahiyovoices
Twitter & Instagram: @mariyataher83