Scotland Speaks Urdu
By Gillian Harris, Scotland Correspondent
IN LESS than three months, Thomas Watters has mastered 38 letters of the Urdu alphabet, twisted his tongue around unfamiliar vocabulary and learnt to write in script.
The first-year pupil at Shawlands Academy in Glasgow is one of several non-Asian children in his class who have chosen to study a language that is not part of the mainstream curriculum but is spoken by many of their friends and neighbours.
In Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, where there are significant Asian populations, there has been a surge of interest in Urdu among Scottish pupils.
In the community where Thomas goes to school, on Glasgow’s multicultural south side, Urdu is spoken by the immigrant population, who come from Pakistan.
Last year a record number of pupils sat the Standard Grade exam. Interest in the subject has encouraged the Scottish Qualifications Authority to consider developing Higher Urdu for fifth-year students.
Reasons for learning Urdu vary, but most pupils cite the influence of Asian classmates. Thomas, 12, from Fernbank, Glasgow, said that he thought it might be useful when he was looking for a job: “I took it mainly because I thought it would be enjoyable,” he said.
“I don’t think it is different from learning any other language. It might be more useful later on because not that many Scottish people speak it.”
Tasneem Karim, head of Urdu at Shawlands Academy, believes that close relationships between children from different communities and a desire to communicate better have made pupils more willing to study an Asian language. “The Scottish children in my classes are doing just as well as the ones from Pakistan because they work hard at it,” she said.
Armed with cards made by pupils to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid, Mrs Karim pointed to Urdu script written by one girl who had lived all her in life in Glasgow and insisted that it was as perfectly produced as work by her Pakistani friend who moved to Scotland less than a year ago.
The growing influence of Asian culture is also thought to be a factor in the language’s popularity among teenagers. Bollywood films such as Bride & Prejudice and Monsoon Wedding have captured the imaginations of cinemagoers.
The growing number of pupils taking Urdu goes against a decline in the popularity of other modern languages. Scottish Executive figures show that the number of children studying a foreign language has almost halved in the past 20 years. In 1976, 12,000 pupils sat a language exam compared with 7,500 today.
In Scotland, there are many opportunities open to Urdu-speakers — of which there are 104 million worldwide — including teaching, translating, interpreting and social work.
Mrs Karim said: “These children learning it today will be able to get jobs because they have language skills.”