Mother Tongues & Vulnerability

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NOTE: This is a self-analytic reflection. It may ring with you, or, more likely, it may be completely bogus to you. You have been warned.

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“You know how some people are full of layers? I’m not like that. I like simplicity, and I’m simple. I don’t have a million layers. What you see, what you get, is what I am.”

These intriguing words were said to me by a friend when I expressed to her that I feel as though I sometimes over-think my actions, my feelings, and ultimately, my intentions.

While I admire her outlook on life, people are unique and what works for one person may not work for another. Externally I may seem to be an extrovert, but in actuality, I find I am first and foremost an introvert of some sort.

I don’t really mind having so many layers to myself. Not only do I not mind discovering bits and pieces of myself at the right times, but I have no desire to be known and understood by simply anyone. I unconsciously find myself putting up invisible fences, or barriers if you will, to determine if someone really cares or is merely curious. You can be curious about a lot of things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you care; and one of my pet peeves is to be put under the microscope for no reason other than for mere curiosity to kill some time. Like it or not, when you are under a microscope by someone you care about, you allow yourself to become vulnerable.

What is vulnerability?

What does language have to do with this?

Admittedly, when I am in particular gatherings of all Arab folk, Arabic words flow easily to the tongue, and there seems to be no chance of being censured or getting emotionally hurt of any sort. But for some reason, when it is not in a dominantly Arab setting, the rules suddenly appear to be much more wary.

A Canadian-Palestinian friend once told me: “I don’t speak in Arabic to a stranger unless they are a friend. Otherwise, for the stranger off the street that talks to me, my speaking in a language known only to us in the crowd is almost like a sign telling him, hey, we have something in common. Let’s see what else in common we have! I want to be closer to you.

In any relationship, from work colleagues to friends to family, the foundation of a relationship is communication, and the medium of communication heavily depends on the language that transports the meanings and words.

So what happens when you and the other person are multilingual, and in fact, share the same mother tongue? Do you start off in the mother tongue even though you may end up really not liking the person… or do you start off in English/French and then transition to your mother tongue once you’ve gotten comfortable?

Can deliberately avoiding the usage of one’s mother tongue simply be putting up a barrier?

Perhaps I am the only one who even bothers asking these questions to herself, but they’re questions I’ve been silently pondering on for a good half-decade now. Maybe it is time to peel one of my many layers, place it under the microscope (I’m allowed to do that to myself), and analyze it. Here are my (very much) scattered thoughts on the matter:

Often, depending on how close I am with someone, or how much I value the relationship, do I permit myself to be more vulnerable in language. In other words, if you are Arab and I am Arab, and we both speak fluent English/French, and yet I relentlessly speak only strict English with you even when you request a change of language… more often than not, it could imply either I don’t want to get closer to you, OR, I don’t trust you won’t mock me at my western-influenced Arabic accent.

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What does speaking in Arabic to a stranger have anything to do with becoming closer? It doesn’t have to, necessarily. But coming from the background I come from, it feels so. When I speak to a stranger casually in my mother tongue in a country that doesn’t speak it, it indirectly implies we have something, and something very significant, in common… because with a shared language may come a shared culture, shared ideas, shared hopes and dreams –

And then again, maybe it doesn’t come with any of these things, and that silent implication is wasted and merely created a tense moment (will describe those moments in a moment!) I thought it was only me, but speaking to others in my place made me realize it’s a lot more common than I thought…

Now this pecks at my curiosity: is this just an Arab-Who-Was-Raised-in-a-Non-Arab-Country thing, or does it apply elsewhere? .

Here is my self reflection of the matter.

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Growing up in Quebec and attending schools in the English sector made it very rare that I ever had another Arab in the class. If I was “lucky”, there might be another Arab in the grade.

Why do you put “lucky” in quotation marks, Aya? You ask.

I’ll answer that plainly. It is because even when there was that one other odd Arab in the grade level, my relationship with her/him was no different than the rest of my classmates.

“If there are three of you, never should two of them talk without the third until you mix with other people, for this would grieve the third.” (Bukhari)

Even before I learned of this hadith, common sense dictated to me that if you’re three or more people hanging out and all focused on one conversation, it is extremely rude for two out of three people to start their own private conversation in the presence of the third friend. It must be very awkward for the person who can’t keep up with the conversation simply because he/she does not speak their language. Well, since the two of them can at least speak the third’s, why not stick with it in his presence?

I mention this because all my friends throughout elementary and high school were non-Arabs. CEGEP came along and I started new friendships, some with Arabs and some with Pakistanis, but the bottom line was that there was ONE sisters’ prayer room, and whenever I just wanted to chill and hang out, there would always be that one non-Arab in the room. So what did I do? I loved all the girls and wanted to get closer to them all, but to do it simultaneously. To keep everyone in the loop of things, I spoke solely in English.

Then came a day when it was only I and a couple girls. Maybe I was studying, or maybe I was reading a book; I don’t remember what I was doing, but all I remember was that as they spoke among themselves, I couldn’t help but playfully throw in a comment in my mother tongue.

