A matter of speaking

Rania's story of diaspora multilingualism

Illustration: Mazen Kerbaj

This Saturday 18 December is International Migrants Day. During this week, Mashallah is publishing articles on the topic of migration, covering a few aspects of this phenomena. Today: trilingualism in Beirut.

Although the whole “hi, kifak, ça va?” thing often is exaggerated — the majority of Lebanese do not feel obliged to adding French and English words to every sentence, and language proficiency is a question of socio-economic status — trilingualism is a core feature of contemporary Lebanese society. Rania Soubra is one of many Lebanese that uses a mix of Arabic, English and French in her daily routine. Having spent most of her life outside Lebanon, her story is representative of many coming “back” from the Lebanese diaspora.

Growing up

Rania’s childhood years were spent in Saudi Arabia with frequent visits to Europe, but with Lebanese parents who spoke to their kids using three languages. Both of them spoke Arabic, while Rania’s mum also transferred English to her children and her dad used French. Given this background, it is natural for Rania to use any of the three, although she considers English her mother tongue. The connection to English is strong, she says, because it is her mother’s language of choice and therefore intrinsic to the mother-daughter relationship.

“You say whatever word comes into your head first, regardless of which language the sentence was started in.”

Being fluent in three world languages is a great asset, but there is a consequence of constantly switching between the three. “You end up not having a truly strong vocabulary in any of them,” says Rania. “You say whatever word comes into your head first, regardless of which language the sentence was started in. Once, when I was speaking to my grandfather, he interrupted me and said ‘Rania, I can’t hear what you’re saying. Choose one language and then stick to it!’ So I tried. I decided to go ahead with French, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell him what I wanted to say using only words from one language!”

Beirut after the war

Like many Lebanese abroad, Rania came to Beirut for her university degree. This was in 1993, only a few years after the end of the war. Coming to Lebanon at this point in time was quite a shock, the city being destroyed and socially polarised. But university turned out to be a place where it was possible to escape the divisions in society, and Rania’s group of friends was like a microcosm of the country’s diversity. Since they all had been away during the war, they were neither aware nor bothered by sectarian and religious divisions. Rania herself is from a Sunni family, her friend Samar is a Shi’ite brought up in Côte d’Ivoire, the third girl Charlotte is a Maronite Christian born in Canada, and Zeina, an Orthodox Christian, had been brought up between Lebanon and Italy. “We were all Lebanese but with British passports. Our differences aside, we shared not only our Lebanese heritage but also the same British queen!”

“Once, when I was speaking to my grandfather, he interrupted me and said: Rania, I can’t hear what you’re saying. Choose one language and then stick to it!'”

Raising kids

Years later, Rania is out of university, married to a Lebanese husband and the mother of two kids. Bringing up her daughter and son has made her reflect more on how she uses language. Having lived in Dubai with her family, they moved to Beirut this autumn. For her six years old daughter who didn’t speak Arabic yet, this meant she would start learning the language. Until now, Rania had spoken to her in English and her dad in French. Therefore, despite being a Lebanese kid living in the Middle East, Arabic is neither her first nor second language, but her third. Like all multilingual kids, Rania’s daughter is very clever about using the different languages. “If my husband asks her something in French, she’ll translate it to English when she says it to me, and vice versa. And, if there’s a word she doesn’t know the English or French equivalent to, she asks us to translate it for her.”

“If my husband asks our daughter something in French, she’ll translate it to English when she says it to me, and vice versa.”

Her daughter is picking up Arabic more and more, both the alphabet and the Lebanese accent. The pace is slowed down however, by the fact that she is not allowed to speak anything but French in school, even during breaks. The emphasis on the French language is strong in French-speaking schools, both from teachers and parents. Rania describes how mothers attend French classes in order to be able to help their kids with their homework. For Rania, doing homework with her daughter is a true trilingual exercise: she tries sticking to French for the French homework, Arabic for the Arabic assignments and English for the English ones.

New ways of talking

Both Rania and her daughter have changed their ways of speaking, something that is natural when moving to a new country. Rania still uses preferably English, but more and more Lebanese expressions make their way into her language. It didn’t take long before she started replying with “eyh” rather than “yes” when conversing in English, or adding “yaani” to every other sentence.

There is a clever way of making Arabic verbs out of foreign words, like “talfana” for making a phone call, “sayyav” for saving or “charraj” for charging.

On a general level, transformation is intrinsic to the phenomena of languages. The way we speak, whatever language we use, is bound to be in constant change. In the case of Lebanese Arabic, this largely implies adapting words and phrases from English and French. There is a clever way of making Arabic verbs out of foreign words, like “talfana” for making a phone call, “sayyav” for saving or “charraj” for charging. Rania describes her mum looking bemused at her when she once said that she “farrazet” the food: she put it in the freezer. “I don’t know if I invented this particular word or if others use it as well, but to me it sounds perfectly natural!”

Then what?

This sort of linguistic adaption will continue, and both Rania and her daughter will surely change the way they use language in the future. While Rania is sure her daughter will speak Arabic soon, she also envisions that she will remain closely connected to English. Like herself, her daughter has heard English from her mother, which makes the language laden with emotions. However, living in Beirut, the both of them are bound to be speaking English with a strong flavour of Arabic and French.

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