Young English-speaking Muslims boost preservation of heritage languages through devotional practices
Young UK Muslims are reconnecting – or in some cases, connecting for the first time – with Urdu and Punjabi as a result of their devotional practices, a new study suggests.
Writing in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Andrey Rosowsky of the University of Sheffield suggests that many young Muslims are leading the way in rejuvenating their communities’ South Asian ‘heritage languages’. This new trend goes against the usual expectation of a community’s elders being key to the transmission of culture, but is it enough to reverse the shift to speaking English rather than Punjabi and Urdu that has taken place over the last three or four generations?
Rosowsky said: "These young people use a dynamic combination of faith, singing and poetry to keep up - or even discover for the first time - their heritage languages"
The young people Rosowsky engaged with for his study were generally born in the UK, and educated at local schools and universities; eighty-two percent considered English to be their mother tongue. As part of their devotional practices and interest in Islam, these young Muslims spent time ‘discovering and listening to, recording and performing the songs and poems of their religious and language literary heritage’, often using their smartphones and tablets to curate and share their collections. Most had their interest piqued by hearing a naat or a nasheed performed live, on television or via the Internet; nearly half engaged with a naat every day.
As Rosowsky observes: “Taking part in the ritual and devotional practices … requires these young people to (re)learn the lyrics and melodies of poems and songs in their various heritage languages.”
“Where this activity differs from more general learning of languages in order to perform … is the potential for mutual reinforcement from the vestigial bilingualism of home and community as well as the possibility of supporting this (re)learning through links, physical and virtual, to the heartlands of the languages and varieties in question.”
Rosowsky concludes that although there is potential in the regular performance of devotional song in heritage languages for consolidating language use, ‘the crucial factor for maintaining heritage languages remains the presence of intergenerational transmission’. Additionally, having access to online resources, the existence of role models and a (re)connection with faith can further contribute to the preservation of these languages for Muslims living in primarily English-speaking communities.
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