How to bluff in Lebanese

It’s always good to be able to talk the talk if you really want to get to know the lovely people of Lebanon. Here are a few pointers for people planning a trip here which may help you to bluff your way into longer more meaningful conversations.

Ps and Qs

First off a few niceties. To catch a waiter’s attention use ‘pleaze’, but if you need to interrupt someone or ask a favour use ‘sorrry’. Roll the ‘r’ again when expressing thanks – ‘merci’ – or enthusiastic thanks ‘merci kteer’. ‘No’ is ‘La2’, the 2 signifying a glottal stop, or in layman’s terms, that funny half-sound that replaces the ‘t’ when most English say ‘football’. A more expressive way to say ‘no’, is to lift your chin and clack your tongue in a loud tut.

Getting around

Taxis can be confusing as they often offer two types of service. If you want a door-to-door ride it’s actually called a ‘taxi’ and will cost you 10,000 LL within town (pink face tax included; 8,000 if you really talk the talk). But if you want to be squeezed in with up to five other passengers and dropped off somewhere near your destination for a mere ‘elfayn’ (or 2,000) you should specify you want ‘servees’, which means ‘don’t try and con me even if I look foreign’. On a busy night or for a longer trip, the driver may counter with ‘serveesayn’, which is double the fee, and acceptable depending on demand.

Lebanese is beautifully simple in many ways. When you’re waiting on the curb and a honking Mercedes, older than you are, pulls up to offer a ‘servees’ ride, no need for elaborate requests. Just ask ‘Hamra?’ or ‘Adlieh?’ or wherever you want to go. If it’s on his way, or he can reconcile it with his other passengers, he’ll pause just long enough for you to scramble in. If he roars off leaving you in a cloud of exhaust, well, that’s a ‘no’. He may or may not bother to tut, but you get the point.

‘Fo2’ doesn’t just mean the preposition ‘up’ it also means the place ‘up’, whatever it may be, so ‘up the hill’, ‘up in the mountain’, ‘our higher altitude home as opposed to our coastal residence’ or simply ‘upstairs’. The opposite (for all options) is ‘taHt’. When out and about you may be offered something you do not wish to accept (eg coffee, shoe polishing and so on), you can politely decline with ‘mara taani’, literally ‘second time’, that is ‘another time’ and also covering the possibility of ‘not now and probably not ever’.

Working ‘barra’, or ‘outside’ does not mean farmwork or roofing, it means working abroad. Bear in mind there are more Lebanese ‘outside’ than there are still living in the country so this is an ever present concept. It can also be a matter of status, as diplomas obtained ‘outside’, or products which have been imported have a perceived edge over their local equivalents.

Being a good guest

Dinner conversation is also useful, as eating is a delightful, frequent and lengthy pastime in Lebanon. ‘SaHtein’ means ‘bon appetit’ or literally ‘two healths’. You should reply ‘Aa-elbak’ (or ‘Aa-elbik to a girl) to wish good health back on their heart for thinking of your belly, but if you forget how, ‘merci’ will do. You will necessarily want to compliment the hostess and tell her that ‘kill shi tayyeb’, everything is delicious, because it always will be. You may wish to use ‘selim dayetik’ to bless her hands for their hard work.

By the time the starter is done, you may be asked various questions which translate literally as ‘Have you put on weight?’ ‘When will you start trying for a baby?’ and ‘Do you digest beans well?’ Don’t be scared. The meaning is, well, literal, but if you wish to take some liberty with the responses feel free. It does make first encounters more fun.

Franglais as a first language

The acquisition of language is a fascinating thing… at least for me. We are using a fairly classical bilingual approach with our Beirut baby, that is, the one-person-one-language system. I speak English, my husband French. It’s nothing compared to kids growing up in countries where three or four languages are the norm. Still there are some surprises.

The first surprise was that she wasn’t slow to talk, as it’s widely held that a slight delay is standard for bilingual kids. But when I looked it up, more recent reports suggest there is not necessarily a language delay at all. Which makes sense or I guess pretty much all Indian, most African, and a good many Lebanese kids would all talk “late”. Perhaps a misconception born out of the huge bulk of research being carried out in monolingual cultures?

Of course it’s different if one language comes from the parents and the second from the community. That’s a whole different type of bilingualism. If a child in that situation is assessed when starting school, they’ll be behind the other kids in the community language, but may speak as well or better in their home language.

Still within a few years both languages will be “native” and (in most countries) a few years later still the community language will be dominant unless efforts are made to build on the home language. Especially if the child never learns how to write in the home language, a problem compounded if the two languages are written in different alphabets.

In Lebanon this doesn’t really apply. Here the community speaks not one but several languages. You can play this one of two ways. Either parents can use it to reinforce the home language or to contrast with it since they can opt for schooling in French or English. So parents can, to a degree, “choose” a community language. Many Christian Lebanese kids grow up with French only learning Lebanese dialect as a second language, with classical Arabic coming a poor third or fourth. In Achrafieh the default mode is to speak French to any kids … even if you speak Lebanese with their parents. It especially makes me giggle when Filipina maids sing French nursery rhymes to my daughter.

Of course at 19 months, the community language – whatever it may be – has only a very minor role since she is not at nursery. Since daddy telecommutes, she gets a lot of time with both of us.  So balancing the influence of English against French is fairly simple.  However, we do speak more English between ourselves than French and that clearly shows in her vocabulary. By the end of 18 months she used about 50 French words compared to 70 English words, apart from 25 “neutral” words, such as names, Lebanese words and words which sound the same in both languages.

However you could also put it down to my mild obsession with language, which makes me more pedagogical whereas daddy is more playful! At any rate she’s learning both ways. She’s at ease translating words between the two languages. If she points and says “pawapluie” I only have to ask, “How does mummy say it?” and she responds “umbwella”.

Another surprise for me was that once my Beirut baby learns a word in one language she isn’t slower to learn it in the second language. Her first words were all for different things, not French AND English for the same thing (eg cat and chat) and it seemed to be a case of whether I got there first, or my husband did. But now the crossover of her two vocabularies is almost total. I thought that once the need was filled there would be less motivation to learn the equivalent word, but it actually comes quicker, as if the hard part is nailing the concept and getting a label on it, but then adding alternative names to the same notion is easy. Has anybody else found this?

We don’t know where we will end up living, so for now we are aiming for a good balance of the two languages at home. With time we’d appreciate an extra boost for French from the community to fight the international dominance of English. Ideally we’d also have the chance for our daughter to learn Lebanese in the playground when starting school, and literary Arabic a bit later in class.

Some parents focus so much on English or French that their kids find learning written Arabic a big chore, but if we were to leave Lebanon this is one major opportunity my Beirut baby would miss out on, as neither of us are able to teach her properly ourselves.