Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Forgiveness, and the subtleties of language

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Language is a funny thing. Discussions about meanings of words and expressions may seem philosophical and in the clouds, but they are important because language is the most common way in which we communicate with each other. The Arabic expression for “commnunicate”, for example, “تواصل” (tawasul) has a very different feel to it than the English. In English, “communicate” sounds like a technical term, getting a message from one to the other. In Arabic, “tawasul” sounds much more emotionally-charged, it is the exaggerated form of the word “reach” (tawassul – very subtle difference in pronunciation for the non-native speaker) – and so to me it has the connotation of “increased reach”, it sounds to me like an enjoyment of a relationship of continuously reaching to each other.

I started writing this blogpost on my way to the launch of the Arab MOOC platform, Edraak, where I was a panelist representing the learner perspective about MOOCs. This is the event I had to speak Arabic (and I blogged about some of the issues I was having preparing for that… More on the event later).

Anyway, the inspiration of this blog post was a particular Arabic (or at least Egyptian) expression: “rabena yesam7ek” (ربنا يسامحك) which means “may God forgive you” (supposedly a good prayer, right?) but usually used to mean the opposite. When I was very young, an equally young friend told me you say this to someone, and it means God will put them through hell. Or something like that. I figured out later that the meaning was different, but the connotation when people use it surprisingly the same as that childlike understanding of it. People say it, and they mean it with derision and anger and they really don’t mean well (which is really interesting because supposedly God forgives all, it’s we humans who do not). They say it as a polite way of wishing someone the worst fate possible without actually using any swear words!

Now if that’s not using the Lord’s name in vain… Here’s another one: “in shaa Allah” ان شاء الله which means, “if God wills it” – in the Quran Muslims are encouraged to never say “I will do this tomorrow” unless they qualify it with “inshallah” (my shorthand for the 3-word expression). It is a recognition that nothing would happen unless God wants it to. Unfortunately, many people use it differently. Many a foreigner has asked me “inshallah yes or inshallah no?” Because people often say inshallah when they actually mean they’re probably not going to do something… Sort of pushing the blame onto God rather than themselves, when they never really planned to do it in the first place.

Now moving away from Arabic, and thinking about educational discourse… It is interesting how the term “liberal” is meant to be a good thing in certain contexts but not others. So “liberal arts”, and being liberal about social issues and being “a liberal” all refer to open-mindedness and so on, whereas liberal economic has a different connotation, and neo-liberalism is the enemy of education.

It’s also funny how a word like “instrumental” can mean totally different things. When I was thinking about my thesis, I was at some point thinking about how the North American conception of critical thinking treats it as instrumental (i.e. means to an end), but when I tried to explain this to a friend, I asked her if knew what I meant by the term “instrumental” and she took it to mean “essential” (as in, X is essential/instrumental to the success of Y), which, of course, is one meaning of the term.

So what is really confusing, for me, is words like that, that have several dictionary definitions that all work,but if you don’t know all the possible meanings, you could completely misunderstand something. And beside the dictionary definitions, there are the meanings of different words and terms in particular discourses, which makes outsiders even more confused, because the words have other meanings in plain language, but their connotation in the specialized discourse are completely different. And then the nuances of using expressions to mean something completely different – that must drive non-native speakers absolutely nuts!

Not saying anything new here, just reflecting…

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