Pakistani English: Sehra talks about her feelings on arriving in the UK in 1960



This recording is an example of a Pakistani English speaker.


Many bilingual speakers show a tendency to code-switch – in other words they alternate between different languages depending on the circumstances. This ‘switching’ can often occur within a single sentence. In most cases this process is subconscious, simply indicating that a speaker does not know the appropriate word in one of the languages or that perhaps no ‘translation’ exists. Listen here to the statements your father send you piyaar and love; we had, uh, shawls, you know, like what they call chador, those sort of, uh, clothes and mum, they’re picking our chil ghozah. Although Sehra speaks English in this passage, she uses the Urdu words piyaar (‘kisses’), chador (‘traditional shawl worn by Muslim women’) and chil ghozah (‘nut-pine seed’) as they more accurately reflect what she is trying to say.


Sehra clearly speaks English fluently, but some aspects of her speech show traces of interference from her first language – in Sehra’s case probably Siraiki or Urdu. Fascinatingly, many speakers who are completely fluent in a second language find that their accents are often influenced by the sound patterns of their first language unless they have been exposed to the second language early enough in their childhood. Like many speakers from the Indian subcontinent, Sehra does not always distinguish between <v> and <w>, for instance, and her intonation patterns are not consistent with native English speakers. Pronouncing a sound or series of sounds is incredibly complex – it involves deeply automatic processes, requiring minute adjustments of the lips, tongue, jaw, soft palate and vocal cords. This process is acquired up to the age of about 12 and although we continue to adapt our speech as we grow, certain processes become automatic reflexes and it becomes very difficult to change them. Sehra’s early exposure to language will have been to the sounds of Urdu rather than English, and so those sounds will be extremely natural, while newer sounds are less familiar.

Asian-English grammar

Sehra also uses a number of grammatical constructions that are typical of speakers of English from the Indian subcontinent. She uses a verb unmarked for person in the statements your father send you piyaar and love and you know what it mean and omits the indefinite article in the phrase England is cold country. She also uses unidiomatic constructions, such as when you’re a child you don’t know what’s doing and she knew it England is cold country, and she omits grammatical function words, such as the direct object in the statement where’s your mum going to take [you] or the auxiliary verb in the statements where [are] you goingyou [are] cheerfuloh my God, where [have] we entered and how long [is] it going to take. In other instances, she retains the declarative word order in interrogative constructions (questions), as in the statements you think, “Oh my God, who they are?” and I keeped saying, pestering to my mum, “Where we are now?” These features do not impede communication, but are characteristic of the English spoken by speakers of other languages. As we all probably acknowledge from learning a foreign language at school, we tend to struggle with consistently observing the detail of verb-endings and word order where these differ dramatically from our mother tongue grammar.

About the speaker

Sehra Khan (b. Multan, Pakistan; female)



Pramod: What do you remember about the day you actually left, you know, what was your leave-taking like, you know, was everyone sad, tearful, what, what do you remember?

Sehra: Yeah, leaving all of my friends behind and you don't know what, what you going to come here for, where you going, where's your mum going to take. All this, you know and my dad's letter arrived there, you cheerful and when you coming here it, really, when you're a child, you don't know what's doing and what's going to happen to you. But when we first came few, few months later didn't want to stay. Because no friends, no communication much.

Pramod: Just, uhm, just on, still on this subject, uhm, you mentioned that your father would write letters when he was over in Britain. What would he write about this country? Did, did you know, or?

Sehra: No, no, always, uh, mum said, “Your father send you 'piyaar' and love," you know, that sort of thing, that's it.

Pramod: OK. Well, we'll start, uhm, talking about when you actually came to Britain: can you remember the, the day, the place?

Sehra: Twelfth of December nineteen-sixty, twelfth of December.

Pramod: And, uhm, wh, where, where did you arrive?

Sehra: Heathrow Airport.

Pramod: What was the, what, what do you remember? Tell me a little bit about what you remember, the weather, the, things like that,

Sehra: Very cold.

Pramod: your first impressions.

Sehra: Very cold and, uh, we didn't have car, cardigans, but what we had, uh, shawls, you know, like what they call 'chador', those sort of, uh, clothes. But, uh, mum was prepared for the cold, because she knew it England is cold country, but we didn't. You know, when we see all these white people, you think, “Oh my God, who they are?" You know, when you're a child, if you see somebody tall, you think, “Oh my God, where we entered?" And I keeped saying, pestering to my mum, “Where we are now? Where's my dad, where's my dad?" She said, “We will get there." And, you know, my mum had some, in the luggage, what they call, uh, 'chil ghozah', you know. You know what it mean? No? It's like part of, uh, nuts, very little nuts. And they start picking on those, I said, “Mum, they're picking our 'chil ghozah'," you know, “why?" And they wanted to know what they are and mum ate one and that's OK.

Pramod: So that was your, the family's first encounter with British officialdom, then?

Sehra: Yeah, and then we left. When we sat in the car, then we said, “How long it going to take we, to reach where we live?" But when we seen the house we weren't please, because there was too many people at the time in one house: three families and we only had one bedroom to live in.

Pakistani English: Sehra talks about her feelings on arriving in the UK in 1960
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