For all of my rich heritage – my parents come from a land which has 22 languages and more than 700 dialects, after all – I speak only one language, English, fluently. Arundathi Roy’s wonderful essay–What is the morally appropriate language in which to think and write? —has got me thinking about languages and their histories; the stories they tell and the maps they chart of our lives.
I’ve always called myself a native speaker of English, but my very first language was actually Malayalam – from Kerala in southern India, where I was born and spent the first two or so years of my life. I’d probably still be able to speak Malayalam if it hadn’t been immediately subsumed by English when we returned to the UK (because my parents were told to speak to us only in English or they’d confuse us, which was the thinking at the time). I’m wondering how different my relationships would have been with my home state, my extended family there–perhaps even my parents–if I’d been able to think and converse in their language.
I’m thinking that even after a decade in Egypt and an Egyptian husband, my Arabic could still sadly best be described as ‘functional’, and there’s so much I miss out on here because of this (especially the humour, because the Egyptian sense of humour is priceless). I’m also thinking of the many layers of snobbery around English in Egypt (and probably many developing countries) – the casual mockery of those whose English is heavily accented; how, as a brown-skinned native English speaker, I can still confuse people; how I sat in a posh Cairo family club last week where every announcement was made in English, when everyone was speaking Arabic and I was probably the only native English speaker for miles.
And I think also of how different my life would have been if I weren’t a fluent English speaker – of how learning (good) English if you’re poor or disadvantaged or from a developing country can be an arduous, costly battle but is still vital to open doors. And how you can still distinguish the elite of almost any country by the quality of the English they speak (usually American- rather than British-tinged these days, sadly : )
The language(s) we speak, especially if you’re an immigrant/expat/third culture kid or in a developing country, carries so much political, socio-economic, cultural and also religious baggage – and sometimes so much privilege. It’s good to be reminded of this sometimes.