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Punjabi classes enable students to reconnect with their heritage

Kim Bolan

Vancouver Sun

Friday, February 22, 2008

METRO VANCOUVER - University of B.C. biology student Daljeet Singh Mahal has never felt so connected to his Punjabi culture and heritage.

Since last year, the 21-year-old has been taking Punjabi classes at the university, in addition to his science major.

Mahal, who lives in Burnaby with parents and grandparents, already spoke his mother tongue. But the classes have greatly aided his proficiency and opened up the world of Punjabi-Canadian literature.

"It has improved my vocabulary for sure, and in terms of reading and writing, I didn't know how to do that at all before. Now I can," said Mahal, who is considering entering medicine or dentistry. "In terms of Punjabi arts and culture, to be able to read in Punjabi, I can now really understand what Punjabi culture is about."

Mahal is part of a growing trend in Metro Vancouver: more and more young people are studying Punjabi to reconnect with their heritage.

And more and more school districts, colleges and universities are offering courses in the popular language, says Balwant Sanghera, of the Punjabi Language Educators' Association of B.C.

PLEA is hosting a conference in Surrey Sunday to mark 110 years of Punjabi language education. The event, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is expected to attract more than 200 people to the Haveli Restaurant, at 8220 120 Street, to hear about the history of Punjabi in Canada and the current opportunities the language affords.

Sanghera said that public schools in Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey and Abbotsford are now offering Punjabi language classes.

"In Surrey, there are close to 1,000 students taking Punjabi classes all the way from Grades 5 to 12. That is a really big plus for us," he said.

"We are working at two levels as a community - one level is at the gurdwaras and we are working at the public school and post-secondary level."

UBC has the oldest post-secondary program, but Kwantlen University College and the University College of the Fraser Valley are also now offering Punjabi language courses to students.

"The Punjabi population has grown. It is much in demand. There are a lot of signs at city hall, hospitals, banks, credit unions and in Punjabi, they say: 'We speak Punjabi'. So it is really encouraging," Sanghera said.

There are thousands of jobs in the Lower Mainland alone in which Punjabi is needed. Some of the students are from non-Punjabi backgrounds and are learning it because of the added advantages of being bilingual, Sanghera said.

"That's why we are encouraging the kids and the parents - look there are good economic opportunities. In addition to communicating with their parents, grandparents and their extended family in Punjabi, this also has an economic impact. It is much easier for them to get a job if they know Punjabi."

Punjabi is the third most common language in Vancouver behind English and Chinese. In both Surrey and Abbotsford, it is number two.

Mahal admits there might be an economic advantage to knowing Punjabi.

"That is not what motivated me to take it, but it is an added bonus," he said.

He really loves being able to read literature without needing it translated.

"It is almost like the base of Punjabi arts is literature and poetry and to really appreciate that it is so much better to be able to read it first-hand."

Sadhu Binning is a renowned Punjabi author, as well as long-time UBC professor.

He says the Punjabi literary community in Canada is thriving, with about 400 books published over the last three decades.

"What is interesting with Punjabi literature is that the majority of the people that are living in Canada and writing either poetry or fiction, about 95 per cent of the time they are writing about their experience in Canada," said Binning, one of the PLEA conference organizers.

"So the literature they are creating is Canadian literature. But because Punjabi is not recognized as a Canadian language, they treat you as not being recognized and I think Canada could become very rich simply by saying this literature belongs to Canada."

Binning sees Punjabi language education as a tool to connect younger Indo-Canadians with the stories of their parents and grandparents.

"We hope that people will read in Punjabi and learn what the earlier generation wrote and thought about."


© Vancouver Sun

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