Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 37 seconds

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 37 seconds

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 37 seconds

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 37 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Hybrid culture & language – the case of me :)

| 10 Comments

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 37 seconds

Reading Time: 5 minutes

So this blogpost is a response to a question Laura Gogia asked me in private but which I am guessing many people who have not lived in the Arab world have on their minds… But might be too shy to ask out loud?

It’s about my English… She was referring to how colloquial it is, and i realize that there are phenomena of non-native speakers who are fluent but not colloquial in their English (i think it comes from reading too much Shakespeare). I’m not 100% sure what it is that makes my English sound colloquial to her, but I can explain where my English comes from.

Language is more than language, it’s also culture, and American pop culture particularly is pervasive globally and very much so here in Egypt where I am now, and was even more so in Kuwait where I grew up. That’s the TV, the music, the movies, the books, and now the internet (how often does a google search turn up a website that’s not in the US, I wonder? My iPad thinks i am in the UK, so i get diff search results on it than at my computer).

But you want more than that, right? My story is not unique and is not the only path to where I am, but here it is:

Both my parents speak good English, they’re MDs and in Egypt you study medicine in English. My dad’s accent wasn’t great but his vocab was awesome. My mom’s language is better, but she went to French school and her English sometimes sounds French. Neither has an American accent. But my parents introduced me to Abba and the Beatles (not American, either group. But they sang in English, altho Abba were a bit awkward with it sometimes, right?). They skipped Elvis and Pink Floyd for some reason but i got round to them. Not Bob Dylan, dunno why. Some BeeGees (they’re American) and Boney M. We’ll skip over Julio, but we loved his French and English stuff, too. I later got really into Air Supply (my Filipino nanny did that), Boy George (saw him on TV in England once and loved him; did not understand the concept of transvestite, and i am unsure how my parents survived that phase, given our Muslim culture)… New kids on the Block. I was reading Archie and MAD magazine. And Garfield.I grew up watching the Mickey Mouse Club (i can’t believe they discontinued it!), Growing Pains, Full House, Falcon Crest. I read Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley Twins/High (but also English things like Famous Five and Agatha Christie). I’m embarrassed by the low number of Arabic anything I read that is not religiously-related, and that’s cultural imperialism for you 🙂 Well played. Too late 🙂

But I went to a British school in Kuwait most of my life (except 3 years in Egypt in the middle). We weren’t allowed to talk in Arabic except in Arabic or Religion classes. We spoke Arabic anyway to rebel. But it wasn’t much. It was a multinational population of students, diverse, in that:
A. Many did not speak Arabic because they were “foreigners” to begin with
B. Some were half-Arab, half-“foreign” and so usually their Arabic was not strong
C. Arabic has different colloquial dialects across countries (and also within a country), and it’s sometimes actually easier to understand each other in English than it is in Arabic. I personally can understand most colloquial Arabics because I grew up in Kuwait with that diverse population. Most Arabs understand Egyptian and also Lebanese because we are to the Arab world the voices of pop culture (TV, music, films). But I don’t, for example, understand Tunisian Arabic at all. I’d rather speak to them in French (and mine isn’t even really all that good) or formal/modern standard Arabic (which is what we all read but rarely speak outside of very formal contexts).

Anyway – the accent. We had a couple of half-American guys in my class. I am guessing their parents’ work put them in our school, or else why not put them in an American school? Anyway so i remember both were in choir with me (but they were like lead singers in plays and stuff) and how annoyed the English teachers were that they spoke with those accents.. In singing, the American “can’t” doesn’t work well with the English “can’t”.

Back before 1990 and satellite TV, we had an entirely English tv channel (which only started at 6pm, and my bedtime was like 9pm) – and i’d watch all the cartoons, sitcoms, shows – most of which were American.

