One of the many ways that white privilege affords me benefits has to do with language learning. I am thinking specifically about speaking Urdu. I won’t go into the issue of white Northern people studying “exotic” Southern languages. That is a whole other post. But let me take you right into my life and tell you what I have noticed. I speak Urdu. I live in a mostly Hindi/Urdu speaking environment. I speak Urdu much of my day. In some ways I am fairly fluent. But by academic standards, I don’t speak Urdu that well at all. There are huge gaps in my vocabulary, especially when it comes to “big words.” If you don’t speak Urdu, it might be hard for you to imagine what I mean by that. But there is daily vernacular, and then there is the strongly Persian and Arabic based realm of “book words.” I don’t have a high proficiency when it comes to the book words.
Actually, there are many Urdu speakers who speak in a similar way to me. They could be the foreign born/raised children of native Urdu speakers. If these people’s Urdu sounds like mine, Urdu speakers in Pakistan and India mock them. They tease them. They shame their parents for not teaching them properly. They call them ABCDs (American born confused/crazed desis) if these desi origin people are from America. These so called ABCDs are usually bilingual, but English ends up being the more dominant language. Since they have never formally studied Urdu, there are many gaps in the language. Gaps that were most likely also widened by the shame of speaking a foreign language in front of white people as children, coupled with playground taunts about their heritage. As adults, some of these people regret that they lost their Urdu. Some of them even have the luxury of studying at university the language that they lost. But for me, Urdu was never a loss, it was always something to gain. An achievement.
There are also many people within Pakistan who speak like me. Their second language is Urdu. Their first language may be Pushto or some other regional language. Or they may be foreigners, as am I. Perhaps they are war refugees from Afghanistan or economic refugees from Bangladesh. These people are marked by their accents and broken grammar. Native Urdu speakers, who are statistically mainly situated on the highest rungs of the Pakistani social structure, have a good laugh at these people. Their broken language is one of the many signs of their low status. They have learned Urdu to do business with, and if they are very poorly off, to serve native Urdu speakers. They receive scorn, and I receive compliments.
And then there are people from this highest stratum in Pakistani society, whose parents send them to English medium private schools. These people study and master my native language, English because it is the language of dominance, and as such both a sign of and a key to power and privilege within Pakistan. It is the language of their former colonial oppressors, and now the language of the current Empire of America. People who go to English medium schools are notoriously weak when it comes to “book words.” Though some do master High Urdu due to parental pressure or out of genuine interest, it is very common to hear that these people “don’t speak Urdu,” because all of the complex and sophisticated concepts in their brains exist in English. People of this level of society do a lot of code switching. They are often unable to complete a sentence without using an English word. And I don’t mean one of the many, many English words that have been absorbed into South Asian languages due to past colonialism and modern imperialism. I know that not all English medium graduates have weak Urdu, but many do. So people who have mastered Book Urdu poke fun at these English-medium people as well.
And then there is me. Because I am a foreigner, and a white foreigner, I get away with my funny Urdu. Not only do I get away with it, people congratulate me on my simple, unsophisticated language. They sometimes even show me off to others. Even though my Urdu is really sooo bad. Because it is such an anomaly to find white Americans who can speak Urdu, or even any language other than English, really well.
I have something of a Punjabi accent in my Urdu. I just picked it up that way. Despite being a foreigner, my accent in Urdu is actually not bad. I do have a slight foreign accent, but I have been told often that I sound native. And I have been told that I sound like a Punjabi. When Punjabi Urdu speakers speak to native (Hindustani or muhajir) Urdu speakers, this gets them made fun of as well. With me, often people think it is cute. White, funny, Punjabi-fied, and cute. Punjabi as a language is often under attack by native Urdu speakers. There are negative stereotypes attached to Punjabis and these overlap with their language. As a white person who speaks with a somewhat Punjabi accent in Urdu, I can overlook it when a native Urdu speaker tells me “Don’t say that, that sounds too Punjabi.” Although I bristle and feel irritated when people say such things to me, they aren’t insulting my people, my heritage, or my language. It isn’t really directed to me at all. It is ultimately directed to Punjabis. I am just a filter for it.
I speak a few other languages fairly well, too. But could I complete university level academic course work in any language other than English? Probably not. How many foreigners, non-native English speakers, come to the US and do just that? Actually, my housekeeper, who is only semi-literate (and not literate in her own native language) speaks 8 languages well. Most of the people around me here in Dubai can speak at least 3 languages. Except for most of the Anglophone white people, of course. “Why learn another language when it is sooo hard, and everyone in the world speaks English; I know how to say Hello, Thanks, Good Bye, and a few curse words”…that is their mantra. Back to my housekeeper who speaks around 8 languages, our level of Hindi/Urdu is about the same. (Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language on a vernacular level, just in case you wonder what I mean by “Hindi/Urdu”). But people congratulate me, not her. With her, they laugh. They shake their heads. They say, you speak Hindi pretty well for a Nepali. With me, they prop me up on a pedestal. She learned Hindi because she had to learn it. She was an economic refugee in India, and worked since childhood in Indian peoples’ homes. She learned Hindi from them. I learned Urdu and Hindi because I wanted to, because I liked it. For her it was a matter of survival. For me, it was a matter of interest.
So you see, the white privilege runs very deep and comes to me on so many, many levels. The more I think about these issues, the clearer to me the benefits of white privilege become. I bet that if other whites were to think about their experiences with their own second and third languages, similar narratives would be revealed. It is just a reality. In the meanwhile, I do need to improve my Book Urdu. And since I am white and relatively affluent, have some leisure time and access to resources that could help me improve, that should be a lot easier for me to do than it would be for some of the other afore mentioned people whose Urdu is like mine.