Urdu within Immigrants of Pakistani origin: a Research Perspective

Urdu is a language that is spoken by millions around the world. Urdu is one of the official languages of Pakistan and of six states in India. As people from the subcontinent have moved around the world, they have taken the language with them. However, it takes special dedication from parents to keep Urdu alive in their houses and pass it to their children when they immigrate outside of the subcontinent.

Tasneem Anjum lives in Toronto and has done research on language choices within immigrants of Pakistani origin. There are many great insights that we can get from her research such as the challenges immigrant parents face, why passing on Urdu becomes difficult, the benefits of learning Urdu and why children as they grow older wish they had learnt the language as it is a link to their identity. Her research also shows that why parents can not assume that children will pick Urdu like they did in their childhood because the children are growing up in Canada unlike the parents. Due to a passive behaviour by parents towards the language as many as 50% children are loosing the home language.

So let me introduce you to Tasneem and I hope our chat will motivate you to teach your children Urdu! Tasneem is an extremely talented and warm person. I have been well-impressed with her knowledge of the Urdu language and dedication towards it. In this post she also shares some strategies to teach children Urdu while living outside of the subcontinent. So grab a cup of chai and join our chat!

Tamania: Tell us a bit about yourself and your association with Urdu.

Tasneem: I am originally from Pakistan, lived and worked in Dammam, Saudi Arabia for more than two decades and immigrated to Canada in 2008. Having taught English Language and Literature since my first masters in Pakistan in early Eighties, I was interested in continuing in my career path.

Initially I took a course in Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESL also known as TESOL) at the University of Toronto because I wanted to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) and Language Instruction to Newcomers in Canada (LINC) in Canada. I got the opportunity to teach both ESL and LINC for a couple of years; however, soon after, my certification program, I enrolled into a second masters in ‘Second Language Education’ at OISE, University of Toronto as I have always been interested in furthering my knowledge in language and linguistics. The program now called ‘Language and Literacies Education’ provided me with opportunities to explore the field of linguistics and I realized that despite having enjoyed teaching English, I was more interested in how languages work after moving from one place to another. During the course of this graduate program I was expected to write a policy paper on a topic of my choice. I wanted to explore a topic in the Canadian context so I would learn more about languages, and language policy in Canada. One of my peers who now runs a Greek Language School/Playgroup, suggested that we work on Heritage Language Policy in Ontario. Under the International Languages Program (ILP), administered by the various school boards in Ontario, children from various linguistic programs are able to study their home/heritage language(s) on Saturday mornings in classes.

As I explored the topic, I realized that this is the first time that I’m learning about such a program that would have supported my language maintenance efforts at home. Four of my five children had already studied Urdu at their school despite going to an International School and I was, naturally, interested in developing Urdu literacy skills in my youngest daughter as well who came to Canada after completing her Gr. 1. She had studied Urdu for two years and had I known about the ILP, I would have enrolled her to the Urdu program so she would continue learning it. I distinctly remember her home room teacher advising me to continue speaking to her in our home language; in hindsight I wish she had also given me some information regarding ILP. Initially I blamed myself and thought that the school administration might have given our family some package, some kind of information about this valuable program and that I might have not understood it or didn’t read all of the documents carefully. Upon this realization, I not only reviewed the file that I had maintained for my youngest to see if there was some paper that I had missed. No, it was not there. Then I visited the school website to look for any information/updates; none. I called the school office to find out about it and they said they don’t have any information to share regarding HLP/ILP. Google came in handy to suggest that ILP is administered by the School of Continuing Education and hence information regarding it is not available on the home page.

So from one assignment to another, I continued exploring literature around HLP/ILP in Ontario and finally decided to work on it for my master’s thesis. While collecting the data for my study, I realized that though there is some community initiative for Urdu language maintenance, there are a number of youth who are interested in learning it formally. Previously, I had never taught Urdu language formally, but I had been good at languages and had developed a good grasp of the principles of second language instruction over the years and so I planned to apply that knowledge and understanding to Urdu language instruction. During my masters, I got an opportunity to start teaching Urdu formally at a private school in Toronto which helped me develop multiple lesson plans and teaching material over a span of around 2 and a half years so far.

Although I have all along been aware of the importance of the role of the parents and the community in language maintenance in diasporic cultures; however, the conversations with the families of Pakistani origin in the Peel Region have helped me understand their needs and challenges in a better way. They face challenges due to their past linguistic history, association with the English language and the unique situation of societal bi/plruilingualism that they have originated from and have turned out to be caught in a predominantly monolingual situation.

Currently, I am working on starting Urdu classes of different levels for the various age groups and see myself attached to some Urdu language promotion project in Canada.

Tamania: What was your research about and what were the major findings?

Tasneem: My research is mainly about the language choices, use, and experiences of the people of Pakistani origin based in the Peel Region. I chose Peel for two reasons: 1) I live in Peel and understand the region and its culture and 2) Urdu is the third biggest immigrant languages in Peel, the second highest in Brampton and the top most in Mississauga. According to Census 2011, Urdu is at number twelve among twenty-two immigrant languages all over Canada.

