Language and Diplomacy (aka The Importance of Knowing Urdu)

The Iranian captain took a risk and used Urdu and the navy “just happened” to have an Urdu speaker on board – this is the story at the heart of the rescue of thirteen Iranian fisherman who were captured by Somali Pirates.

And what a story it is! Iran is a country that is understood primarily through its infamous leader and is not a favorite of the United States. Westerners rarely think of the amazing heritage that comes out of Iran – the history, the beauty of carpets, the delight of the cuisine, and something that must be mentioned – the stunning beauty of Iranian women. I once said to one of my Iranian friends: “When God created women, first he made Iranian women, and after that he didn’t have much beauty left over for the rest of us”. All this is mostly unknown to the western world who view Iran through the lens of a misunderstood veil and Ayatollah’s that make news through sometimes outrageous comments.

The tension between the two countries sparks and sizzles, occasionally bursting into a full flame. This story is an unlikely story of diplomacy on the high seas and of the importance of language and diplomacy. It was on Thursday that the US Naval ship heard a distress call from the Iranian vessel. The fisherman had been captured for six weeks, complying and biding their time, praying and hoping for rescue. The Iranian captain used Urdu, a language that the pirates did not understand, to communicate the need for help to the naval ship. A linguist aboard the ship who understood Urdu was able to translate the message and the result was a rescue of the fisherman and capture of  fifteen pirates.

To give context to how amazing this is, it might help to hear a well-known joke among expatriates:

What is a person who knows two languages called? Bilingual

What is a person who knows three languages called? Trilingual

What is a person who knows one language called? An American

It’s sad but true. Americans are not known for linguistic skill. Our geographic isolation on the world map puts us in a place where learning a second language is not a high priority. To my knowledge, there is no federal law that requires schools to offer a foreign language. It is left up to individual states to decide if and when a foreign language will be offered. Often when a language is available it is not until seventh or eighth grade and at that point a child is about 13 or 14 years old. The chances of them picking up anything more than a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ during a 45 minute school period is minimal. It is quite tragic. But this story is not a story of tragedy but a story of linguistic skill responding in a potentially fatal situation and changing the outcome dramatically.

When we speak the language of another, we speak to their heart. “You know our language?” they may say with delight, thoroughly surprised that someone from America is familiar with Hindi, or Urdu, or Arabic or Farsi. While there are a myriad of ways to communicate beyond verbal communication, there is something about language and voice that connects us.

In my work I see error and tragedy averted continuously through good interpreters who skillfully navigate between doctor and patient and nurse and patient, helping to prevent miscommunication and increase understanding. It is a different kind of diplomacy and while it doesn’t hit the news, it is as tremendous as the rescue of the thirteen Iranian fisherman.

The end of the story put a smile on my face. Iran “welcomed the rescue of 13 Iranian sailors by a U.S. Navy ship, calling it a ‘humanitarian act.'”(CNN)  The picture I have in my mind of American navy men waving at Iranian fisherman headed home, smiling, wearing USS Kidd Navy ball caps?  Now that’s a picture of diplomacy.

Bloggers Note: The author wishes to confess that she speaks Urdu and Arabic enthusiastically but poorly and would never have been able to rescue the fisherman. She could however let the pirates know in fluent Urdu that they were completely uncivilized!

25 thoughts on “Language and Diplomacy (aka The Importance of Knowing Urdu)

  1. While it is true that many Americans only speak English, it was only when I lived in Spain that I realized how much easier it is for Europeans to be able to immerse themselves in another language than it is for Americans. It’s much easier to be motivated and to have the resources to learn another language when you only have to drive 3-4 hours to be in another country. I heard that particular ‘one language’ joke from one very arrogant Spaniard young man who spoke three languages. How? His mother was French, his father, Spaniard and his parents had the means to send him to an American school in northern Spain.

    I have yet to meet an American who does not wish they were bilingual. If you have had the fortune to learn another language, think about it. Did you have the incredible blessing of living in the country, immersed in, surrounded by the language? Or did you have to seek out native speakers, push past the barrier of those speakers who would rather be learning English than helping you learn their language and try to isolate yourself from friends and family who only spoke one language?

    Don’t you think it’s kind of ‘reverse snobbery’?


    1. Ok – good call. I do see the view where it could feel like reverse snobbery and I’ve never lived in Europe but your experience in Spain makes complete sense. I guess I’ve met many Americans who, in passing, are English only folks which I’ve never been able to understand and I know there are some strong feelings around language. I think some of my take comes from being in Egypt where there were a number of Americans that really didn’t want to learn Arabic. They were absolutely fine with English and the idea that you would spend time learning another language didn’t cross their minds. You described well the challenges to learning a second language in the U.S – trying to seek out a native speaker who really would rather practice English than help teach another language. Thanks for the food for thought!


  2. Before Christmas I was at the mall with my daughter-in-law and niece one day. I was sitting down waiting as they both plunged into the narrow spaces between racks of winter coats, and suddenly I realized that I was hearing another language spoken. I did not understand it, but when the speaker (a woman) appeared out of the aisle of winter coats, I looked up and smiled at her. I then asked her, “Are you speaking Arabic?” She got the biggest look of surprise and delight on her face and replied, “You KNOW that I am speaking Arabic?! HOW is that?!” I, embarrassed that I could not actually speak to her in Arabic, sheepishly explained that my sister lived in the Middle East and I had been around her when she was speaking Arabic. The woman was completely astonished, and after explaining something to her friend, who apparently did not know much English, she looked at me again and said something like, “but this is wonderful!” Before we could say much more, the young women appeared and the business of the place absorbed all of us and the moment was gone. But I cannot forget the look on the woman’s face when she realized that I KNEW she was speaking Arabic–it was priceless! And it was a reminder, yet again, that to people from other cultures their language is a part of their identity and it honors them even just to recognize what they are speaking, even if not what they are saying!


