Don’t Kill Your Language

As I was curating data for the class’ tumblr, I stumbled upon this brilliant TEDxBeirut talk from November 2012 by Suzanne Talhouk titled “Don’t Kill Your Language.” Suzanne Talhouk is the founder of the Non-governmental Organisation Feil Amer (Arabic for ‘Order Verb’) that seeks to save the Arabic language and rise it to where it was a couple of decades ago.

The Arabic title for the video is “Meen ‘al iza hkina arabeh mn battel cool?” and it hits the nail right on its head seeing as the majority of Lebanese people avoid speaking Arabic so that they don’t sound old fashioned and uncool. It’s not just in business meetings; even the closest friends and family members would rather speak a broken French or English than be heard say a full sentence only in Arabic. Talhouk starts her talk by asking the audience if any of them wrote their name on their nametag in Arabic. No one says yes. She then goes on and starts telling a story about how one time she was in a restaurant and she asked the waiter for “leihit al akel” instead of saying “menu.” He didn’t understand her request. When she explained even more, still only using Arabic, he accused her smugly of not knowing what it’s called, and pulled a disgusted face, “You don’t know what they call it?” He said. They. Who they? Us? The Arabs? It’s funny because she knows more than him what they call it. While he only knows the international word, she knows the Arabic term, and that by itself is rich. The waiter is Lebanese mind you, in a restaurant in Lebanon. The diners were Lebanese too. All from the same Arab country. And yet he judged her. He assumed that she’s uncultured, uneducated, illiterate, ignorant…

“I’m not allowed in my own country to speak my own language?”

This video made me sad. It made me feel ashamed. Ashamed of the fact that I was just last night boasting to dad about how my mate told me that he thinks my French accent is impeccable! Ashamed of the fact that instead of fixing my first language, I’m looking forward to learn a fifth (Japanese). Ashamed that my favourite hobby is reading yet I can’t read novels in my mother tongue. And I cried. This might sound like I’m exaggerating but I did in fact cry as I typed the last words of this post.

Ironically enough, the course entitled History of the English Language has made me gain interest in the Arabic language and wish to empower myself through it. And I will make actual progress.

Over the semester, I opened my eyes and carefully scanned everything around me for signs of multilingualism, broken languages, mistranslations, and humorous code-switching. I put everything I found in this tumblr. It has 26 posts in total. I will be showcasing in this blog entry a few of them.

This one is my favourite of the bunch. Although it’s not really an example of multilingualism, it shows us how English is a complicated language and can be broken into multiple languages by itself. Which brings us to this lovely article our local Raseef22 wrote about English words that are borrowed from Arabic. Unfortunately, some words foreigners were not able to borrow from us like this one that doesn’t have a direct translation in English or any other language I’m aware of. It could be because Arabs, Lebanese people mostly, are used to burying and getting buried by their loved ones? Finally, I really like this one (and I still can’t stop laughing!) mainly because I really love how exotic the word “zoulohfa” sounds even if it’s in my mother tongue. I really wonder how my future daughter would feel about me calling her that.

Multiligualism is everywhere around us that before taking this class I would often not notice that more than one language is used in a sentence. It is also the Lebanese people’s pride and joy as they leave their kids from early ages in front of educational cartoons hoping to nourish their foreign languages, stick them in international schools as soon as they reach the required age and purposely opt to speak to them in multiple languages. Who of us has not ever stumbled upon a mother speaking Libano-French to her kids at the supermarket? The funny thing about Lebanese people is even though they can speak multiple languages, they make mistakes in all of the languages they speak. But hey, at least we know more than just plain old Arabic, right?

Terms Translated From French to Arabic Change Meanings

The segment of the Multilingualism Across Disciplinary Borders conference that I chose to attend was “Milestones toward a linguistic policy” by Ramzi Abou Chacra. It fell on the second day of the conference, Tuesday April 8, at 11. Professor Vermy was taking his class to it and seeing as I didn’t have anything to do at the time, I asked him if I could join them.

Halfway through the talk, it was too late but I realised that I might have picked the wrong talk to attend. I found myself literally not understanding anything being discussed by the host and the guest speaker even though I speak both languages that they were using: Arabic, my mother tongue, and French, my second language.

The talk was mainly in French, English translation was provided, but the point behind the talk was to point out French terms and the way their definition is used by teachers in Arabic.

Abou Chacra started by stating that philosophy is taught in both French and Arabic in Lebanon. He jokingly said that it’s because the Arabic language cannot handle the heavy material by itself. In my opinion, it’s the opposite. Philosophy cannot handle how heavy the Arabic language is and that’s why it’s required to be taught in a less complicated language alongside with Arabic.

The first example discussed was the word Axiom. You can rest assured that I had no clue what this word meant. He said that it’s impossible to understand what axiom is if it’s not translated to Arabic. I let out a sigh and for a moment I believed him. He translated it to Arabic, the word in Arabic is بديهية, and laughed a bit when he saw the confusion on the faces in front of him. I’d heard that word before, numerous times, but I still didn’t know what axiom means. He went on about how sometimes we translate things to Arabic thinking we will understand them because it’s our first language and I concluded something: just because a word is familiar to you and you know how to use it, it doesn’t mean that you know how to define it. If you’re still wondering, axiom is what is obvious, but it doesn’t mean the word obvious; it’s what we shouldn’t seek an answer for.

The second example he gave was “le tiers exclu,” another expression I wasn’t familiar with. He didn’t explain it either because that wasn’t the point of his example. What he was trying to get across is that the terms from inclu and exclu in Arabic are مجموع and مرفوع. From one look, you can tell that these terms don’t have anything to do with each other. They’re not opposites even though they are literal translations of two opposite terms. مجموع means added and مرفوع means elevated. Upon digging deeper, we concluded that it’s elevated because it’s excluded and therefore it is far, and it is added because it’s included and it’s close.

Bilingualism is necessary, fruitful, and it gives more value to our mother tongue seeing as knowing another language helps us understand words from our own language better. My proficiency in both languages seems to be less advanced than I thought it is. What a shame.