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Poets reach for the muse in the mother tongue

Inspiration was sadly lacking when Asian children in Bradford first began a project to celebrate their heritage in verse. "When we started our poems our vocabulary was weak - until we used the Urdu language," explains Afshan Raheem.

"It gave us more feeling and we all thought of better words. Urdu language gives more feeling to people, it touches their hearts."

Afshan had been struggling with her poetry writing while looking at a screen filled with images from Asian culture. Then someone in her group of writers suggested an Urdu translation would be appropriate, and suddenly everyone's writing took on more power and vitality.

The children from Scotchman Middle School in Bradford had begun to use their mother tongue, the language of home, as a sort of Thesaurus to improve their English expression.

Ummar Hanif explains: "I was given a line to translate: 'for the feeling of the cause of that guilt haunts you forever'. When I got to the word 'haunt' in the dictionary, the Urdu word Ahseyb Zahda came up, which also means miserable and tortured, and with that word I created two more lines in English."

The Scotchman children from Years 7 and 8 were writing their poems for a Young People's Mushaira at Cartwright Hall, the city's art gallery. Mushaira is an Urdu word for a gathering where poets perform their work, and such gatherings are very popular in the sub-contin ent.

People in the audience can join in with a chorus and shout "Wa! Wa!" if they approve. Sometimes they will demand that a verse is repeated.

Mushairas have been held at Bradford Central Library, but always for adults. The library has had a young people's creative writing competition in mother-tongue languages for some years, so a Mushaira for young people at Cartwright Hall was a natural next step.

Children from Scotchman, Frizinghall Middle School and Heaton Middle School were invited to attend, and there was no insistence on using mother tongues. Word got round quickly because other schools were soon asking if they could join in.

The stimulus came from the new Transcultural Gallery at Cartwright Hall. Children were introduced to a wonderful array of models, pictures, tiles and tapestries from the sub-continent and models of Bradford landmarks by an Asian artist.

Some of the poems had an element of Urdu, some were half English and half mother tongue, and some had only a snatch of mother tongue. Faizun Rehman Nisa, of Frizinghall School, wrote a poem with verses in English, Urdu and Hinko, the dialect she speaks at home.

Children at all three schools are constantly encouraged to use their home language in the classroom, and Scotchman pupils are famous for their bilingual Shakespeare with entire scenes in Urdu. They have even performed play extracts in Stratford for teachers on RSC courses.

Janet Feather, head of English at Heaton, says that children at her school are used to working in their mother tongue. When they are in small groups, conceptual understanding is much easier.

After visiting all three schools, the nearest parallel I can think of is listening to the conversations in an Amsterdam caf - the slipping from one language to another with little in the way of hesitation.

Ebad Mirza, headteacher at Frizinghall, says: "The priority is English, no question of that. But why should children lose their languages? If you were born in India you would learn Hindi, the main language; you would probably learn Urdu; you would learn English; and if you lived in the Gujerat you would learn Gujerati. You naturally grow up with three, four or even five languages.

"It's the same for our children at the moment. They naturally have the Punjabi or Urdu at home, and at school they learn English and French. They are British Asians now: they dream in Punjabi and they dream in English. I've dreamt in Urdu or English, depending on what the dream is about.

"I think the Urdu poems are much more expressive and deeper in meaning. There is a difference in the quality and beauty of the work. If you know more than one language you can dip into the other concepts of the word, from one language to another. You can get greater meaning. "

Children at Frizinghall wrote "partner poems" rather than trying for an exact translation. Shahtay Khan wrote a poem in English about Pakistan, "My Land Pakistan", then wrote a sister poem in Urdu on what she likes about England. "It has to express the same meaning and have the same depth," Shahtay explains. "People shouldn't get the wrong idea about anything we write. I wanted to write a poem in Urdu because I had never done it before. My Urdu poem was almost twice as long as the English."

Paula Kellett of Heaton Middle translated a poem about Bradford's many cultures into Latvian. "My grandmother came here from Latvia in the war," she says. "She taught my mum Latvian, and Latvian was her first language.It's also my first language - we speak it at home. I had to change some of the words to keep the meaning."

The poems were presented with some sublime, sharply executed choreography, with languages and movement given equal weight as the children performed in a large gallery with a statue of Edmund Cartwright, the Victorian inventor, looking on.

Their writing had received a massive boost from the wonderful array of exhibits and the vibrant, powerful mix of languages.

The demands of performance, they readily admitted, had also sharpened their thinking.

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