  • I also wanted to study if the people of Pakistani origin have been able to maintain their societal bi/multi/plurilingualism by relocating to Canada. Age upon arrival among the children is a tricky issue as younger children tend to have different linguistic experiences compared with those of their own siblings who had already started schooling in their countries of origin and had developed a varying degree of mastery over their home or heritage language. The children who came over to Canada with developed language skills in their home language are bi/plurilingual, whereas those who were younger, were born here and studied in the Canadian school system seem to be on the road to becoming monolingual English speakers. Though 100% of the parents stated that they wanted their children to be bi/plurilignual, around 50 % of the families have been successful in passing on their home language to the children, whereas the other 50 % face multiple challenges despite a desire to teach their home language to their children.
  • The families that have used a language policy or had a rule that the children are always expected to respond to their parents in their home language have been successful; however, those that were flexible or did not follow a language policy at home have not been able to develop a communicative ability in their home language. So just as language input is important, language output is equally important. From among the seven strategies employed by parents who were effective in raising bi/plurilingual children, the Minority Language at Home was found to be the most successful. This means that the parents who used ONLY home language for communication at home were successful in passing on their language to their children.
  • Another aspect that points to an imminent language loss soon is the fact that the children who have the communicative capacity to use their home language use it only with their parents; not with their siblings and peers from the same linguistic background. This is in line with the previous studies on language loss among the migrant children. This also means that the parent generation are the last generation who will use their home language for communication; once they are gone, the children will use English almost all of the time. Various terms are used to describe the phenomenon of this decrease in language use, such as language loss, language shift that gradually proceeds to language death.
  • The parents and the older children wish to maintain their bi/plurilingual identities but they don’t know how to do that. Since they were a part of a pluralistic society where they themselves learned multiple languages simply because of being in contact with other linguistic groups, they assumed that their children will also ‘pick’ other languages the same way, little realizing that the culture of the dominant language in Canada does not leave room for the growth, or even sustenance of other languages. Half of the families said that due to the colonial past which necessitated the acquisition of English while in Pakistan, the acquisition of home language is dichotomous. Resetting the button for home language maintenance takes a little while as the parents are busy settling down in their respective professions and happen to be the only link to their children’s home language.
  • All of the parents want their children to integrate in the linguistic landscape of Canada, half of them sent their children to the French Immersion Schools in the hopes that their children will graduate as bilinguals according to the Canadian definition of bilingual. The children dropped French in Secondary schools and can only speak basic French. They also want their children to learn Arabic and Urdu. Urdu is at the fourth number in terms of preference to acquire and learn formally.
  • The parents and the children in their twenties enumerated multiple challenges in maintaining their home language and suggested that even the children as young as three years start speaking English to their parents as soon as they step out of the house because they think that the home language is to be spoken only at home. They know that the dominant language of the culture outside home is English.
  • The most important finding of the study is that though the children may resist learning their home language during their childhood or pre-adolescent times, they come across questions around identity during their twenties. It’s then that they want to learn both communicative and literacy skills in their home language and resent the fact that they did not have adequate chances of maintaining their home language in their childhood.


Tamania: What tools did you use to conduct research?

Tasneem: Since it was a qualitative study, I interviewed 8 families that included 13 parents and 19 children from various age groups. Apart from the group interview and observations of the informal communication between family members, I also used other tools to collect demographic details which included a family tree and language(s) used in various domains on a daily and weekly basis to determine how many numbers of hours they used their home language for communication with various members of the family, extended family and community.

Tamania: Why do you think it’s important for children to learn the language of their parents which might be Urdu, Hindi or Punjabi

Tasneem: Bilingual children will know multiple languages, which is important for travel, employment, speaking with members of one’s extended family, maintaining a connection to family culture and history, and making friends from different backgrounds. However, beyond obvious linguistic benefits, researchers have investigated whether bilingualism confers other non-linguistic advantages

There are multiple reasons; some from literature and some that are unique to Urdu and Punjabi.

Benefits of being Bilingual

Being exposed to a second language from infancy has multiple advantages:

1. It wires the brain with the ability to learn multiple languages over a span of one’s life

2. A connection to the family culture and history (psychological benefits)

3. A connection to members of the extended family (psychological benefits)

4. Develops the ability to make friends from different backgrounds (social benefits)

5. Important for travel and employment (practical benefits)

6. Bilingual children are able to carry out some cognitive functions better than monolingual children and have developed higher order thinking (cognitive benefits)

7. Bilingual children have the ability to dispel distractions and focus on a relevant information; are able to multitask

8. Bilingual people have access to greater number of people and resources

9. Among adults, the effects of aging on brain are minimized; the onset of dementia is delayed by at least 4 years (delays cognitive damage)

Language a link to heritage

Languages are repositories of values, thought processes and world view. By losing a language the future generations lose all that important connection to their past which gives them a solid ground.

