Speak, that I may see a muddle

Although my Englishness is not the top thing I’d choose to draw attention to, nationality or origin does tend to come up when meeting people. I suppose it’s a typical ice-breaker question and it does answer those burning questions (sometimes unasked) Why do you look strange/like you’re not from around here? and Why do you sound strange/have an accent?

 

In Beirut, my identity could be succinctly summarised as “English”. Sometimes “European” was even enough. In Paris, on the other hand, where many people had visited the UK, “English, but not from London” pretty much covered it. Soon after I arrived in Spain I was asked the same “Where are you from?” question and I answered “England.” Then I felt rather stupid since the person asking was evidently English too and was wearing a look which said “Well, obviously!”

 

In my 13 years abroad I have never been surrounded by so many English people as here on the southern coast of Spain. Now simply saying “England” won’t pass muster in these awkward introductory moments where one is required to define oneself in a few choice terms before being allowed to move on to actual conversation. Not only must I be more precise, all the information I give will mean something, be processed and assessed by peers.

 

I can no longer merely be “English”, I have to be a southerner, from Devon, where all the posh folk are (so they tell me). Not that I need say much; my accent labels me a southerner before I admit it myself. At this point I should probably point out that most Brits in this part of Spain are from the Midlands or the North of England. Who would have thought that after years of being defined (superficially, at any rate) by my foreign accent in French and in Arabic, it is now my mother tongue accent that is getting me pigeon-holed.

 

I had spent a long time outside the English social class system. I didn’t miss it, I can tell you. Of course, every country has its class system, its social strata. In Lebanon, for many, being European alone was enough to put you in the upper ranks. But I could ignore that, with it being so out of touch with reality. This is something altogether closer to home. Everything I say is like a label for my little perch in that class-ridden society. A misleading label though.

 

Actually, I’m only a fake southerner. Where I grew up in a market town-cum-holiday village in south Devon, you only qualified as a “real” local if your parents were born there. Some people in school were from families who had been local fishermen or farmers or butchers for generations. The rest of us had moved in. I wasn’t a true local because my parents are from the north and the Midlands, both from working class families. So I grew up with a mixed accent; actually I think my parents’ speech varied a lot too depending on the situation, it’s just not the type of thing you think about as a kid.

 

I remember my older sister laughing at me when I was about 10 and inadvertently picked up the pronunciation of some local school friends – not a posh accent though, more a farming accent. And I was probably about 13 when I spent some time with a few “toffs” who laughed at my short-vowelled “fast” and “grass” and instead said “fahst” and “grahss”. A couple of years later, school friends pointed out that I sounded mostly normal except I said “lizzen” for “listen”.

 

I still seesaw between long or short a’s. Just the other day, while I was giving my three-year old a bath, she picked me up on saying what we would do “afterwards” with a short ‘a’. “We don’t say ‘afterwards’ mummy, we say ‘ah-fterwards’”, she announced from a mountain of bubbles. A bit rich, I reckon, since she gets her English almost entirely from me. Since she is learning to read, I do sometimes use a short ‘a’ sound on purpose when we are practising reading together as it seems inconsistent to read ‘cat’ with one type of ‘a’ and ‘pass’ with another. In my accent, the long ‘a’ is also the same sound as ‘ar’ makes in ‘cart’ too, making it particularly unhelpful for phonetic reading.

 

I was never aware of actually changing my accent as a kid, but I guess over my school years it was knocked into a fairly bland “standard” British accent of questionable paternity with the odd Geordie touch. (If you want to know what a fake southerner sounds like you can listen to me here, from about the 24 minutes mark.)

 

This may sound naive to proper Brits, but as an out-of-the-loop expat, I hadn’t realised quite how much I would be judged on my accent in my adult life. Now if only I could crank it up or down I could keep both camps happy…. but I’m afraid it’s entirely out of my control.

 

“Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee.” – Ben Jonson

The Problem With Arabic

Anyone who has put their minds to Arabic will know that the initial major issue is WHICH Arabic to learn, classical or dialect and if dialect, which one. Do you study the written language you can find in books, or the daily conversation Arabic which has no written form?

 

As a parent, trying to open a little window, even a tiny porthole, onto the language and culture, this problem takes on a new form. I can read my kids books in French, normal everyday useful French. I can even read to them in Spanish, and apart from the rubbish accent it’s the same Spanish people really speak, more or less. But reading books in Arabic to your kids is rather weird. Because these simple sentences are things that no mother would ever say to her child. No-one actually speaks classical Arabic in any informal situation. And classical Arabic really is vastly different to the dialects in my unprofessional opinion. It even makes things complicated for native-speakers teaching their kids Arabic as a additional language.

SNAP! or according to my 3-year old: "CAC."

