Nabeela Ahmed: Multilingual Poetry in the Classroom

Last month a young man from my library creative writing session said his teachers told his parents to stop speaking in Nigerian and Gaelic with him when he was a child as he got confused between them, and now he understands Nigerian, no Gaelic and only speaks English. This advice was common in schools in the 70s and 80s in areas where people of various ethnicities settled.

I see the flip side of this when I am teaching adults ESOL and they self-censor and try hard to speak only in English with the hope that their children will better be able to fit in to British society. This advice and attitude have cost children access to other languages, rich literatures and strong identities that are a part of them. Research has since proven that if children have a solid foundation in their mother tongue, they will acquire additional languages with ease.

Despite our Differences, a tale of a grandfather and granddaughter and their love stories, one’s dilemmas are inter-racial, the other impacted by the two extremes of Islam. Set in Pakistan.

I am a multilingual poet and spoken word artist and always receive a warm welcome to the mixture of my languages, no matter who the audience are. I wanted to work with children and give them the opportunity to write poetry in not just standard English, but in all the languages and dialects that were a part of them. I discussed my idea with the Bradford Hub Manager for the National Literacy Trust and together with his team we created a strand of the Young Poets Programme that was purely focussed on multilingual poetry. Last year, each participating school took a trip to The Brontes’ Parsonage and followed a scheme of work, focussing on multilingual poetry, before my visit. My workshops fitted around where the students were at with their work, from building on incomplete poems, to editing, performance skills and sharing their poems with the class.

The results were heart-warming. Children added words from Mancunian and Yorkshire dialects, whole sentences in Romanian and Lithuanian and lots of words in Arabic, Urdu, Slovak, Gujrati, Polish and more. I shared a poem about Ramzaan and the children guessing the words ahead screamed them in unison. The teachers’ faces repeatedly lit up. In one session they said, ‘They never engage in poetry like this in class.’ We all know it has little to do with the teachers and perhaps a little more to do with what they are stipulated to teach. One teacher shared her own poem with a mixture of Welsh. The children asked her a hundred questions and she couldn’t stop smiling.

A poem can be about how they feel about something and words that sum up that feeling, but can’t be translated into English. One of the children described his happy place as where he is hush. Other things to try are to write about food, festivals and rituals for different occasions. Often there is no substitute word in English for them without writing a whole sentence. In the New Year I have commitments through Authors Abroad with an International School in Hong Kong and one in Aberdeen who want to run workshops with their children to encourage more use of their mother tongues when writing poetry. Local primary schools have invited me to work with the children who win the writing competitions. I am happy to lead these sessions, but I hope my role will be a short-lived one and every teacher will have a go at incorporating the languages of the children in their class into the poetry sessions, and make this a mainstream exercise accessible to every child.

Nabeela Ahmed

Nabeela Ahmed is a writer, storyteller, multilingual poet and spoken word artist. She writes and shares her work in English, Urdu and Pahari. Her poetry was the main feature of Keighley Arts and Film Festival in 2020. She has had poems published in England, America, Pakistan and India. Her poetry manuscript was shortlisted by Verve Poetry Press in 2022. She teaches creative writing and multilingual poetry workshops through the National Literacy Trust, Authors Abroad and her local library and schools.

Keighley Arts and Film Festival performance in 2020

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