Whenever I hear someone speak Panjabi really well, in particular on a public platform, a debate normally starts off at home as to where they were born/background etc. This recently happened when I heard a speech by MP, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi and was super impressed with his command of Panjabi. Earlier this week, I was privileged to have met him at the Houses of Parliament to find out more about his love of languages – all 8 in fact!
Firstly, what’s your background and how do you speak Panjabi so well?
I was born and raised in the UK, in the area of Chalvey. When I was four and a half I went back to India to study. I attended a boarding school in Mohali and also spent a year at the Dashmesh Academy in Anandpur Sahib. This helped me get a good grounding of Panjabi.
My parents took the conscious decision to ensure that I learnt Panjabi as they wanted me to have the best of both worlds. Mainly so that I could converse well but also keep a cultural tie. I came back from India at the age of nine and it was then that my family moved to Gravesend in Kent. This is where I did the rest of my schooling, whilst there my parents encouraged me to do a GCSE and A-Level in Panjabi and AS Level in RE Sikhism. Because of my interests in languages and culture I ended up doing an A-Level in French and in German, as well as a GCSE in Latin. Achieving an A* in them all!
I truly believe that the cementing of my Panjabi came from the home. The family atmosphere matters a lot. Even amongst my siblings, we have taken the conscious decision to speak Panjabi to one another. As everything from work life, school life, emails, and even whatsapp are all done in English, it’s essential that we make the effort at home.
Do you think being bilingual/multilingual has helped you in your career?
100%. It’s helped to break down barriers, not just communication but cultural barriers as well, showing that a person is more culturally aware and culturally sensitive. Some people may not have a great command of English, some may not have a great command of Panjabi or Urdu etc. However, by being multilingual helps to bring people closer together.
Do you think it’s important for children to learn Panjabi?
Absolutely, I think it’s very important. Identity is very contextual. Children should feel proud of their shared heritage and there really is no excuse for not learning your ancestral language. When I was the Mayor of Gravesham, my mayoral theme was integration. Promoting that individuals should be proud of their distinct identity as well as of their shared heritage.
What do you feel could be done further to encourage more children to learn the language?
Once again, I truly feel that the cementing of it starts at home. It’s up to us as individuals or as a family whether we want to preserve or promote something that we have ancestrally, be it the values or language. Everything has become so accessible that there really is no excuse for not learning Panjabi. For someone to say they can’t learn their mother tongue, an ancestral language or even learn other languages, that is something I don’t agree with because we have the resources, we have the opportunities, especially living in Britain where we are global on our outlook. If you want to watch a film in Spanish, you can go to an art cinema etc. Schools are great at promoting modern languages and most towns run Panjabi schools in their local Gurdwaras.
Panjabi books, the arts, radio stations and television programmes all add to the learning. As a child I would love to flick through the Des Pardes and Panjab Times, not necessarily to read the News items but for the jokes.
Finally, my students would like to know. If you came round for roti, what would be your ideal meal?
I’d have to say makki di roti and saag, with achaar and piyaaz!
Follow Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi on social media @TanDhesi or visit his website www.tsdhesi.com