SNAP! or according to my 3-year old: “CAC with a dot.” (from The Odd Egg in Arabic)

The result? No one reads my Arabic books to the kids. I thought people would quite like reading a story to the kids in Arabic and at the same time the kids would get some native input. So I pull out these lovely stories and they cuddle up on the sofa together, while I get on with preparing the dinner …only to hear Al Bayda Al Ajeeba (The Odd Egg) translated from Arabic into French. Or translated back into English. (Perhaps I should tape it and send it off to author Emily Gravett?) Not all my Arabic-speaking visitors do this automatic translation trick, but the majority. You’ve got to admire their linguistic flexibility.

 

It seems that the Lebanese are so unused to reading to kids in classical Arabic (let alone speaking it to them) that they naturally slip into other languages. And we mustn’t forget all the Francophile Lebanese who speak Arabic all day long in their daily lives, but only French to their kids.

 

No wonder many adult Lebanese find it such a drag to pick up a book in Arabic. They are not even used to children’s books in their native language (although I suppose classical Arabic doesn’t feel like their native language, and that’s the whole point). It’s a bit like French teenagers moaning about the ‘antiquated’ passé simple in French literature, but for Arabic it’s not just one verb tense which is no longer used in everyday language. It’s almost every part of speech.

 

While it is true that we could eliminate the French passé simple and just say the same thing in everyday French, I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to language, so although it is more ornament than instrument, it doesn’t bother me. As for classical Arabic, it can’t be superseded as there is (as yet) no accepted written form of Arabic dialects (though I love the imaginative transliterated dialect I read online). More importantly, classical Arabic crosses the borders of the many Arab countries. That’s quite a sacrifice if you decide to opt for just one spoken dialect.

 

All the heavy debate aside, I just love to watch my 3-year old bouncing up and down on the terrace shouting “Wain el ‘amar?” (where’s the moon?) to her little brother who nearly falls over himself pointing and shouting “Amar! Amar!” (moon! moon!). Later they’ll have to learn that it is written something like “Ayna el qamar?” but for now I’m chuffed as it is.

Kids’ books in Arabic

I realise it’s a bit odd trying to introduce Arabic to my kids when it’s not my language. I know that out of the three key factors - need, exposure and prestige – none are really present enough for Arabic in our family. There’s really no need to speak of, since all the Arabic speakers in the family have a second native tongue, French or English. As for exposure, the kids only get a tiny bit of exposure from my in-laws, but at least it’s authentic. However, I’m not aiming to teach them the language as such. I couldn’t if I wanted to. I just want to open their minds to it, to give them the option of tuning in to it, rather than tuning out when they hear it spoken. By viewing it as important, I can at least give it a modicum of prestige. I also thought the native Arabic speakers we know would enjoy reading to the kids, although that side of it didn’t quite work out as planned.

So back to translated books. As for Al Gharfoul, as The Gruffalo is called in Arabic, I’m not qualified to judge the quality of the translation and I haven’t had much feedback from Arabic speakers. But we like reading it, and I’ve chosen a few simple expressions from it to use around the house with my three-year old, for example “ila ayna, ila ayna” (in the original, “where are you going”), “fa’ra” (mouse) and “lisayn aswad” (“black tongue”). This has been a lot of fun and my three-year old daughter does play around with these words on her own, along with a few others she has learnt.

The Gruffalo in Arabic, translated by Nadia Fouda

The Gruffalo in Arabic, translated by Nadia Fouda

I did notice a few short vowels are not printed. Probably it’s because these are words that would rarely be mispronounced, so there’s no need to add vowels for clarification even for children. Typically, if you can read a story this long in Arabic then you know the language well enough to pronounce these words correctly. But…I don’t, really, and this story is over my head linguistically. I have to decipher it fairly slowly. If my three-year old, who understands even less, wasn’t such a bookworm and a language nerd then she’d get bored. I rarely read the entire text in one sitting, and nor does anyone else. Sometimes I do the narration in English and the voices in Arabic.

The Odd Egg in Arabic, translated by Hanouf Al Buainain, Amira Abed

The Odd Egg in Arabic, translated by Hanouf Al Buainain & Amira Abed

So having learnt from this, I recently ordered the Arabic translation of The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett. Ironically, I used to borrow the English original from our little library in Beirut. Back then, my daughter wasn’t two yet. There is much less text than The Gruffalo. The text is also bigger and all on a cream background, making the script easier for me to read. As for the translation, in the original, there are some words in the illustrations, for example, comments by the birds, and the title of a book which is pictured. All of this has been carefully rendered in Arabic in the same handwritten style. Much better than the Spanish translations of Charlie and Lola, aka Juan y Tolola, which are in the local library; Charlie has been renamed Juan, but in the picture his top still has Charlie written on it. I particularly like the rendering of the owl’s brainy utterance which was a list of sums in the original: in the translation, it becomes a string of literary Arabic pronouns.

Conclusion: Both are lovely but I should stick to short stories for now!

It might be just what’s needed to trigger some passive learning. I do want my kids to feel attached to it as a family language. I feel attached to it, and I’m only Lebanese on paper, not by blood like them. If they were to take it further later, then there are native speakers in the family, it’s just that for now we need them to help us with French!

