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Mother tongue

Language forms a major part of your identity when you are from a family of immigrants. It ties you to your roots, like a family heirloom passed from generation to generation, from country to country. 

It is the foundation here at the ARC Project in Blackburn, a town where 70 languages are spoken. Think of the eight billion people in the world. Invisible ties link some to others. Those ties get crossed, threaded, intertwined or snapped. Language is just one of those threads, as fine as a spider’s web. People have fled terror, war and conflict. As they built new lives, they learned English to understand how to navigate, but have used language to tie themselves to their new home as well as their old one. Language is like the coins in your purse left after your travels abroad: some familiar, others less so, but hold them in your hand and you’re suddenly miles away. 

ARC provides practical support for asylum seekers and refugees as they look to rebuild their lives in Blackburn. Creating a safe, welcoming space, they offer language classes, advice and support. People bring in letters they have received in need of help with translation, or asking what they need to do. 

There is a constant supply of tea and biscuits at the project‘s weekly drop-in. Held each Tuesday lunchtime at Blackburn’s Wesley Hall Methodist Church, it is an open invitation for the refugees and asylum seekers who use ARC‘s services to come and say hello. 

At the table in front of us, amidst the sweet treats, are children’s books. To the left, through the double doors, there is a play area for the children of attendees to be entertained, while their parents meet friends or seek advice. This is where these books have come from, but they’re not being played with. Instead, they are used to teach English. One Arab woman is carefully running her finger underneath each of the words as a volunteer helps her with pronunciation when she gets stuck. Education isn’t one-way. As she learns a new word in English, the woman translates it into Arabic. She reaches for a word, unsure of its Arabic meaning. 

“Can any Arabic speakers help us here?” the volunteer calls out to the room. Five women come to the table, eager to assist in any way they can. 

The demand to speak English, at all times, is seen as being an identifier of one’s desire to integrate. Yet, there is little understanding of how language is used, among almost all immigrant communities, to adopt and adapt to a new culture whilst evolving into a new identity. 

As you sit with a comforting cup of tea, the surrounding languages wash over you. One man is Kurdish. I start talking to him because I overhear a conversation he has with an Iranian woman who is coming to the drop-in for the first time. He speaks five languages, he explains. He’ll often change language based on who he’s speaking to and is conscious that his ability to adapt his language makes the other person feel at ease. I note that he’s doing this to me in perfect English. “I use Arabic in business”, he says. He nods at the woman he was chatting to. “I only speak a little Farsi”. 

On my other side is a Somali woman. She only speaks three languages, she says, and here she’ll mainly use Arabic with people who aren’t confident in English. The woman next to her nods and agrees. She also uses Arabic here, but she’ll also use French. She’s Moroccan, and in Morocco they speak Darija, a more modern and vernacular form of Arabic, French alongside a more formal Arabic. Where she lived they also spoke Italian. She shrugs. It’s entirely normal for her to change her language based on where she is and who she’s talking to. 

A felt playmat covered by a road layout is being explored by a 21-month-old, patiently weaving a car along the fabric streets. His mother is B and he is her youngest, and the only one of her three children born in England. The older ones were eight and five when they left Albania. As they started school they learned English, but she still uses Albanian when she speaks to them at home, and a little Turkish. 

Now 14 and 11, they speak to their youngest sibling in English to help him prepare for nursery. For their mother, she is heartened by their grasp of languages, especially English. But she worries they will forget about Albanian. 

“I forget the Albanian a little, so I speak (it) at home. My daughter is speaking in Albanian and any word she forgets, she says it in English. She learnt English very quickly, they are both (her older children) very good in English. But, with both of them, I speak Albanian at home because it is my language. It is my language and where they come from, they will forget it if they do not speak it”. 

Language is so much a part of where we come from: this chain that stretches through our mothers and fathers, for so many of us who chart our ancestors from distant shores. My grandmother, having left Palestine in 1956 with her two children and husband, continued to speak French, Arabic, Italian and English on the phone to her siblings. She taught my brother and I French because, as a French Arabic family, she wanted us to have that tie through language to our heritage and culture. She wanted to be able to speak to her grandchildren in her mother tongue. As a child in England, this made me feel deeply disconnected to my peers. In a class of 30, only one other child had another language spoken in their family. There is a strangeness when you travel to find yourself in a culture that is at once home and not home, purely because of language. The first time I visited Morocco, I was submerged in a linguistic culture that I instantly understood and recognised. The blend between French and Arabic was second nature and I settled in at once. “Where are you from?” became not a question of suspicion, but one of genuine curiosity. It’s a statement saying - you’re one of us, aren’t you? 

