Notes from Beirut IV: On Speech and Eloquence
July 7, 2015 § 1 Comment
One of the first things I learned in Lebanon was just how limited my ability to communicate in Arabic is. Outside the constraints of the classroom, where I could usually predict what topics we would discuss in groups and what sort of vocabulary the instructor would use, or my personal reading, where I could patiently thumb through The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Fourth Edition whenever I encountered a baffling word, I have often needed to grasp for meaning. During my first weeks, I was often tongue-tied even in very basic situations. Sometimes, I mangled sentences so gruesomely that the person I was speaking to was totally baffled. It also didn’t help that most of my studies focused on Arabic’s written form, called Modern Standard Arabic or Fusha, which is as different from everyday speech in Lebanon as Latin is from Italian, or that I had learned words for talking about politics and religion but not the names of eating utensils or fruits and vegetables.
Since then, I’ve gotten more comfortable speaking in more situations. I’m able to call words to mind and correctly conjugate verbs more easily, and I’ve started to fill in some of the many, many holes in my vocabulary. But my abilities are still very far from where they were in English. So, when I speak in Arabic, my social personality changes.
Before, I had not realized just how much of my identity was built on my skill in using language. Since childhood, I’ve been a ravenous reader, devouring reams and reams of novels and nonfiction. Over the past few years, I’ve coupled that with an equally ravenous dedication to English’s great spoken forms, film, television, and drama. And my parents, my professors, my high school teachers, my theatrical directors, and my funnier friends have taught me how to harness the words I’ve encountered there and bend them to my will. If you’ve ever enjoyed one of my insights or quips, or learned something from a thing I’ve written or said, you’re enjoying the product of those years of practice. Likewise, if you find me intelligent, confident, funny, or charming, it’s because I know how to use words to project all of those things.
In Arabic, I don’t have that kind of range or eloquence. I can’t say as many smart things, and when I can say them, I can’t say them beautifully. In conversations, I tend to spend more time listening and lurking, working to pick out what I can, mostly just speaking when I get asked a direct question. I suspect that I often seem retiring, childish, clumsy, inept. I’m still shocked by the degree to which the language gap makes me feel like a totally different person. I’ve been learning patience by reconciling myself with this.
Interestingly, this experience has tied in with my research. One of the institutions which I study, the Syrian Protestant College, which became the American University of Beirut in the 1920s, switched its language of instruction from Arabic to English in the 1880s. My recent language experiences have helped me to understand the power dynamics of that shift– it changed an environment where Arabic-speaking instructors and students had a clear edge in eloquence and expression over their American and British colleagues and teachers to one where they worked at a disadvantage (although after years of study they were surely much better at English than I am at Arabic). I’ve been examining and thinking about the implications of that shift over the four decades that followed, and I suspect that issues surrounding language and eloquence might be really analytically important to my forthcoming articles, conference papers, and dissertation.