Searching for a school for Georgia, I found myself interviewing a young administrator from Lebanon. In turn, she discovered I have a French family name and suddenly our conversation shifted. She addressed me in her Beirut-Parisian and I returned the favour in American-Québécois. It was as natural as a walk in the Bois du Boulogne.
Perhaps, however, it was as natural as a ferry across La Manche, aka the English Channel, because, as bilingual speakers, we drifted back into English and then back into French. It was seamless and either of us would be hard put to say what was said in either language.
This is not an unnatural phenomenon; I have heard this mélange of languages all my
life. To hear it in Abu Dhabi is no surprise either, given the number of Lebanese and Moroccans here. However, here, one may be just as likely to hear two speakers sway between the camel’s humps of Arabic and English. A few weeks ago I heard the deputy editor speaking on the phone with his wife in Arabic, switch to English and then back to Arabic. If he was sweating it was because it was hot outside not from the effort of speaking and thinking two languages.
On the radio, in the taxi on my way home one night last week, the Urdu announcer said something about a report on “Bloomberg Television.” Certainly there is an Urdu word for television, I thought. Or maybe, “Bloomberg Television” is the name of the news organization. Perhaps still “television” is one of those words taken wholesale into the language the way “le hot-dog”, “l’internet” and “le weekend” were adopted by the French.
I did not speak English until I entered kindergarten. My mother tongue is French, though she was an estranged parent for much of my life. The order of religious sisters who ran the school I attended in Aldenville, to which my parents had emigrated from Quebec, taught in English. One morning, it would have had to have been my first morning, in kindergarten, the sister called out names for roll call. You could tell what kind of enclave we lived in by the family names of the children in the row in front of me: Aubuchon, Auger, Bachand. “Beauchemin,” she said. “Norman Beauchemin.”
“Il n’est pas ici,” I said. Though now that I think about it, they would have known that. The chair was empty in front of me.
The sister called me to her desk. “You are?”
“Raymond. Norman’s my ousin. He’s not coming here. The family moved,” I said in Frenc.
“Hold out your hand,” she said.
I did. She slapped it with a ruler. “We speak English here,” she said.
Not half an hour into my formal education and I’d gotten in trouble. What a long trip this was going to be.
(Of course, there was payback. From kindergarten through Grade 8, if the sisters commiserated among themselves in French and I was in earshot, I translated for the class.)
At home, like many generations of immigrant families in countries all over the world, when my parents spoke to me in the Old World language, I answered in that of the New World. I understood perfectly what they said; they understood my response. There are
words from my childhood though that even 40-some-odd years later I would have to search for an English equivalent. Secouer is something one does to le nappe after le souper. I have never shaken off a tablecloth after dinner. After 17 years in Montreal,
there are words that now seem so natural I must mentally thumb through a dictionary: corner store? What is that? Oh, le dépanneur.
In 1990 I moved to Montreal, Quebec’s largest city, an island of co-existent French and English – along with Italian, Greek, Hindu, Punjab, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic. There, to say one is bilingual is not much of a feat. I knew a woman born of Portuguese parents who had a Greek nanny and lived in a Jewish neighbourhood. She went to a French-immersion school in the English school board. Conversant in five languages by the age of six. Not bad.
To hear two speakers drifting between French and English in Montreal is like finding snow drifts in March. This year, there are snow drifts in April. Too much snow can be dangerous, however. Montrealers found that out this year with the collapse of several
snow-burdened roofs. When one language dominates another, the threat of collapse is just as real.
Quebec francophones felt themselves threatened in the 1960s and with the election of the Parti Québécois and the passage of several laws and creation of certain institutions, they managed to protect their language. Today, French thrives – spoken with some degree of proficiency by just about everyone in the province.
Arabic in the United Arab Emirates, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is a threatened language. This is understandable. Combined, these two emirates have about 4 million people. Eighty-five percent of them, very nearly ninety percent, are expats. Now, some of those expatriates will be from other Gulf countries or countries where Arabic is spoken, like Lebanon, but not enough to affect the trend away from speaking Arabic. But most the immigrant population here is from the subcontinent. Their first language is either Urdu or Hindu. Their second language is not Arabic.
The sad truth is that everyone here speaks English, and Arabic is threatened because it is the minority partner in this strange pas de deux despite the fact it is the language of the
one holding the dance card. To buy fruit here, to have pants tailored, to talk to a taxi driver, one speaks English. To obtain a driver’s license, to attend a museum exhibition, to mail a letter, English.
English is equally dominant on signage. English is the primary teaching language of almost all the schools. English is the language of the newest newspaper here, one that
seeks to attract readers who have made the UAE their home but who cannot read Arabic.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it seems, are victims of their own success. To create the cities they have wanted to create, cities of gold with towers of glass, they have had to import the means to do it. This has meant bringing in not just labour, but management. (The Emiratis own everything, they just don’t run it.) To create this gilded life, the Emiratis had to sacrifice their language and culture.
The Emirati sheikhs have taken note. Late last month, the sheikhs and the Federal National Council, the UAE parliament, sitting here in Abu Dhabi, announced Arabic
proficiency tests for any student – Arabic or not – wishing to attend university. A good call. Arabic, whether spoken or written, is a hard language to master even without the infiltration of English, like so much blown sand in the cracks of a windowpane. If you’re going to work here, the law basically says, you must learn what we speak here and have spoken here for two thousand years.
The next day, the government announced the working language in all federal bureaux would be Arabic. The first question was: Why wasn’t it in the first place? The second question, one asked around the newsroom conference table, was: Will you still be able to buy a stamp in English?
Quebec, where French is the language of the majority of schoolchildren and working language in offices of fifty or more people, is not a good role model. rench Quebecers are a majority in their province. Emiratis are not.
Also, many rancophone parents wish their children to learn in English to give them an edge when they grow up. The law prevents them from doing so, however. This is not bad legislation. Given the choice, many parents would enrol their kids in English schools. And then Quebec would be in the situation it found itself in forty years ago.
The Emirati citizens who can afford it send their children to private schools in Britain. They may be doing their children a favour, but it could, ultimately, hurt Emirati and Arabic culture.