How a bilingual mind works

Sana Hussain shares her experience as a bilingual individual, giving insight into how her mind works.

I was born in Leeds and have lived in the same area of Leeds all my life. The first language I was spoken to by my parents was Urdu, which was my mother’s second language and my father’s first. I didn’t know any others until I went to Nursery.

At Nursery, I remember the staff talking to me in English. The tongue seemed so alien, but I slowly picked up a few words and made a habit of only speaking in English there. I thought speaking English was similar to the concept of wearing a school uniform; only done at school.

Gradually, however, I started speaking English at home. Initially, only to my siblings, until I heard them talking to my parents in English. I interpreted that as the go-ahead to use English at home which had huge consequences for me; I forgot the importance of speaking Urdu.

I remember taking GCSE Urdu at school. Although some may argue that it is an ‘easy’ GCSE level, it most certainly wasn’t for me. I felt like I was learning to recognise an old friend again; a friend I had lost contact with after misjudging their value. It was a challenge, especially as the Urdu I had grown up speaking was colloquial and different from the Modern Standard Urdu I was taught in school.

Whenever my parents speak to me in Urdu, I, as well as my siblings, most often reply in English. That is the magic of the bilingual mind; its ability to switch seamlessly between two languages. My brain, like every multilingual brain, can immediately recognise words from one tongue and reply with words from another without hesitation.
I am now learning a third language at Uni, Arabic. Although it shares a similar script to Urdu and some of the words are the same, it is still a challenge to master, as the Arabic pronunciation and grammar are very different.

To make matters even more complicated, I am dyslexic. I have a bilingual dyslexic mind. Differently from what some people expect, it has its advantages. The way I learn most effectively is aurally, which is how languages are best learned. So never underestimate the brain. Whether it is bilingual or dyslexic or both, it is capable of incredible things.

Sana Hussain

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