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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Nabeela Ahmed: NLT Multi-Lingual Poetry Project

Following on from Fay Lant’s blog post in January, we are sharing an update on the multi-lingual poetry project in Bradford from poet and teacher Nabeela Ahmed:

This project has been a dream of mine for many years now and I have been excited about the chance to work with the National Literacy Trust on making it a reality. Being aware of research which taught us that incorporating mother tongues enhances the children’s ability to learn other languages and learn in general, we were keen to offer an opportunity where they didn’t leave parts of them outside the classroom door.

The multilingual strand follows the same pattern as the rest of the Young Poets project of the children visiting an inspiring venue, in this case it was the wonderful Brontë Parsonage and the moors. This was to be followed up by teachers supported with lesson plans and resources to help children write a poem incorporating their mother tongue and dialects.

As a team we had dared to see a dream in broad daylight and it was magical to see it transpire in front of my eyes:  the final poems included words from Urdu, Romanian, Gujrati, Slovak, Arabic, Latvian, Punjabi, Italian, Bengali, Spanish and Dutch; then words from Yorkshire and Mancunian dialects. The children wrote verses about food, places and things that mattered to them, emotions and people. The girl who had moved from Pakistan to Holland then to England, adding words from each of her three languages. The boy who wrote about his sister’s house as the place he felt loved and “hush” (happy). The Bengali girl who added “Naano”, her grandmother, and the girl who wrote about Moldova – “moldova mea ie jrumosa”. Arabic and Latvian phrases rolling off their tongues, leaving their classmates mesmerised and asking for what it meant and the oh! moments with full facial expressions and noises. One girl managed to capture the essence of the differences in attitudes to food from her parents to her generation in one sentence: “from roti and salan to enchalades and banoffee pie”.

Then there was the teacher taking notes, the one who said, “this project has made me think about speaking Punjabi and then throwing in words of English when speaking to my granddad”, and the one who shared her own poem with lots of Welsh in it.

One of my favourite moments was observing each class as I shared my Kashmir to Yorkshire poem and learning which children spoke Pahari from the reactions on their faces – the involuntary smiles and giggles, the wide eyes locked on me, as though saying, “you are saying that here, in school, in the classroom?”.

I am thankful to the National Literacy Trust’s Young Poets and Bradford Hub teams for their openness to new ideas and the support they provided me throughout. The project would not have been possible without the amazing teachers and fabulous librarians who joined the trips to the Brontë Parsonage and encouraged each child to perform. They told me how the project gave them the confidence to use their own and the children’s languages and dialects in their teaching.

We are all looking forward building on this in the years ahead.

Nabeela Ahmed

The National Literacy Trust is dedicated to transforming the lives of children from the UK’s most disadvantaged communities through literacy by improving their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The Trust’s research underpins several programmes, campaigns and policy work which have supported the literacy skills of 268,490 children during the last year alone.