Connection of urdu and arabic

Urdu is written in Persio-Arabic script. The ability to read Urdu connects one to the Arabic text in the Quran which most of the Urdu speaking children already learn to read. Due to a host of common vocabulary between the two languages there is a greater chance of being able to understand the key terms and the meanings of important verses of the Quran. So it clearly has benefits in the area of religion which is a common concern of the immigrant parents.

Tamania: Do you feel other communities protect their language better than us? What can we learn from them?

Tasneem: For the present we can say that yes, other communities seem to protect their language better than us – Urdu speakers – mainly because of the social and economic mobility that English is associated with. Aside from the fact that English is a lingua franca of the modern times, it stores a wealth of knowledge and hence it is considered to be the language of education. It’s a business language and is also used for intercultural and international communications. Having been colonized, the superiority of the English language as a vehicle to economic, social, political, intellectual and educational mobility is deeply ingrained in our psyche. So we may be politically independent in some ways, our intellectual slavery still exists and travels with us all along.

The second reason why we seem to be negligent to Urdu language maintenance is the fact that coming from a multilingual society, the parents presume that our children will be able to acquire Urdu the same way as we were able to acquire English in our home country. Most of the Canadians of Pakistani origin are first generation Canadians and they are busy building their lives in a new home country. Though the parents have started noticing that their children are not ‘picking up’ their home language, there is a lack of any community work on Urdu language maintenance.

There are a number of social and cultural events that cater to the taste of proficient speakers of the Urdu language; however, there are very few community-based learning centers where Urdu is formally passed on to young children. According to Fishman, a linguist and expert on language decay, death and revitalization the community that identifies with a certain language can only work for its maintenance and vitality. So according to my data, 50 % of the children are losing their home language because they don’t use it for everyday communication at home, among siblings, friends, cousins and peers from the same linguistic background even in situations where other linguistic groups are not present. These children understand their home language and enjoy music and movies in it too but because they don’t use it, their coming generations will not be exposed to it and will not be able to learn it. Most of these children are the first generation Canadians which means that our second generation certainly has no chances of acquiring even the listening skills in it. Urdu speakers also tend to code-switch very often which according to many linguists is the first step to language infiltration resulting in gradual loss and sometimes total death of a language.

Tamania: What are some of your suggestions to spread the knowledge of Urdu in young children?

Tasneem: We live in a country (Canada) that has a unique definition of bilingualism. Elsewhere a bilingual may mean a person who speaks two languages; in Canada it means one who can speak English and French. This means that languages other than English and French do not have any recognized status except for ceremonial purposes. This means that only parents and the community can play a role in the inter-generational transmission of language.

  1. Parents may devise a home language policy which ensures that all the members of the family make their best attempt to communicate to the family members, cousins and peers in the home language.
  2. They may expose the children to nursery rhymes available on YouTube in Urdu and other languages they might be interested in maintaining. Sing along with the children so they are able to acquire the pronunciation.
  3. Face to face conversations with members of the extended family using internet applications can provide chances for the children to communicate in their home language. A conscious effort to use the home language for all communications helps with fluency and building confidence in their ability to speak.
  4. Parents may use online services for literacy skills in Urdu language as they do for the Arabic reading. Since both the languages are very similar in alphabets and writing system, parents can build upon those skills and connect the similarities.
  5. Your Urdu Story Time is a great way to develop vocabulary and engage with the language in a fun way. Such activities may develop children’s interest in songs and stories.
  6. Parents can live close to schools that offer Urdu language programs under ILP so they are able to enroll their children and get benefit from this funded program. Since this program is based on demand, parents can enroll their children to these programs so more school locations will offer it in various areas.
  7. Interested parents may initiate community engagement in developing language schools as other communities have established private language schools, such as Panda Mandarin, IL Language Kids and Greek Time in Toronto.

resources for the greater toronto area

Below are number of classes offered in Heritage Language Policy (HLP) or International Languages Program (ILP) across various school boards in the Greater Toronto Area.

School Population 85,278 50,000 153,066 93,000 265,000 52,000 119,000
Number of classes offered 107 9 65 113


172 45


Timings After Hours



Saturday After Hours



Extended Day/After School


After Hours




Saturday Mostly night, all through the week.

DDSB: Durham District School Board

DPCDSB: Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

HDSB: Halton District School Board

PDSB: Peel District School Board

TCDSB: Toronto Catholic District School Board

TDSB: Toronto District School Board

YRDSB: York Region District School Board

YDCSB: York District Catholic School Board


I would like to thank Tasneem Anjum for her time in sharing her research findings. I hope these will help and guide parents to pass on Urdu to their future generations. I wish Tasneem all the best in her pursuits of spreading Urdu. Whenever I meet dedicated leaders like her I feel assured that the future of Urdu is in safe hands!

2 thoughts on “Urdu within Immigrants of Pakistani origin: a Research Perspective

  1. Hello,
    I wish research could also be done in Calgary with the school that teaches Urdu from K-9, at Almadina Language Charter Academy. Parent demand made this language option available. If parents come together and make this request, many schools can respond.

    1. What a great idea! Thanks for sharing it! I will be sure to pass on this information to any parent who asks for Calgary.

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