I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately, and especially how and when we acquire it. This is largely selfishly motivated, as I am about one month into Arabic classes with my amazing tutor Rima. Arabic is the first non-Indo-European language I’ve ever tried to learn, and it’s both intimidating and not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I’ve toyed with the idea of blogging my Arabic progress, but I’m stymied by not having an Arabic font installed on my computer. I will say that I’ve got my possessives down (it’s a much more important feature of Arabic than it is of English) as well as my present tense verbs. Learning the past tense these past few weeks has felt like a huge step forward. At the very least, I just doubled my language capacity!
One of the big things I’ve been thinking about is how language shapes identity, and the personalities we form in other languages. Think of everything you do in your language (which, for the sake of argument, I’ll assume is English): you love, you work, you laugh, you form connections, you take in the world. These are the things people do in every language, in fact. When you learn a new language, though, you give up your ability to do these things that are so automatic to you—so necessary to your daily life—all at once. In her amazing book The Middle of Everywhere (about working with refugees—if I haven’t pushed this book on you yet, read it!), Mary Pipher wrote “Every day in a foreign country is like final exam day.” The amount of stress it can cause is immense. When I was first learning Spanish in Guatemala, I slept for 10 hours a night—minimum—because my brain was so exhausted. Even then, I had dreams in which I would be in a place surrounded by people who were speaking a language (not Spanish!) that I couldn’t understand. It was inescapable and, at the time, a little overwhelming. Thankfully, this phase only lasted for two weeks at most.
Here in Lebanon, things are a little different. First of all, I’m an English teacher, and English is the medium of instruction and interaction at my school. Secondly, and not unrelatedly, language education here is amazing. There’s a t-shirt that they sell in tourist shops that reads, “Hi! Keefik? Ça va?” (Keefik is “How are you?” if you’re talking to an Arabic-speaking woman—keefak for a man—and ça va you can probably puzzle out on your own) This is a very common greeting in Lebanon, and it reflects the fact that you will often hear Arabic, English, and French within the same conversation—often in the same sentence! Code-switching (the act of changing languages within a conversation) is even more impressive here than in the already impressively bilingual South Bronx. For this reason, even if your opening salvo for a conversation might be in Arabic, the odds are that the Lebanese person (the person sitting next to you on the bus/bar, your taxi driver, etc) you’re speaking to will respond in English. It’s been hard to work up a lot of language anxiety because everyone speaks my language!
Still, I am feeling adamant about learning Arabic, and I can feel a little defensive when my conversation partners automatically speak English back—especially in the (admittedly very limited) situations where my Arabic is better than their English! I also feel defensive when I ask a question in Arabic—for example, “Where is the school office?”—and the person I’ve asked answers with “Where are you from?” instead of with the information that I actually need to know. This is really a mark of admirable cultural curiosity and openness, I know, but there are times when I actually need to know something, and I’d rather not give my life story to get it!
To combat this defensiveness, I’ve taken a cue from CLL (Counseling Language Learning), a teaching methodology we learned in grad school. CLL suggests that adult students invent a new persona for their new language, in order to avoid the dissonance of not knowing how to do the basic things that make up our adult identities. This isn’t quite as removed from mainstream culture as you might think: Beyoncé (as good a role model as any) has famously talked about her stage personality “Sasha Fierce” in contrast to her more reserved authentic self. So, with Beyoncé’s approval, I’m trying this out. When I’m speaking Arabic, I’m no longer Sarah Gulley, mild-mannered English teacher from North Carolina on a fellowship in Lebanon. I’m Rena Ghassan, from Dar El Qamar. I feel a little strange discussing this in such a public forum—it feels a little bit like talking about having a Second Life account or a role-playing game habit wherein all of my unrealized ambitions can have free reign. But thankfully, I’m not going to tell you that Rena is a rock star or an elf queen or an elf rock star. She’s a student, leading not a terribly glamorous life. Although I should mention that she’s a student with such limited verbal skills—so perhaps I should consider making her a three-year old. Like all experiments, this might be doomed to failure and/or ridicule (keep any comments nice, please!), but we’ll see how it goes.
Billy Collins wrote about “great car of English itself” in the last line of “Consolation”—for right now, I’m changing back and forth between that comfortable sedan and an early-model, rattling, falling-apart-at-the-seams Mercedes taxi that is a staple of my Beirut life.