One day, a new girl came to school. She was Egyptian with a strong American accent. Up until that year, i had no-accent speech. It wasn’t British or American, just fluent without an accent. You’d know it if you hear it, but most people I know develop an American or British accent as they get older. What happened with me, was that having that girl and those two guys in class, plus an Australian teacher (new accent altogether, yeah?) plus TV…One day i am sitting with one of my best friend and I say a sentence where I actually once use an American “can’t” and once a British “can’t” and she calls me on it. And we deliberate. Which to use? We thought American was cooler coz it would annoy our teachers.

Then 1990, left Kuwait coz of Iraqi invasion. Came to Egypt where at the time few ppl in my school spoke fluent English. Speaking with a British accent would have seemed overly posh and arrogant. American came more naturally and seemed slightly less arrogant.

There year later, I returned to Kuwait, to another British school. All my Egyptian friends there (including many I knew from before) had American accents. Different stories (I assume), same result.

Most ppl of my social class and education have strong American aspects to their identity, even if their history is different from mine. Pop culture again: TV, music, films, and in my case also A LOT of reading – of novels, not necessarily good quality literature, but stuff where ppl spoke like everyday life.

I went to the American University in Cairo, and that’s more American culture again. Many Egyptian friends who came in without the accent acquired it. It’s a sign of social class here, how good your English sounds. It’s a horrible thing, but there it is.

So I have lived in the US (as an adult) and I fit right in. I’d only travelled there for conferences before, but I knew Texas well because I was a huge fan of country music (not that you heard much of that in Houston – not many cowboys, too many non-White, non-American & expat ppl where we were coz of the Medical Center where my husband worked and Rice Uni where I worked, and oil industry where many of our friends worked) When I lived in England (as an adult also, but I had travelled there a lot as a child with my parents) people assumed I was maybe Canadian… It’s that ‘not from anywhere in particular in North America” type of thing.

I don’t watch a lot of Egyptian TV. My husband loves certain things and got my into them, too: Jon Stewart, Seinfeld, and I discovered South Park, Colbert Report, Friends (ok, some of this is old but ppl still refer to them)… So that’s maybe how even some of my cultural references seem current. But I also grew up with it.

So yeah – i don’t think Laura’s actually heard my voice, but there are a couple of hangouts on youtube where you can hear it (#et4online one is where I talk a lot, but you can also check my interview w Dave Cormier – I don’t talk much, but it’s mostly at the start).

This post is too long 😉 and it’s almost 1am 🙂 gnite

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10 Comments

  1. Ah, language – such an interesting animal. My favourite line (notice my British spelling of ‘favourite’ – a small group of Australians rebel against American spelling (strange snobbism, crazy – it’s just a letter) is ‘We spoke Arabic anyway to rebel’. If you’re bi-lingual (or multi-) then you will want to speak the forbidden language – nobody is going to tell you what to do!
    I was born in Australia but both my parents were born in Russia and left in the 40s or something like that. Russian Australian parents then tried to keep the language alive in their kids but we hated being forced to speak it and also hated going to Saturday school. Eventually I was grateful but now I’m losing the fluency. I still love languages and used to teach French and German but losing these too, especially French.
    My father’s family were farmers who were kicked out of their property and somehow ended up in Iran (then Persia). Even then they had some American influences. He told us how they would show American movies in a shed, sitting on large empty cans on the ground. When the movie got exciting they would all beat the cans they were sitting on. For some reason I remember that. And I remember the way he pronounced ‘Bud Abbott and Lou Castello’ – maybe as ‘Persians’ did then.
    My mother was half German and half Russian but both parents born in Russia. When she lived in Germany as a teenager, she used to visit her grandmother in a different part of Germany and very naturally picked up the dialect. When she returned her father would criticise her for the accent. Isn’t it funny that accents are associated with social standing and things like that.
    Thanks for the post, loved reading it.

    • Loved your reply Tania, and the insight into your own heritage. It reminded me of a post by Tanya Lau on being Chinese Aussie – do u guys know each other? You should, same timezone and all that 😉 here is her post: http://edcontexts.org/pedagogy/a-chinese-australians-reflections-on-language-and-culture-a-response-to-bland-culture/

      • Oh, I will definitely introduce myself to Tanya Lau. Thanks, Maha.