 In teaching me her language, my grandmother taught me about a culture in ways I struggle to articulate. She rooted me in the global Palestinian diaspora, but in a way that tied to me to other French Arabic people around the world. She passed down language as she passed down stories, recipes, jewellery and expression. 



Back at ARC, S is watching a table tennis game being played. It is mainly the men who hang round in this large room at the back of the church. A young Muslim, his mother has, he thinks, had the biggest impact on his use of language. 

“If your mum and dad don’t speak a language, it becomes very hard to learn it or speak it”, he says. When his mother came to England, he explains, she spoke Pashto, but because so many spoke Urdu in Blackburn, she learnt that along with English. Now, she struggles to remember some words in Pashto. He worries he’ll never learn it, and the language his mother grew up speaking will be lost to him. 

As determined as everyone here is to learn English - many take the advanced level class and go on to college - they also, privately, recognise English as a place where you must be careful what language you speak and where. But language connects them with home, while also laying the ground for their life in a new community. Blackburn has a rich multiculturalism thanks to its history as a cotton town and the people who came to take work in its mills.  In this new home, the languages they speak are a way of forging new bonds, new friends, new hearths and new homes. Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, Arabic. Here, language is a unifier, as useful and welcoming a gesture as an outstretched hand. It represents a shared experience, it’s a symbol of camaraderie.  



That we use language in different ways, depending on the people we are with is a fundamental element of linguistics. Yet when that language is another tongue, it has a cultural dimension. There are sides of your culture you turn on and off and there’s a way you present yourself using language.  


Wesley Hall Methodist Church, Blackburn



Jaffer Hussein works as Children and Young People’s Participation Officer at Blackburn with Darwen Council. He’s also the Chair of Creative Connections and Vice Chair of the Lancs BME Network. “It’s often advocated that, if you live in the UK, you should try your hardest to learn English and to converse in English. As a British Pakistani I believe you should speak English. But it can also put me at a disadvantage - if I’m not able to utilise my mother tongue, I will miss out on conversations with people.” 

A decade ago, Jaffer was a youth worker. He had two groups of young people, from two different places in Blackburn and two ethnically diverse groups; one from Whalley Range was predominantly Asian, the other from Mill Hill was mostly white. He hadn’t quite realised how much he changed the way he spoke to connect with the youngsters until both groups came together on a residential trip. 

“With the Asian group I used a combination of Punjabi and English, along with a lot of body language to get my point across.The young, British, white teenagers I was working with didn’t want that. They expected a standard English”. 

Looking through a white lens, the desire to learn English is about fitting in, to be able to work and learn in English. Back at ARC, V is in the advanced English class. She likens it to living in the Congo, where French was the language of administration, but it was different from the language she spoke within her own community, on the bus and in her own home. 

Jumping between languages, or code-switching, makes sense when you grow up in an immigrant community. It’s also seen in the use of accents: how we modify our own to either fit in, or make ourselves sound different to stand apart. Jaffer explains, this is a natural state for the immigrant, “it makes sense to us as a community and it draws us together. You turn it on and off”. 

“As I was growing up, if I was with this group of people I’d need to use this type of access or speak a certain way. At other times, I’d have to be completely different. People will have a perceived notion of me, I can’t change that. I can influence how I speak, using slang or more Punjabi, but I’m not going to speak a certain way just to make one group happy”. 

Yet the awareness of how your speech may be received, and to be aware of it, is usually a responsibility that falls disproportionately on non-white shoulders. The response, certainly among the young people Jaffer works with in Blackburn, is to create something entirely new. 

“Young people have more control over their language and use it in a very fluid way. There’s a real mix, that I’m noticing, of Punjabi and English being used in the same sentence”. 

An entirely new language, being created to represent a second and third generation community that’s being treated as not quite English, yet not quite of their parents homeland either. Jaffer doesn’t speak Punjabi as well as he’d like when he goes to Pakistan, in the same way I don’t speak Arabic as well as I’d like, so in some ways we’re in this strange borderless, motherless country where we’re not one or the other. Perhaps this is a power. Transforming and changing our mother tongue so that it represents the mashed up, blended identity we’re growing into. Maybe that’s how the barriers get knocked down. 


Laura Marie Brown is a freelance writer specialising in art, culture, place and regeneration. Based in Liverpool, Laura writes extensively on art and artists, accessibility, the identity of place, culture, diversity, feminism and David Bowie. She also runs a consultancy specialising in arts marketing and digital communications. Laura’s website provides further information and she is @MsLaura_Brown. Photographs, including the cover of this issue, are by Laura.