A few months back, I was invited to a birthday of an eight-year-old girl –a friend’s daughter. I gathered my kids, bought a present and headed to the celebration. Everything was perfect, until my daughter came up to me and told me she is unable to mingle with other kids –because she simply could not understand what they are saying. I stared at her, and asked her why she thought so. In very simple words she said: I am not sure what language they are using. I told her to run along and do her best, until cake time was here. As a leader mom, I took over slicing the cakes into small portions and all the kids gathered for a piece. Only then did I understand what my six-year-old was trying to say.
- Tante, may I have a vanilla slice?
- Tante, nooo I don’t like chocolate.
- Tante, I would like apple juice, please.
“What do you mean Arabic?” A child spit out disgusted.
Each and every single child at the birthday spoke in English. Not a single child spoke in Arabic, or French (which is my daughter’s educational language) –hence the communication barrier. I stood there, shocked, and decided to teach them a lesson. “No one gets a piece unless you ask for it in Arabic,” I said proudly. I got big, scared, shocked eyes.
“What do you mean Arabic?” A child spit out disgusted. “Arabic,” I replied “is what you should be speaking.” What followed was the hardest and longest twenty minutes of my life. It took some of them over two minutes to construct a grammatically correct sentence –they all mispronounced most of the letters. All the mommies started laughing. Sad.
In my household I do not use the words “shoes” or “no” or “cake” or “good night”
I recall when I met the owner of the French nursery my kids went to for the first time. I asked what I might do to make sure they speak French correctly. She replied, “This is not your job. Your job is to speak to them in proper Arabic. Avoid using English, or any other language, at home. They need you to teach them their mother language, and us to teach them French.” This I have done. In my household I do not use the words “shoes” or “no” or “cake” or “good night”, or any other foreign word for that matter. I insisted that my children call me mama and not mummy, and their father baba and not pappy. We joke in Arabic, and we fight in Arabic, and my kids only speak French or English at school. My son, who is almost eight, made friends with three boys in his class –those who speak Arabic together.
At a certain point I was worried: do my children really know how to speak French or English? I pay an arm and a leg for their education, but they never speak to each other or to their friends except in Arabic. I set a meeting with their teachers (native French speakers) and I asked them, and they assured me that my kids are excellent speakers. In fact, one teacher once thanked me for teaching them correct Arabic –it helped their phonetics and pronunciation, she said.
I remember, the only things that helped me sharpen my Arabic skill were the Um Kolthoum songs
I grew up in an all-American society, went to an American school and graduated from an international university. I suffered for years due to my bad Arabic. I remember, the only things that helped me sharpen my Arabic skill were the Um Kolthoum songs my father would force us to listen to every time we were in the car. He would play documentaries about Egypt, the Pharaohs, the revolutions, the culture and anything he could get his hands on in Arabic. When I was in high school, I would read the local Arabic newspaper cover to cover, and try to understand words and relate sentences. When I got to university, I started reading Naguib Mahfouz, Yousef ElSebay, Yousef Idriss, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, Nabil Farouk, and it took me a long while to understand Taha Hussien. I hated the fact that my written Arabic was a disaster, and that I was only able to express myself properly if I squeezed an English word or two in my sentences. I did not want my children to suffer the same.
Make no mistake: foreign languages are a blessing. Mastering them will help position your children at a better social standard, and pave the way to a more relaxed and successful career. However, make no mistake that if your children are unable to order a meal, or call the supermarket, or hire a cab in Arabic, their lives could also be hard.
What kills me is the fact that Arabic is a beautiful language. It’s filled with mesmerizing descriptive words, and twisted phrases. Arabic speakers will master all kinds of sounds, and can speak all kinds of languages –we have all the letters and all the phonetics there can be. The language you speak has no direct relation to your social standard –except in the club I go to. Except in Egypt –again, sad.
“If we travel anywhere we always try to use an Egyptian dialect that we have picked up through movies and soap operas”
I have met coworkers from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco who have mastered French, English, and Arabic. One of them once told me that in her country, people generally prefer to speak in Arabic, and not French –the opposite to what we always hear. Of course, their dialect has been tinted with a lot of French words, and yet they always choose to speak in Arabic. She said, “If we travel anywhere we always try to use an Egyptian dialect that we have picked up through movies and soap operas, because everyone understands what an Egyptian has to say”.
Coming from a foreigner who has every right to speak whatever makes her feel better, I felt proud and heartbroken. Here is a lady who finds it quite hard not to use French but is doing her best; and here is a little child who is a born and raised Arabic speaker, and is unable to use a simple Arabic phrase to get cake. We find foreign words forced into our day-to-day sentences that –astonishingly– we are unable to translate back to Arabic, such as selfie or update or download. Who knows how to say: right-click the mouse for a drop-down menu? I know I, sadly, can’t.
“People are becoming, step by step, fake and unreal and it really saddens me that we teach our children the same”
The community surrounding us has stereotyped Arabic speakers as part of a lower socioeconomic standard. This, of course, is associated with dressing ourselves in only designer brands, and making sure that every time we step out to the public it looks like we have stepped out of a commercial. People are becoming, step by step, fake and unreal and it really saddens me that we teach our children the same. I believe that if the trend keeps strong, one day our children will no longer be able to communicate with fellow citizens, and the country will be split into two –those who can speak Arabic, and those who cannot.
“أسمها عايز حتة تورتة and not I want a piece of cake”
Speak Arabic to your children. Stop bringing foreign nannies to teach them a different language. If you want that then make sure you use the language. أسمها عايز حتة تورتة and not I want a piece of cake.
سلاموا عليكوا –
Follow the Fatonista Nora Moustafa on her Instagram @fat_o_nista