In the mix

Linguistic mélange bi Lubnan

Much has been said and written about the Lebanese way of speaking. There is a trio of widely used languages in the country: Arabic is the homegrown one, French grew strong with colonisation, English is gaining grounds every day. A fascinating aspect of this mix of languages is the way many use them: simultaneously and interchangeably, switching mid-sentence. Mashallah News spoke to LAU professor Rula Diab about one of her specialities: the Lebanese language mix.

“Lebanon is a real multilingual country.”

How would you describe the linguistic situation in Lebanon?

Lebanon is a real multilingual country. We have Arabic of course, the Lebanese dialect which more or less everyone learns from childhood. Then French. Lebanon is still considered a francophone country by many, who think that Lebanese should be fluent in French because of the historical links. It definitely is like that for many Lebanese, who are fluent in French and see it as part of their identity. English has just become a necessity worldwide — and in Lebanon too. Even many local Lebanese employers require that you speak English well.

This has a lot to do with our education system, which gives priority to English and French. We start studying these languages very early, I’m talking kindergarten. In many schools, English or French is the language of instruction, not the Lebanese dialect of Arabic. Arabic is used in Arabic class and history only. So you have kids who since they were three years old have been exposed to English or French, every day. To many of them, Arabic becomes secondary.

That’s the case with private schools. They have very good foreign language programs and kids become trilingual or bilingual. For those who can’t afford the good private schools, things are different. In my work with the university students, I see a difference between those who went to these schools and those who went to less prestigious ones: they tend to be weaker in English and French. In Lebanon in general, there’s a very big focus on education. Everyone wants to get a university education, and parents are very keen that their kids should learn many languages.

These are skills that are connected to socio-economic conditions, right?

True. Socio-economic levels, that’s a factor from early on. We do have big problems with poverty, but it’s being forgotten. There are big problems with dropouts among these kids. Linguistically, they are not getting the same training. If parents don’t have the opportunity to send their kids to good schools, they will not get the same knowledge of foreign languages. Which is sad because language skills are very important in Lebanon today, especially English.

“You can’t survive without English, but without French you can.”

What about other factors like social context and background — how much does language depend on them?

Now, not so much. There was a time in Lebanon — and I’m talking the French mandate — when we had these missionaries coming to convert people. The French, the American Jesuits and so on. They influenced a lot. And there was a kind of rivalry. If you think of it, there still is this rivalry between francophone and English speakers. And English is really gaining grounds. What happens in Lebanon is a reflection of what’s going on outside. When we started having this emergence of English as an important language, it coincided with the growing political power of the United States. So we speak American English, not British English.

Another development is that everyone who’s learning French also must learn English. It’s not the same the other way around: we have many English-speaking students who don’t speak a word of French. You can’t survive without English, but without French you can.

What about Arabic? I’m thinking about how many Lebanese prefer to read and write in English or French, for instance. And this campaign a few years ago, asking people to not “kill their own language.”

Arabic is so interesting, and many people who are not Lebanese don’t understand how we can be fighting for Arabic. They tell me “you speak it all the time, how can it be dying?” It’s not that it’s dying but it’s not doing all that well either. The fact that people rather read in English is telling. Many people don’t have that flow of the Arabic language.

I hear many of my students say: “thank God we’re done with Arabic now, it’s so hard.” There’s this idea that English is easier. We’re not sure where it comes from, but once it gets started, kids believe in it and they’re not interested any more. The diglossia factor is one thing: the spoken Lebanese — just like any spoken dialect of Arabic — is different from the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) that we learn in school. In class, kids are expected to learn something that’s very different from what they speak at home. MSA is a fascinating variety of language, with a very rich vocabulary. But in Lebanon today, people are more exposed to English and French.

“Many people who are not Lebanese don’t understand how we can be fighting for Arabic.”

There’s a big difference between Lebanon and neighbouring Syria, where knowledge of Arabic is very good.

In Syria they know MSA very well. It has to do with education. There’s no way of getting around Arabic in Syria, you have to learn it well and become proficient. In Lebanon, it depends on where you live and what you do. There are many differences between the two countries and they go back a long time. Politics, the ideology of the regimes. And you have to look at it from a sociological point of view. In Lebanon, there’s been this desire to be associated with the West — whether it’s France or the US. The idea that we’re in an identity crisis is very true. Lebanon might be geographically small but it’s a very dynamic country.

There are similar situations in other Arabic-speaking countries as well. In many places in North Africa, the language is mixed with French, which of course you understand when you know the history. It’s also interesting how different versions of Arabic are linked to each other and how they spread. Egyptian Arabic is very well known because of media. Before, it used to spread across the region through the movies. Today, it’s the Syrian accent that’s becoming well-known because it’s used for dubbing TV shows. I teach a class in social linguistics, and one of my students gave the example that people say their attitude towards Syrians has improved because they’re now associated with these glamorous people!

“The idea that we’re in an identity crisis is very true. Lebanon might be geographically small but it’s a very dynamic country.”

Another typical thing is how Lebanese tend to switch between two or three languages when they speak.

Absolutely. That’s something called code-switching, which means mixing different languages in the same utterance. Lebanese do that all the time. We’ve gotten so used to it. In linguistics, we used to think that code-switching meant that you weren’t confident in one language. Now, we rather think that you’re sophisticated in many. In Lebanon, we often use a specific jargon from one language. Technical terms for instance — no one would say hasoob which is the Arabic term for “computer.” Using English for those terms makes more sense, because everyone’s more familiar with them. When school teaches science, biology and math in English or French, how can kids use Arabic for such terms?

It’s just something that’s part of our multilingual experience. Arabic, many see that as their emotional language. It’s part of everyday conversation, the one you use with your friends. But even there, it’s often code-switching. It’s not only Arabic, there’s a bit of English here and there, and a bit of French. Now, this depends on what group you’re talking about. It’s hard to generalise in Lebanon because it’s such a diverse place. But the switching is definitely a widely spread phenomena.

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8 thoughts on “In the mix

  1. Here in Jordan it’s the same exactly. English is so popular with the young people now, everyone wants to learn English. Arabic is considered un-cool…

  2. Nice article, but there are a couple of typos and inaccuracies that should be mentioned.

    French wasn’t brought by “colonisation”. It was widely taught in catholic schools since the early 19th century when it replaced Italian. At that time the catholic network of school was the densest schooling network in the middle east, and it was mostly supported by local churches (esp Maronite).

    By “American Jesuits”, I’m sure you meant “American protestants” (though American Jesuits did contribute to the construction of the French speaking Saint Joseph University that was supported by France… things are always more complex than what they seem).

    Many missionaries were orientalists and actively supported the rebirth of arabic and the development of Modern Standard Arabic (the Nahda wouldn’t have taken place without the infrastructure that was laid down by western missionaries, a glimpse at the biographies of the nadhaists would verify this). Missionary activity also contributed to the “purification” of colloquial arabic from syriac/aramaic influences (especially in Mount Lebanon)…

    During the french mandate there was no policy to “convert people”. Missionary activity that was actively resumed in the 18th century were restricted to the Oriental churches where European and American missionaries would come to either “latinize” oriental christians or convert them to Protestantism. Even that kind of conversion stopped in the beginning of the 20th century, before the advent of the French Mandate.

  3. dear Jihad, thanks for the comments and clarifications. yes things are often more complex than what they seem. for the claim that “French was brought by colonisation” – true that the language was taught earlier. the strong presence and establishment in administrative and official matters however did come hand in hand with colonial rule.

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