Sameera Sharif knows a thing or two about how to keep a show moving.
For seven years she’s been the emcee at the Defense Language Institute’s Language Day, an annual event of cultural performances at the Presidio. Three years ago she was tapped to bring her skills to the Language Capital of the World Festival at Custom House Plaza in Monterey. (The Weekly is a sponsor.) She serves as the DLI liaison officer to the city of Monterey and organizes the festival with a committee of fellow volunteers, as well as acting as the emcee of an event that features 40-plus groups performing.
While Sharif spends the day on her feet on stage – performances run from 10:30am-6pm non-stop – festival-goers can mingle around the Custom House Plaza to enjoy food from several different cultures, and booths where people of all ages can learn a few words in different languages, or engage in some hands-on activities. The day begins with a procession of cultures with bright flags and music at 10:30am down Alvarado Street.
Originally from Pakistan, Sharif spent 17 years in England as a language assessor and educator before coming to the U.S. in 2004. She started teaching her native Urdu language to DLI students in 2005.
Weekly: What’s the benefit of having a language festival in Monterey County?
Sharif: It’s wonderful. There are pockets of festivals around Monterey, but this brings the communities together. From the start of the festival in 2015 people have formed friendships among the communities. They’re going and performing at each other’s festivals, they’ve got awareness of different cultures. Children are learning food, language, culture, dances, music, sounds, all those things, from each other, and that’s just beautiful. We have the whole world here. It’s quite an achievement for Monterey, actually.
Monterey leaders trademarked the phrase “Language Capital of the World.” Is that a fair statement?
The variety the diversity that you get here, from China to the [Indian] subcontinent to Russia to Europe to America itself, and all the South Asian countries. You’ve yet to find another festival where they have so much variety. It brings the whole world here.
What makes the Urdu language unique?
It’s a Romantic language like French. Urdu is made of Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. It was created when in the subcontinent they needed a common language. I tell my students it’s like how Yoda speaks in Star Wars – backward. That’s how Urdu is. Because in its sentence structure the verb comes right at the end. I start my lesson that way, and it immediately clicks with them.
Is it hard to learn?
Urdu is a hard language, because of the sentence structure and the grammar. We have feminine, masculine, and then we have Arabic roots for grammar and we have Persian roots for grammar. And they have to learn plural and singular, word inflections. The conjugation is quite complicated.
One thing we are very proud of: Our students come not knowing what they’ll be learning and learning from scratch. They go out in 47 weeks reading an Urdu newspaper.
In a time when the backdrop to the festival is a political climate that seeks to keep people out of the U.S., does a festival that brings different cultures together give you hope?
I’m not going to go to the political side, but what I can say is in this community, people – especially the younger one – are becoming aware of different cultures. Here in Monterey, the children of the younger generation are introduced to all these countries all year round. So they’re already aware of different cultures. Which means they’re more accommodating and thinking out of the box and making friends.
What food do you look forward to most at the festival?
I’m very biased. I’m going to say Indian food. But the Chinese is good, too.
What are the differences between Pakistani food and Indian food?
It is very close. Literally all the spices are the same.
The Language Capital of the World Festival happens 10:30am-6pm Sunday, May 7 at Custom House Plaza in Monterey. Performances and booths are free; food and drink for sale. lcowfest.com
Editor's Note: An earlier version of the article included a statement that Language Day at DLI is not open to the public. Language Day, taking place Friday, May 12, is open to the public, with ID, from 10am to 3pm. Guests park in the Lower Presidio by the Presidio of Monterey Museum on Corporal Ewing Road, and take a shuttle up to the event.