Languages of the Mind and Heart: Growing up Trilingual in the UK


As someone who loves to write and read, a love of language and words fits naturally. My family is of Punjabi origin, hailing from Jhelum, Pakistan and therefore speaks a Patwari dialect of Punjabi. Growing up, I spoke Patwari with my mother and grandparents; this was the language they scolded us in (Danger! Animals!) and loved us in. The dialect they used is exactly the one they brought with them from Pakistan to the UK forty years ago. They have passed it on to me, my brother and sisters in its preserved form. We had guests recently from Pakistan who could not get over my and my daughter’s Patwari. Their own children had moved to the cities and only spoke Urdu and their own Patwari was somewhat diluted. They couldn’t believe that we had been born in England and spoke like their old people. For me this has become the language of motherhood, family past and the stories of our elders.

In addition to Patwari, my dad and uncles spoke to us in English, the language of our schooling and our favorite kids TV shows (the era of the A-Team, Punky Brewster and the Smurfs). This became our dominant language, the one we used to engage with the world, to learn and to dream about the future. This is also the language that opens doors to the world for me through its literature.

As a teenager, my dad taught me to read and write some Urdu. I also overdosed on Indian films and so became fluent in speaking Urdu, the national language of Pakistan spoken by the “educated” people. People are surprised by my Urdu as an English person and praise my dad for his good teaching. I avoid admitting that the movies taught me a lot more.
My better half is from Lahore and in contrast to our gentle Patwari dialect of Punjabi, he speaks the traditional Punjabi from central Pakistan and India. To me this is a purer and more assertive Punjabi, passionate, bawdy and blunt–the language of Lahore’s wide-boys and sassy girls. It reminds me of cockney English (my brother-in-law introduced me to a friend once by referring to me as “my brother’s old lady.” I was 20!). When I try to speak it, I can hear myself getting louder.

Because of our different dialects of Punjabi and because of our nerves as newly-weds, my husband and I ended up speaking Urdu, which feels more formal than Punjabi. Urdu is a very polite language, even arguments are lined with convoluted equivalents of “kind sir” and “dear lady.” It is also the language of romance and poetry. My husband is the corniest man ever and I love his terrible flattery and bad couplets. When I speak Urdu, I can feel myself becoming haughtier and my voice getting softer.

They say that a person’s true language emerges when they are angry. My aunty lives in Karachi where everyone speaks Urdu. Everyone assumed she was a native Karachi-ite until one day she lost her temper at her son and picked up her shoe to chase him around their apartment. The neighbors were shocked to hear all kinds of Punjabi swear words exploding off the walls. When I am angry, I usually speak in Urdu until I lose control and then I revert to a mixture of English and Punjabi.

I have often thought that Punjabi is the language of my heart and English of my head. My truest expression of feeling or deepest communication is achieved with a mixture of all three. I call upon the words to suit the situation: English at work and with my sisters, Urdu with my husband and guests, and Patwari with my mum and my grandmother. There are words in one which don’t exist in another like serendipity in English, ji ayan noo (a very sweet Punjabi greeting which translates roughly as welcome to those who come), kaash (a longing for something in Urdu).

The problem was that I was the only one who spoke this mix of languages from all my family. My sisters don’t speak Urdu well and English is not my husband’s strongest language. But not long ago, I found another speaker of this tri-language mixture. My own rani thi (Punjabi for princess daughter) speaks Patwari with my mum, Urdu with my husband and English with my sisters, just like me.


  1. Masha’Allah, great article sis 🙂 as you know Im always interesting about kids who grow up with more than one language and who better to open up this world to me, to us, than someone who has lived it 😀

  2. Such a lovely article, the end warmed me to bits. Growing up in the world that we are I think fluidity of language is the best way to be who are we–a myriad of people in each of us!I come from Delhi and my mother tongue is Punjabi, though isnt spoken by me, I studied and think in English, and use Hindi in my everyday life to converse with nonEnglish speakers.

  3. I love this! I’m only bilingual. English is my mother tongue and French is my learned one. I learned the language and expression of anger, frustration, and disdain much better in French than I ever have in English. I love how each of my languages gives me a complementary personality.

  4. what a wonderful warm article, beautifully expressed. i especially love the way you accurately describe how we use different languages as tools to express ourselves.

  5. Great article. My dad’s family speak ‘traditional’ Punjabi* (they come from two villages in Hafizabad district, but now live in Lahore and Islamabad as well), but I never inherited it because my dad grew up in the US, Malaysia and Switzerland (my dada worked for the UN) and so adopted American English as his dominant tongue. I’m now trying to learn Urdu, and then I’ll learn Punjabi after I’m comfortable in it.

    Despite the fact that I didn’t inherit any Paksitani language, I can empathise with your story from a Serbian-Australian perspective. My mother comes from the former Yugoslavia and is a native-speaker of Serbo-Croatian. She, unlike my father, passed down her culture’s language to me. Serbian is truly the language of my heart, just as you described for Potwari.

    *I would honestly call Potwari and Punjabi separate languages, but each to his own I guess.

  6. Beautifull article. So much of it rings true to me also. I’m 2nd generation London born (my parents were born here too) and we all speak (fluently) what is known as ‘doabi’ Punjabi in India and ‘Faisalabadi’ Punjabi in Pakistan. My children too, although 3rd generation British, speak a it fluently, and when speaking we use words and expressions that went out of use back in India / Pakistan a generation or two ago. This not only amazes relatives from Punjab but actually shames them because they, tend to fall into 2 categories : The ones that are trying to raise their status think they can only do so by replacing Punjabi with Hindi and the very educated ones who are incapable of completing a whole sentence in Punjabi without using a 60% English content. Its sad as well as ironic that the Punjabi language has so much respect that it is being learn’t by non-south Asians in places such as London (where it the second most spoken language in the worlds most multi-cultural city) and Vancouver (where it is part of the school curriculum and Chinese pupils score the highest exam scores in Punjabi year after year). It seems to me that love and fondness of Punjabi seems to grow stronger the further away from Punjab one gets.


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