Singapore Talking

Helping family to enjoy the intricacies of Urdu

Singapore is a tapestry of languages, each with its own unique syntax and history. Some are endangered and others are thriving. In the sixth instalment of a weekly series, we look at Urdu.

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Ms Sharmila and her family speak Urdu at home on a daily basis, albeit in strings of broken phrases.
Hoping to keep the language alive here is Urdu Development Society Singapore educator Ahson Ara (centre), seen teaching a group of children.
Hoping to keep the language alive here is Urdu Development Society Singapore educator Ahson Ara (centre), seen teaching a group of children. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

There was a strict rule in the Ghouse household in the 1990s, as the children were growing up: "Only speak Urdu at home."

Tough as it may sound, it has worked out well for the family, which still predominantly speaks the language at home. It is the national language and lingua franca of Pakistan, and an official language of six states in India.

"Sometimes, if we are at an outing together and it's boring, I can just ask my sister if she wants to leave, and no one else will know," said Ms Mehraj Begum, 29, cheekily.

The teacher is the second of four children. She has an elder brother and two younger sisters.

She even wrote in her diary in Urdu and enjoys the intricacies of the language. Her face lit up as she explained: "For example, take the word kal. Depending on how you end the sentence, it can be today or tomorrow."

  • 5,032

  • Number of Urdu speakers in Singapore, according to the General Household Survey in 2015.

Other than being Pakistan's national language, modern Urdu is also spoken by millions of people in India, where Ms Mehraj's ancestors are from. Because of her background, she said, it was easy to formalise her learning of the language at the Urdu Development Society of Singapore in 1996 with her family.

The language uses the Arabic script, the same used in Islamic religious texts, which Ms Mehraj, who is Muslim, had been learning.

However, Arabic and Urdu are different - they use the same alphabet, but the characters are strung differently.

Ms Mehraj's mother, Madam Safiyah Begum, 53, a childcare teacher, made sure that her children spoke the language at home.

She said: "In Singapore, once you leave home, there's no chance to speak Urdu, so we had to be strict."

When she was a child, Madam Safiyah was told that she would not get her meals if she did not practise the language.

She and her husband, Mr Kader Ghouse, 61, a taxi driver, grew up in Urdu-speaking homes in Singapore. He even courted his wife through Urdu poems.

They have taken pains to make sure that Urdu, well-known for its rich tradition of poetry, does not get lost. Madam Safiyah's two sons-in-law and one daughter-in-law do not speak Urdu, but she speaks to them in the language and they have eventually picked up a little of it.

Her third child, Ms Sharmila Begum, speaks Urdu to the children in the family when she babysits them - her four-year-old nephew sometimes even creates his own words. The 27-year-old physical education teacher said: "No matter how watered down it becomes, I still want them to know the language."

The family's love for Urdu is not that common, said Ms Saadiah Zahra, 32, an administrator at the Urdu Development Society Singapore (UDSS), which teaches the language every Saturday.

Its student enrolment numbers have been declining "drastically" over the past six years, and there are about 300 people taking classes currently - including Singaporeans and children of Pakistani expatriates.

According to the 2015 General Household Survey, there were 5,032 Urdu speakers in Singapore. The UDSS started having lessons in eight rooms at the former premises of Telok Kurau Primary School in 1994. Now, its lessons are held at Eunos Primary School in Eunos Crescent.

The society was the dream of a man who loved the language. Mr Anwar Husain, a former journalist, registered the society in 1992, but died two years later - before he could realise his dream.

Ms Farah Anwar, his daughter, then took on the mammoth task of starting the school, with a newly appointed committee.

Now 59, Ms Farah said the journey has been riddled with challenges, but once a venue was found, the response to the school was overwhelming.

Her hope is for UDSS to get more resources. "We've always wanted a library, stocked with Urdu books. I hope this materialises some day."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline Helping family to enjoy the intricacies of Urdu . Subscribe