Islam and the Role of Language
Language to most of us is a means of communicating our thoughts and ideas. We depend on our language skills for our living, relationships, and other activities. The extent of language’s influence on our lives may reach far beyond than what we can imagine.
Has it ever occurred to us that language could possibly influence our intellectual abilities? Studies have proven that being proficient in more than one language can make one mentally sharper. Researchers say that individuals who have acquired their native language or mother tongue along with other foreign languages (bilinguals) have better chances of success than monolinguals. They are less prone to distractions and less vulnerable to problems of senile dementia. As the German philosopher Goethe stated, “The person who knows only one language does not truly know that language.” In other words, being bilingual or multilingual helps enhance linguistic skills and improves flexibility in thinking. Bilingual children are quick learners and have been known to achieve better grades at school.
Apart from the educational benefits of being a bilingual, it has been proven that children who know their native language are more attached to their family and cultural values than those who do not. Language from this point of view has also been defined as a vehicle for cultural transmission. Meanwhile, children who do not know or were less exposed to their native language tend to feel a loss of identity, and in some cases start to develop feelings of frustration and confusion. They also tend to distance themselves from their family and cultural reality. For example, we see this scenario when many second- and third-generation immigrant Muslim children are unable to interact and communicate with their own grandparents and are hence unable to accrue benefits from this sublime relationship.
As Muslim immigrants, many of us come from parts of the world where languages other than English are used and spoken. However, we see a growing trend in our people wherein they give up their native language and try to totally depend upon English. We want to “unlearn” our mother tongue and make English alone our lingua franca, whether at home, at the mosque, or anywhere else.
Children who receive such a brought-up naturally tend to lose their mother tongue connection. A very common justification that is given in this regard is that the native language can behave as interference towards learning English language at a young age. According to well-known linguists, however, children are quite advanced in the skill of language acquisition, and when taught, they can learn multiple languages quickly and effortlessly. Therefore, the idea that bilingualism can impair children’s language development is only a myth.
We can also examine this issue from an Islamic perspective. Of course, Islamically we have no rulings or restrictions as to what languages we must or must not use. However, anyone who has gone to Najaf and visited Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani in the past few years will testify that the one advice this great scholar has given believers in the West time and again is: make sure to teach your children your mother tongue.
From an Islamic perspective, we are encouraged to learn as many languages as possible, and especially those that will help us gain better understanding of our religion. Certain Islamic terms simply cannot be translated accurately into languages such as English. For example, the word Najasah as we know has a deeper connotation than what may be generally thought of as “uncleanliness”. The essence of the term is not maintained when deciphered into English or other languages.
In addition, languages take time to become Islamic. Because of their long association with Islamic culture, some languages have become “Islamic languages”. Therefore, the Islamic resources that we see today in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu are much developed and advanced when compared to those in English. By learning at least one of these languages (Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu), one has better access to gaining further Islamic knowledge and understanding.
It is absolutely necessary for parents to make sure they teach their children how to fluently speak their mother tongues. It is also imperative for communities to establish classes and schools that teach children how to read and write in these languages. Most of us are lucky to have at least one of these languages as our native language, and we should certainly not give it away – for our own good, and for the betterment of our children and grandchildren!