    1. Love this story. My guess is you have had the same thing happen to you with Urdu except that with Urdu you could surprise even further with being able to actually communicate. It’s so true that language is a key part of the identity of immigrants.


  3. Marilyn – once again you have written well and prodoundly about connecting with people through language or through love. May your tribe increase! Keep writing.


    1. Dave, great to hear your voice here! Thank you! You well know the power of language through your overseas work. Thanks for the vote of confidence in my continuing to write. It’s huge!


  4. Marilyn, your last remarks reminded me of the time we were robbed on a train in Pakistan and I came out with Urdu (which I never studied) that astounded me and the others in our compartment. It was all by osmosis, I guess. Anyhow, everyone knew my purse had been snatched. Long live the ability to connect in other languages!


    1. I love this story Bettie! I always used to bemoan to Cliff that my Arabic and Urdu were so perfect when I got angry and I struggled when I was trying to communicate other things! A lot to think about there.


  5. Ah, but Sindhi is the language of heaven according to our teachers and friends! And it is a really beautiful language. Learning it first when we arrived in Pakistan made learning Urdu a lot easier. I love your final comment, Marilyn. Some of the most effective communicators we knew didn’t speak that correctly, but even tho they sometimes really messed up the grammar, they communicated their love and respect so fluently that everyone understood them. One of my best memories is of sitting with a group of Pakistanis after a church meeting in a home. Your Dad and I were the only foreigners there, and we were just sitting around drinking chai and chatting. The conversation turned to some of the common language bloopers made by foreigners when learning the language, and sometimes long after. Everyone had a story, and we had our own about ourselves. It all started when Dad said in Urdu, “this lalachi chai is really delicious.” He did it on purpose as a joke knowing the right word is elachi (cardamom) and everyone laughed about the “greedy chai”. And we kept on laughing as one after another told their stories. I realized how far we had come in our cultural adaptation that these Pakistani brothers and sisters weren’t treating us like foreigners, but really like one of them. A precious memory out of many.


    1. The script of Sindhi and Urdu is the same but Sindhi is very close to Kutchhi which was my paternal grandparent’s language. I did speak it pretty well then because I learnt it from my great aunts, but no one in my family from my father’s generation onwards spoke it so it sort of died out after the aunts passed away. I do understand some of it now and some Sindhi because of it but not much. Growing up in Bombay though it is strange how many languages we pick up Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, etc, Now in Kuwait I have had the advantage of picking up a sprinkling of Arabic :).


    2. I love the story and love that you shared it here! As I read Pari would like some of that “lalachi chai!” I think the best part of the story though is the ease and comfort with which people shared that night, knowing they had a relationship with you and you would not be offended!


  6. Once, years ago, my brother and I were driving across the border between the US and Canada just north of Seattle. It was a rather convoluted day. We had with us another friend Josh. The three of us had grown up together in Pakistan. Josh, with a newly acquired pilot’s license had flown up to Vancouver to see us. We were driving him back down to Seattle. The border guard was a little confused, my brother in the driver’s seat did most of the talking. How had Josh come to be in Canada? How long had Josh been in Canada? How long would we be in the US? How did we know each other? Pakistan? How long were you all in Pakistan? Who was the woman in the back seat? Your sister? What language do they speak in Pakistan? Do you speak Urdu? Did Josh speak it? Does your sister speak Urdu? “Oh, she does… ok, then. Have a nice day!” Neil and I always laugh at that story. It was as if the border guard needed to hear that we could speak Urdu before he’d allow us entrance to the US!!

    We always sort of assumed that Urdu was the language of heaven but we had no idea of it’s earthly powers….!!


  7. From now on I am going name anyone who knows just one language “American” :D

    language really is beautiful
    and urdu is one my favorites :)
    I guess I am lucky that Maldives is located where it is :)
    our close proximity to India meant we grew up watching hindi movies.
    So Hindi I can manage. and then Urdu is not much different.
    Arabic we have to learn – to atleast read (by default).
    We have our own language and then English is the medium of teaching.
    and then I dabbled in a bit of French:)
    What does that make me???

    I guess I can safely call myself trilingual :)
    and I feel bad for poor average “American” [really!!!]


    1. Amira – I love your kind pity on us “Americans”!! Thank you! And you are so right about where you live, you can’t afford to isolate yourselves and it comes through linguistically. You add a lot to the conversation – thank you!


  8. The last part has me chuckling. Often people learn the colourful words in a language before they learn any others. The comment about the beauty of Iranian women, has half of me blushing, while most of the post makes me ponder.
    What is wonderful about this incident is, that once again it shows the triumph of humanity above all else. Nothing is lost till humanity in humans is the deciding factor.


    1. I had you chuckling, blushing, and pondering all in the same post?! Amazing!! I think this is the first time I hit all three of those things! But I loved the story as well. And of course there are more stories like this although they don’t make the news. I also love that you will be having yourself some “greedy chai” a little later! Enjoy that!


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