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