School Enrolment in Spain part 2

See here for Part 1 of School Enrolment in Spain.
After a good look at “colegios públicos” on Google Maps, I went along to the ayuntamiento (town hall) to start my real-people-research. The ‘Department of Education’ ended up being a nameless office on the second floor. In fact, a lady from the information desk readily accompanied me to make sure I got the right place. I’m consistently surprised by how patient and helpful people are despite my terrible Spanish.
In fact sometimes I wonder how they understand me at all. I stammer out stuff that I’m not even sure is Spanish, it’s probably French with a few more o’s and a few less nasals, muddled with English word order, and yet somehow they get it (probably from my body language) and answer me as if I were a normal respectable citizen. This did not happen when I moved to Paris. No-one was quite this indulgent, believe me.
ah, the joy of tax stamps

ah, the joy of tax stamps

One of my main aims was to find out which schools I can or should apply to. Our address is close to the border between two municipalities. One school I had in mind, which is just five minutes walk away, is actually in a different municipality, and the official told me there is no way to enrol there unless we get ourselves declared resident in that municipality. (I later found out this is not quite true.)
There are five other schools in our municipality within a 12-minute walk (thanks Google Maps for this precision!) so it’s unlikely I’ll actually end up having to drive them to school, something I really want to avoid.
He *thinks* the applications are in March. I guess he too is lacking a decent web site with all the basics spelt out.
In the list of establishments he jotted down for me, he marked one school with a small asterisk and another with a large asterisk. “Those are good,” he said matter-of-factly. I assume that the size of the star is linked to just how good he considered them to be. Then he told me the rest of the procedure is done through the school directly, and stood up to shake my hand. My visit was fast drawing to a close. I was still trying to figure out where to get my volante de empadronamiento to prove residence in my municipality, otherwise I would have tried to get more details on exactly what makes these two colegios better than the others.
Downstairs in the town hall, I paid for a couple of tax stamps (oh, the happy memories of Lebanese bureaucracy and tax stamps) and got my volante de empadronamiento. So the next stop is to speak to some schools directly. And gather local opinions on “good” schools in the hope of unearthing some actual information. Or failing that at least practise my Spanish.

My issues with je ne sais quoi

Elle Decoration (of course)

Elle Decoration (of course)

One of the problems with moving abroad and immersing yourself in another language is that you forget how to say foreign words in English. I mean all those borrowed words that are commonly used in English. The English language has adopted loads of French words like “ambience”, “connoisseur”, and “rendezvous” (or even fake French words like “en suite”). I’m sure there are plenty of words from other languages that I’m less attuned to as well.

The English have worked out their own pronunciation of these words, a slightly anglicised version which is basically a bit easier to say without twisting your mouth into all sorts of unaccustomed shapes.
The thing is, when you go and immerse yourself in all things French/Italian/whatever you somehow lose your grip slightly on your mother tongue. You go to real cafés instead of Starbucks, you learn new recipes in French, you learn to say hello every time you walk into a shop and goodbye (not thank you) when you leave, you listen to French radio until you can finally get the gist of what’s been happening from the dry, high-speed, minimally informative news reports on FranceInfo (it’s hard, believe me). You sit through lectures on Molière, on thème and version, and if you’re crazy like me, you even go to Arabic classes in French.
It feels like uphill work, but when you have a chance to relax into English you suddenly find you can’t speak it in the same way any more. The French words just come faster sometimes, and even the way you make sentences gets gallicised. It’s worse if all your English friends speak French too because you just babble on, mixing languages. Linguists call this code-switching, but it feels like babbling to me.
I don’t babble like I used to, because for three years I’ve been aiming for pure English with my kids. But when I go back to England, I have no idea how to pronounce the borrowed words. I have unlearnt those in-between words that can swing from one language to another.
The problem is how normal Brits view this. Speaking “foreign” is not well thought of in England. It’s decidedly pretentious to go throwing foreign-sounding words around. I’ve been there, I do get it. To me, too, it sounds ridiculous when people come back from a holiday in Florence saying “Ciao bella!” And it isn’t just me – Kate Fox talks about this reaction in her great book Watching the English.
It’s a curious thing really, because many French words adopted by the English language are related to concepts we aspire to or admire. Its a legacy left over from French being the language of the aristocracy; more recent adoptions testify to our continued awe at French style, cooking and general savoir-vivre (oops). Think of words like boutique, cuisine, haute couture, etiquette, première, encore, etc.
But a Brit using such fancy words excessively, or saying foreign words in a foreign way (that is, trying to say them accurately – quelle horreur!) means you’re a swaggerer, or trying too hard. Fox puts it down to the importance we English accord to modesty (or at least, an appearance of modesty).
The result? When I speak to Brits, I either avoid words that sound French because I can’t remember how to say them in English, or I have a stab and end up mispronouncing them by both English and French standards at the same time. It’s all rather comic, so long as you can leave the country again, I suppose.