Don’t kill your language

Oct 28, 2015

Maya Sariahmed/TED

The world may want you to speak English to seem “global” or “sophisticated.” Here’s why you should resist. Preserve your mother tongue!

Suzanne Talhouk speaks Arabic, her native tongue, and she expects her fellow Arabic speakers to respond in kind. But she lives in Lebanon, where daily conversation drifts between Arabic, English and French — and Arabic often gets left behind. The trend is most pronounced among the nation’s educated elites, where the habit of speaking French and English in private schools hardens into a fashion long after they’ve graduated. In her TED Talk, Don’t kill your language, she warns that what’s lost in translation is not just a word here and there, but a collective voice, a collective memory, a culture’s presence in the world. Using your mother tongue, in short, is nothing less than a civic duty. Here are her four pieces of advice to build pride in your own language.

Don’t conform. Confront. Here’s a characteristic conversation for Talhouk: She asks for a menu in Arabic (qayimat alttaeam). The waiter huffily replies that she can have a menu (the English word) or menu (in French). “Two words made a Lebanese young man judge a girl as being backward and ignorant,” she says — and the prejudice extends beyond restaurants. Arabic, she has noticed, is “not a language for science, research, a language we’re used to in universities, a language we use in the workplace,” she says, “and it definitely isn’t a language we use at the airport. If we did so, they’d strip us of our clothes.”

Buckling under the social pressure to speak in English or French is easy, Talhouk admits, but it’s also short-sighted. “There are many people like me who would reach a stage in their lives where they involuntarily give up everything that has happened to them in the past, just so they can say that they’re modern and civilized,” she says. “Should I forget all my culture, thoughts, intellect and all my memories?” Instead of giving in to the social pressure, Talhouk says that being conscious of it — and consciously defying it — are the best ways to restore the cultural balance.

emotionally charged words, once translated, lose their emotional impact.

Expose cultural erosion. “Language isn’t just for conversing,” she says. “Language represents specific stages in our lives, and terminology that is linked to our emotions.” For her audience at TEDxBeirut, she calls to mind the emotionally charged slogan of Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution. The chant “Hurriyya, Siyada, Istiqlal” (“Freedom, Solidarity, Independence”) reverberated through city streets, and to this day, Talhouk says, it conjures up the scenes of mass protests: “Each one of you draws a specific image in their own mind; there are specific feelings of a specific day in a specific historical period.” Talhouk argues that the words, once translated, lose their emotional impact. “If your son came up to you and said, ‘Dad, have you lived through the period of the ‘freedom’ slogan?’ how would you feel?” Talhouk asks pointedly. For a sense of how someone with English as a first language might feel, consider a famous English expression mingled with Arabic — “God save the malika” instead of “God save the queen,” for instance. Her point: this isn’t just about language, but about culture, society, memory, community.

Drop the “cultural cringe.” Just speaking your language won’t make it fashionable. To build momentum, Talhouk says Arabic speakers must confront the elitists who wince at their word choices. So she founded Feil Amer, a grassroots movement that encourages Lebanese youth to take pride in their mother tongue. The argument is about more than scolding every French or English utterance (even Talhouk says she prefers the English word “internet” to the Arabic alternative, alshabaka, or “world wide web”). Instead, the campaign launched with a slogan meant to highlight the cultural threat: “I talk to you from the East, but you reply from the West.” “After that, we launched another campaign with scenes of letters on the ground,” says Talhouk. “A scene of a letter surrounded by black and yellow tape with ‘Don’t kill your language!’ written on it.”

Above all, get creative. “Every one of you is a creative project,” Talhouk says, urging audience members to use their mother tongues to explore and experiment creatively. She points to one of Lebanon’s internationally acclaimed artists, the writer Gibran Khalil Gibran, who never could have written his inimitable novels in English, she says, without first mastering his native Arabic. “All his ideas, imagination and philosophy were inspired by this little boy in the village where he grew up, smelling a specific smell, hearing a specific voice, and thinking a specific thought,” she says. “Even when he wrote in English, when you read his writings in English, you smell the same smell, sense the same feeling.” So she urges young artists to follow Gibran’s example, and first pour their creative energies into loving and supporting their mother tongue. “A single novel could make us global again. It could bring the Arabic language back to being number one.”