By Mirella Hodeib
Daily Star staff
Friday, January 19, 2007
BEIRUT: The Lebanese have a much-touted turn of phrase to greet each other that mixes three languages within the same expression: “Hi. Keefak? Ca va?”
Lebanese Arabic contains many instances in which these three languages – English, Arabic and French – are mashed together in the same sentence. For example, Lebanese youth make plans for the night by asking, “Shou, rayhin clubbing ce soir?” (So, what, are we going clubbing tonight?), and mothers tuck their children in at night with a “yalla dodo, nighty night.”
Switching between three languages has always been a characteristic of the Lebanese dialect. In fact, linguistic plurality has been an esteemed tradition throughout the country’s history.
Lebanon’s contact with the West is not a recent development; the tiny country’s strategic position between East and West has contributed through the ages to its multicultural and multilingual nature.
In modern-day Lebanon, French is considered the language of culture and maintains a vital link with France and other francophone countries. English, on the other hand, is seen as the language of business, technology and communications with the non-Arab world.
“Lebanon’s familiarity with Western-style education, since the bourgeoning of missionary schools in the 19th century, set the foundations for a tradition of bilingualism that has proven its viability over the years and become entrenched in the Lebanese psyche and the Lebanese educational system,” said Kassim Shaaban, a linguistics professor at the American University of Beirut.
Nevertheless, English is increasingly gaining status within what had been thought to be a francophone fortress. However, unlike in Algeria and Morocco, the issue here is not one of primary language but rather that of the second language.
Recently, the English language section at Librarie Antoine, Lebanon’s bookstore “par excellence,” was moved to a more visible corner.
While the head of the Anglophone books section at Antoine, Hala Shaftari, denies that the section was moved to cater to a growing numbers of English readers, she admits that English book sales at the Hamra branch are on the rise.
“However, this does not mean the francophone bookshop will change its name to Anthony’s Bookshop,” she says.
Shaftari adds that the branch of the bookshop in Achrafieh is still entirely francophone.
The rising sales of English books at the Hamra branch are likely due to the fact the store is surrounded by English-language universities and schools, she says. “Therefore a lot of university students visit us looking for English sources and textbooks.”
The government’s policies concerning language and various reports on the subject suggest a shift from Arabic/French bilingualism to Arabic/French/English “trilingualism.”
In fact, the Constitution says that “at the end of their intermediate education, students can take official examinations in mathematics and sciences in Arabic or in a foreign language (French or English).”
Mishka M. Mourani, senior vice president of the International College, says the number of students enrolled in French studies is the same as the number of those enrolled in English.
“Being an international school, we put a lot of emphasis on multilingualism,” Mourani says, adding that the school has begun teaching second languages in its pre-school.
“This stems from our belief that the sooner students are exposed to a language the better they will be able to acquire it,” she adds.
Mourani says the problems English-educated students face while learning French have to do with differences in the “essence” of both languages.
“While English is an easy language with which to communicate because it is an international language with many dialects, the French language’s grammar, on the other hand, does not allow for flexibility in pronunciation or word usage,” she explains. “Let me put it this way, it’s true that English is gaining ground, but not at the expense of French.”
A mother of four and a graduate student in linguistics, Nathalie Shehadeh says she chose to enroll her children in IC’s French program because she wanted them to learn more than one language and thought French would provide a strong foundation for other languages, such as Spanish or Italian.
Shehadeh compares young learners to “sponges.”
“I want my kids to learn both English and French with a local accent, but this wealth of linguistic information could only be absorbed if it is done at a younger age,” she says.
However, Shehadeh agrees that the ability to learn a new language was affected by the first language learned.
“It’s easier to acquire English when you are French-educated, and not vice versa,” she says.
Shaaban says such beliefs are a common misconception.
“Lebanese students from English-medium backgrounds are much less likely to be motivated to learn French than their counterparts who have attended at French-medium schools because French lacks international status,” he says.
Ray Abdel-Karim, who attended one of Lebanon’s most prestigious French schools, says: “Nowadays English is more important than French, especially as my major, nutrition, requires me to be competent in English since nutrition majors are very well paid in the United States, as well as in the Arab Gulf.”
But “I feel more comfortable speaking in French than in English since I’ve been in a French school for 15 years,” she says.
Abdel-Karim’s arguments for choosing to study at an English-medium university seem to have been heard by many traditionally French schools.
“As an economics major I think English as foreign language courses I took during my undergraduate years were indispensable,” says Tarek Borgi, a graduate student at the Universite Saint Joseph (USJ).
Many French-medium universities, such as USJ and the Universite du Saint Esprit de Kaslik, have begun to see a need for English courses within their curriculum.
“It’s inconceivable that an economist, an engineer or a film director would not master English,” says Henri Awaiss, director of the Languages and Translation Center at USJ. “Additionally, it seems quite erroneous to claim that in USJ only French is spoken. We have long sought to be a multilingual institution. In fact, more than five languages are taught at USJ.”
Awaiss notes that USJ has recently signed an agreement with the Confucius Institute, whereby Chinese-language courses will be offered in the spring since “nowadays English is losing ground to Chinese.”
However, he denies claims that some of the university’s most prominent deans are opposed to the incorporation of English courses in the curriculum. English is a must for students today, he says, if for no other reason than that the majority of international academic journals are written in English.
“They oppose English in the sense that they don’t want administrative interactions to be conducted in English so as to preserve the francophone nature and ancestry of the institution,” Awaiss explains.
While agreeing with Awaiss, Shaaban says the Lebanese have come to realize that in today’s globalized world even knowing two languages is no longer enough.
Mourani says France has always been active in marketing its language in Lebanon.
The French Embassy and the French Cultural Center organize a series of events each year aimed at promoting French language and culture.
Francophone book fairs, television programs broadcast from Beirut and spelling contests are all held to promote French, and have come to be a yearly tradition.
A seeming “linguistic status quo” could therefore be the result of the global pre-eminence of English as “lingua franca,” meshed with lasting effects and an enduring reverence for French culture.
“These two ideologies wrestle together in Lebanon and create a sort of a linguistic balance,” Mourani says.
Shaaban sums up the discussion by saying the languages in use in the Lebanese context have specifically assigned functions.
Thus, Arabic is the official language of the state and the national culture, French is the language of communication, institution (and a specific culture), and English is the language of international business, communication and information.
“Foreign-language use in Lebanon, namely French and English, is strictly utilitarian; each language fits a certain category and serves a certain purpose in differing contexts,” he adds.