They both stared at me: “You can speak Arabic? We’ve never heard you before!”

I was more shocked at this statement, this weak assumption they leapt to and developed without having first bothered to ask me for themselves, than they were at the language my comment was clothed in. Since then, I’ve been expecting it periodically with new acquaintances. This statement has been repeated to me so many times over the past few years in university that all I do now is faintly smile in amusement and explain my rationale for not having revealed this high-top language secret.

I suppose speaking always in English, a language known by almost all those I contact, has always been easier on my tongue in the long run than Arabic. Habits take a long time to build up; but once built, they are incredibly difficult to break.

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Not Identifibly Clear

I speak Arabic in the Khaleeli Palestinian dialect… or so I thought. All were only too pleased we could speak and read any Arabic at all, so although they never pointed it out, when I went to Palestine, I realized my dialect sounded a lot different… All my sisters’ did.

It’s a puzzling scenario and my sisters and I often wondered why that was the case. We came to a (potentially completely wrong) conclusion: growing up listening to Egyptian music, visiting Algerian neighbors, having Lebanese family friends, spending Friday halaqas with Syrians and Palestinians from Nablus — well, is it really no wonder my dialect is not very Khaleeli Palestinian? I’ve had so little interaction with others from el-Khalil. Mix that salad of familiar dialects with the saucy fact that I spend most of my outdoor time speaking in English, and it’s no wonder that changing the language path (from English to Arabic) with someone I don’t trust is unsettling. It’s like I’m giving them permission to look into me and determine, for starters, if my dialect is right or not (which, by the way, has happened more than once).

I’ve gotten some “where are you from again? I thought you were Palestinian but you don’t sound it.” And then I ask their opinion of where does it sound like I’m from? Thoughtful facial expressions appear and after thoughtful moments pass, thoughtful responses come: “Well… you SOUND Arabic. Because, like, your words are clear and your sentences are grammatically correct. But, um… you don’t sound Syrian or Lebanese or Jordanian or Palestinian…”

Often the conversation, at this point, will have completely strayed away from the initial purposeful topic, and try as I might to change the subject and revert back to it, they just want to figure me out under the microscope- analyze why I speak like this, how do I feel about speaking like this–

It’s a tiresome process; When someone wants to figure you out, not all of you, not the part you want to be known for, but just that one little insignificant detail that they cannot get over…

Mind you, whichever dialect I speak, even if it can’t be identifiable with one particular country, shouldn’t need to be a big deal if I myself don’t think it is. The fact that it is makes the introvert in me squirm inside and wonder: Really? Should I be worried or am I being too haughty about this whole thing? And, well, then I go in circles trying to identify why I’m feeling annoyed, upset or irritated, and the final result is me trusting that person or willing to confide in her/him a whole lot less.

Perhaps at this point, you might understand a little why speaking in my mother tongue, to those who are ever so proud of theirs, is a sensitive thing for me. It means willing to bring down the language barrier; this is synonymous to allowing a part of myself to be momentarily examined like a book. (This excludes those who only know Arabic, and would be feeling incompetent in speaking a language besides it.)

Now I have friends, dear friends, those who seem to have bits in their souls that absolutely resonate with mine, whose empathetic hearts are always willing to listen to you– these are those that I don’t feel the need to keep up a barrier of any sort. These people want to know you for your heart, your mind and your spirit, and a swift language change will not have them biting their nails in anxiety wondering why you didn’t reveal such a hot topic before now. These people I frankly tell them my Arabic writing isn’t the best, my Arabic book reading (besides the holy Quran) are few, and I’ll throw in words and phrases at random, or have entire conversations with them in Arabic, because there is no need to be defensive anymore.

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 The question is, should one ever need to be defensive in such an area? I’m wondering if other minorities in the West face these issues or if perhaps they’re not issues at all. Maybe this is just another episode of me overthinking and overanalyzing…

Maybe.

Regardless of which language you speak, I would be delighted to read/hear your perspectives if you would like to share them.

Until next time,

 مع ألف سلامة

              –A.S.

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4 comments on “Mother Tongues & Vulnerability

  1. My mother tongue is Urdu, but I almost never use it outside of home or with elder relatives. I never spoke to my siblings in Urdu nor with Urdu-speaking friends. I would just find it strange. I think most ‘western’ Pakistanis or Indians are the same – we hardly ever use our mother tongue in casual conversation with friends. I can’t possibly explain it, and on some level I think its very unfortunate.

    I am a little bit envious of Arab, Greek, or Armenian friends of mine who speak to each other in their mother tongues with comfort and familiarity. I’ve never seen that among Canadian-born Pakistanis unless we’re trying to communicate something we don’t want anyone else to know.

    As a result, my Urdu is actually quite poor since I probably use it much less than English and French. The last time I went to Pakistan, I felt a bit uncomfortable speaking Urdu because I would often get patronizing remarks about it. I’ve become much more self-conscious about my Urdu-speaking ability as a result of it.

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