New Internationalist

Speaking in tongues

Issue 385

The language her daughter speaks causes Reem Haddad a good deal of soul-searching.

Sarah John
Sarah John

I’m not sure how but I have managed to produce a daughter whose sentences can only be understood by the Lebanese. For only they can understand the bizarre mix of Arabic, French and English.

‘Ana going aa’ ecole,’ (translation: I am going to school) declares three-year-old Yasmine in the mornings.

My British husband often seeks me out to translate his child’s sentences. ‘I think I know what she’s saying but I’m not sure,’ he says, looking a little ashamed. And so Yasmine repeats her mixed-up sentences and I dutifully translate.

At first, I worry. ‘By age three,’ a magazine article declares, ‘your child should make clear sentences and use proper words.’ I begin to panic. Yasmine’s sentences are far from clear. I blame myself. I decide to read her books only in one language. I put away the French and Arabic ones. Yasmine has a fit. I bring them back.

Then I decide to speak to her solely in Arabic. Not an easy task. I am a typical Lebanese who floats from one language to another. I don’t know the Arabic words for many things. I usually just use the English or French word. So I buy a dictionary and spend time looking up the proper Arabic words.

But the headmaster of her school frowns. ‘How do you expect her to compete with other children if she doesn’t speak French?’ he practically bellows. ‘Speak to her only in French.’

And so I switch to French. Yasmine continues to speak Arabic but incorporates some French words here and there. And since her father only speaks English, the child’s sentences become trilingual.

‘We’re back where we started,’ I complain to my husband.

Lebanon, a French mandate between the two World Wars, is well known for its multilingual talents. Nearly a quarter of a century of French rule has strongly influenced aspects of life. French was first taught in Lebanese schools in 1834. But when American missionaries arrived in the region in the middle of the 19th century, they founded several English-speaking schools and universities. While French continued to flourish in the Christian areas, English grew increasingly popular in the Muslim regions.

During the 16-year civil war, thousands of Lebanese fled the country. Many settled in Anglo- and Francophone countries. When the war ended in 1990, many returned bringing with them French and English speaking children. There’s also a strong US influence – with the introduction of cable television, viewers here are bombarded with non-stop American films.

As a result, English and French words continue to enter the Arabic language mainstream.

Today, when registering their children at elementary schools, parents have to choose whether to put their children in an English or French section. While some class material is taught in Arabic, most is taught in the language chosen by the parents. At a certain point in school, all three languages are taught simultaneously.

Children end up imitating their parents, whose business and social conversations often contain mixed sentences. This is particularly annoying to visitors from Arab nations where Arabic is considered the main language in schools.

‘Why can’t you just stick to one language?’ asks a friend visiting from Jordan. ‘Do you think we can stick to Arabic?’

I try. But it’s hard. Conversations just don’t flow as easily. I revert to the dictionary. My friend sighs. ‘Arabic should be your main mother tongue,’ he reprimands. ‘If you want to speak English, speak purely English. If you want to speak French, speak purely French. But stop mixing them. It’s annoying and I can’t understand you.’ I’m relieved when he leaves.

When my son, Alexander, was born a year ago, I was determined to use only one language when speaking with him. I chose Arabic. I thought myself wise.

One day I was trying to coax Alexander (in Arabic of course) to follow me to the elevator. He refused to budge. Yasmine, watching us, looked at me disdainfully. Finally, she came and stood squarely in front of her brother.

‘Alexander,’ she said, ‘taa go to ascenseur. Rahan walk bil jardin maa mommy.’ (Alexander, come let’s go to the elevator. We are going to take a walk in the garden with mommy.)

An excited smile appeared on my little boy’s face as he jumped and crawled after his sister.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

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