How do you sanction a language? Only a handful of years ago Urdu and Punjanbi and Jamaican Patois were hardly ever heard in the classroom. They were secret, underground languages, the languages of home. Now teachers are encouraging the use of first languages in schools and libraries. What is the impact on young poets? Kevin Berry attends a young people’s Mushaira and a workshop on dialect poetry.
Sitting in the middle of a group of bubbling and eager Asian children I was startled to hear something I had never, ever considered. ‘l dream in Urdu or English,’ said thirteen-year-old Afshan Raheem. ‘It depends what the dream is about, school dreams are in English, dreams about my family and friends are in Urdu.’ Some of Afshan’s friends also admitted to bi-lingual dreaming. They answered my questions in English, but if someone was confused, a hurried explanation in Urdu, from a friend, put things right.
I was at Scotchman Middle School in Bradford, to investigate the background to a Young People’s Mushaira. A mushaira is a gathering of poets and is very popular in Asia. South Asian poems are written to be spoken and performed. A Mushaira relies on boisterous participation for its success and that element is built into the writing.
The children had been asked to try their hand at writing poetry after visiting a gallery of Asian art and design. Their first attempts in English had been quite good but when their teacher had asked them to translate some lines into Urdu these attempts took on greater strength and power. This happened because the children had been using Urdu dictionaries. The dictionary explanation had given them a range of words in Urdu and they could thus choose a word that exactly matched their thoughts and translate it back into English. They were using their dictionaries as a sort of Thesaurus.
‘Urdu is a much stronger language. It is much more dramatic, so we can put more of our heart into our work,’ explained Ummar Hanif, a boy in the group.
Certainly, the chance to slip into a mother tongue appeared to have released a surge of creativity. Children were bringing drive and energy to their writing, possessing and controlling their work.
Ability with Urdu will vary from student to student – I made the mistake of assuming that ability in mother tongue would be strong but that is not always the case. I met children who spoke English at home and had to ask grandparents to check Urdu words and then write them. I also came across children who spoke what they saw as an ‘obscure’ dialect at home. They were reluctant to speak it in school for fear of ridicule and they had to be coaxed.
Translating poetry can be difficult. I journeyed to another school, Frizinghall First, where teachers had suggested the children write ‘partner poems’ rather than translate. They might write about a mysterious statue in Urdu one day, for example, and the next day, write about the same statue in English – with the teacher not pressing for the poems to match exactly. The results were exquisite.
When I first tried my six Urdu phrases the effect on my playground cred was astonishing! When a non-Urdu speaking adult tries to speak just a few words there might be self conscious giggling at first, but that soon changes to admiration and offers of help – and suggestions as to the most effective naughty words!
Is poetry written in Jamaican Patois too difficult for those without a Caribbean background to read?
No! After a few moments help from the poet Valerie Bloom I managed to read a couple of verses out loud in front of a group of teachers. Valerie, who often writes in Patois, did say that Patois is still thought of as ‘broken and bad English’ by Jamaicans of the parent and grandparent generations. Yet it has an accepted structures and many words retained from African languages. Much of it relies on tones and inflections such as ‘teeth kissing’. Its rhythms are intoxicating.
The advice is to try reading it out loud. The fear of offending or of looking foolish, should not matter. Suddenly giving up, closing the book and telling children to ‘read it for themselves’ is potentially devastating.
‘Children are taught barriers,’ says James Berry, the distinguished Jamaican writer. ‘Drop the hang up and read it – we have to read Shakespeare but we’ve never had him around, nor anyone near his voice.’ His advice is, ‘to read it and read it straight, look at it well and find its way of release. Then in its reading it will be recreated as if the reader actually wrote it.’
Adult approval gives a language value and respect. A child’s first language should not be hidden away, it should be brought out into the sunlight and used.
Kevin Berry is a writer and ex-teacher.