      • Oh, and I tried to learn Arabic once in my youth but only one year at Uni and I don’t think I got past ‘The story of the rabbits and the elephants’ and the alphabet and then I gave up. My father – when he was alive – retained his Persian (would that be Farsi?) even decades later with very little practice, and I think that’s because he grew up in Tehran as a teenager, and that was a very influential part of his life so it stuck with him. My mother can still speak decent German even though she left 50 years ago and also hardly has the opportunity to speak with anyone. But, again, these were her teenage years, and she was devastated to leave and come to Australia so her connection with German remains.

  2. Thank you, Maha, you explained away all my curiosity :). I am a native born US English speaker who is somewhat immersed in Indian culture – my inlaws are Punjabi but the community we live in here is almost entirely Southern Indian. I speak neither Tamil nor Hindi unfortunately, but I do speak some Spanish. It’s enough of a language hodgepodge that I pay attention to the way different people write and speak in English. My inlaws have lived in the US for almost 40 years. They went to English schools in India. They spoke English at University. My father-in-law had always been a fan of American culture growing up. And as I’ve said, they’ve lived in the US for almost 40 years, away from other Indians until recently- in other words they were surrounded by native US speakers all of that time – and they do not even come close to your nuanced use. I’m not talking about vocalized accent, I’m talking about phrasing, sentence rhythm, order of words, use of “sayings.” The “Yup” in your private message almost sent you through the roof of my measure of awesomeness. Thanks for making me smile 🙂

    • Wow, ANOTHER awesome story that’s helping me get to know you better. Wow. May i make a joke about something? You talk about your inlaws being Indian but never mention your husband 🙂 I am not prying, but reading between the lines that because he was prob born n raised in the US that it seems less relevant to discuss the the way he communicates in English because obviously he’d be native and immersed in the culture. But it’s not always so… Given the (often) immigrant parental attempts to keep the native language going (Tania and Tanya’s stories omigosh just realized they share a name! How did i miss that?!? Hilarious) and the kids’ resistance (both their stories again).
      Btw I love Indian/Pakistani ppl and culture. I had loads of friends (incl one v close one and an almost-boyfriend) who were Pakistani. When i lived in the US i really enjoyed reading Jumpha Lahiri, etc., watching things like Bend it like Beckham, and felt it all resonated w me really strongly as an Egyptian in the US. It’s interesting coz not many Egyptians would understand or agree with me on that…

  3. @Bali_Maha lol no problem 🙂 I’m just glad you weren’t offended I asked. I study the way dif people express themselves in English. Thank you

  4. I always felt, you write as though you are speaking, with pauses and expressions.. Most bloggers write differently than they speak.. In that way, your writing sounds (or reads) very native to me.. I could not have spotted any accent, since, I myself am a non-native speaker.

  5. I love this! As a bi product of ABBA I have often been accused of the same thing you write about, and reading your blog post gave me such n interesting walk in the history of popculture, we are affected by similar things (in this case; tv shows and music) but end up being such different individuals.

    By all fairness ABBA did sound awkward at times and imagine that clashing with English slang! People around me have often mentioned that I speak in slang, and I used to always joke and say it’s due to all the rap and hip hop I used to listen to during my teens. Which obviously is true to a certain degree. My father migrated to Sweden during the late 60s from Uganda (his parents moved to Uganda from India) and my mum was born in India but crossed the border to pakistan and then later on married my father and moved to Sweden. I grew up with a strong cultural background, in a very small suburbian town in Sweden. Foreigners were somewhat of a novelity during those times and i only had swedish friends and apart from my family life, all I knew was the swedish way. Then the world of hip hop hit me I used to listen to lyrics about segregation and racism, which to be honest, I had no experience of.
    Reading your blog makes me realize that language is in fact an organic thing, it evolves and is very much situated.

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