Preserving the mother tongue comes as a means of maintaining identity, communication with family and resistance—for those living away from their countries of origin.
According to recent statistics, in 2019, there were approximately two million economically active foreigners and 110 thousand economically active citizens in Qatar.
With 80% of the country being made up of non-Qatari nationals, the plethora of different cultures and languages the Gulf state contains makes for an interesting case study. However, as with any case of living in a country in which your mother tongue is not the national language, many families and individuals have found different ways to preserve their own cultures and vernaculars.
Speaking to three people from different backgrounds, Doha News dives into their worlds as they journey through—seeking to preserve their identities, resisting unjust structures and maintaining links with their loved ones by way of their mother tongues.
Of the communities in Qatar that have increased exponentially, is the Bangladeshi community, which witnessed a stark 190% rise in demographics—going from 137,000 people in 2013 to an estimated 400,000 in spring 2019.
Preservation as resistance
“For me, the Bengali language—with respect to both dialects that I grew up with—are a form of resistance to me, a form of power and identity. I would not necessarily find a lot of understanding or reflection within the Bangladeshi flag, but I do find that within the language I find history and untold stories, and I think that is quite powerful,” Munadiah expressed to Doha News, a London born Bengali who is currently studying at Hamad bin Khalifa University.
Growing up around two different Bengali dialects, with her mother being from Sylhet and her father being from Dhaka, Munadiah explained how it was crucial for her parents that she learns both dialects.
“Not growing up in a country where people spoke my mother tongue produced a massive barrier in me communicating the language. Especially when I was younger, my parents put a lot of emphasis on speaking Bengali,” she added.
“Having access to my grandparents [played a very important role in maintaining the language] because within my immediate home we did not necessarily speak Bengali every day, but to communicate with my grandparents and wider family it was really important [as it was a way to understand one another],” Munadiah noted.
In Tower Hamlets, a London borough where the Bangladeshi community have rooted themselves for decades, the effects of austerity and gentrification are causing the slow erasure of once flourishing cultural and ethnic identities, Munadiah finds a way to keep ahold of her mother tongue and what it represents.
The importance of the Bengali language resides in the reason behind “why Bangladesh sought its independence in 1971 and the liberation war,” she tells Doha News.
“[The liberation war] was predominantly based on this idea of preserving the language of the land and languages in general since we do not limit to a certain dialect or one spoken language, especially when considering that Bangladesh is a nation state that was essentially cut up from different parts [of other states].”
“I am not a massive advocate for nationalism but I do understand the significance of language in the building of the nation state of Bangladesh,” Munadiah added.
Language, family and roots
Speaking to Doha News, Ibtihal Mohammed, a Somali-national born and raised in Qatar, recounts her experience growing up in an environment other than Somalia, “growing up in Qatar, the only familiarity and closeness with my language was felt when I engaged with my family.”
“Sadly I have never had the chance to visit Somalia but I am sure it will feel strange hearing a large number of strangers speak Somali as I only associate my mother tongue with my immediate house in Qatar,” the 26-year-old added.
In an attempt to cement the Somali language in their home away from home, Ibtihal said that her parents “implemented a strict ‘Somali-only’ rule which meant that her and her siblings were only allowed to speak in Somali at home.
“I think it is important to note that, I am grateful to have maintained my Somali language, as it is the one part of my identity that resonates within me very strongly,” Ibtihal told Doha News, further adding that she has been unable to fully embrace my culture given her life away from it.
“Despite the thousands of kilometres between my Somali-based family and I, my preserved language offers a beautiful way to maintain the bond and find ways to relate to one another,” Ibtihal explained.
With language being the grounding foundation of which certain communities relate to one another and strengthen their connections between one another, 21-year-old Armina relays her struggles in connecting with her culture, “I have grown up in Qatar my whole life, away from family, culture and language. As a result, it has always been very hard for me to connect to my roots as I do not speak the language easily.”
Armina’s family moved to Qatar when she was only four months old, rendering her upbringing an amalgamation of cultures. Due to the several languages she had to juggle, Armina feels very much like a “third culture kid” because she feels no complete sense of belonging to any certain language or identity.
“Growing up, I always had to speak one word in English, one word in Arabic and one word in Farsi to express myself,” she recounted, emphasising the difficulty of preserving any one single language or culture when encompassing many.
According to reports, the Iranian population in Qatar as of 2013, is estimated to be at 30,000.
With the Iranian demographic in the Gulf state being relatively small, Iranian families find ways to nurture the national language in their homes.
Armina’s parents would ensure they spoke Farsi at home, and upon picking English and Arabic up from her classmates and teachers at the international school she attended, her parents would give her incentives, such as “offering different candies to say words in Farsi rather than in English”, in order to preserve the cultural language.
Limited to only speaking Farsi conversationally, Armina says that she is fortunate for being able to speak the language but cannot write in it.
“At home, my sister and I only speak in English when my parents are not around,” the 21 year old tells Doha News, as it is more convenient for the two to engage in a readily-used language due to its constant usage upon stepping outside their home. The two speak in Farsi only when conversing in the presence of their parents.
To Armina, her mother tongue represents her “origins.”
Reflecting on what it means to preserve the language, she said, “It means my roots and hence my culture. It is part of my identity and strongly influences who I am today. When I speak the Farsi language, I feel like I have a different identity as opposed to when I speak in English or Arabic. The mother tongue is the language you first learn to say mom or dad with and I strongly connect with such sentiment.”