Learning a new language is like entering a different dimension. A limitless universe in which one can see past socially constructed concepts like race, gender and the hierarchy of languages. A dimension in which one has the liberty to view words as arbitrary combinations of sounds used to describe the world around us.
It wasn’t until I started learning my mother tongue seriously that I confronted this truth. I learned how in Arabic, an institution that educates children is a madrasa, but in English it is a school. These words sound different, yet mean the same thing. Fool is an unwise person, but ful is a middle eastern stew of cooked fava beans. These words sound the same, yet have completely different meanings. Drastic differences like these among the two languages I am most familiar with proved to me that though words are the most powerful tool humans possess, they are ultimately derived from simple shapes that distinguish one object in our world from another. I wish I would have realized this earlier.
I wish that when I was playing dress-up in my predominately white preschool and my classmate asked me to hand her the slipper that was next to me I did not feel ashamed because I did not know what slipper meant. At home, my parents always referred to that type of shoe as a shahata, and this was the first time I heard the English translation of it. I felt out of place for knowing any language other than English. At that moment, I began internalizing my language as inferior — and myself as inferior too.
I began taking shame in my parent’s native language. Whenever they spoke Arabic in public I hid my face and responded in English. I knew that in America, my Arab identity was a target for racism and speaking Arabic would draw more attention to the parts of me I wanted to conceal.
I soon lost my ability to communicate in Arabic.
My parents noticed this loss of culture, and we soon moved to Dearborn, Michigan. They hoped that living in a city with the highest concentration of Arabs in America would encourage me to embrace my roots — but it wasn’t that simple. I had already internalized a superior view of the English language and the friends I made in Dearborn were just as cultured as I was. For the next few years in my life I struggled to balance my Arab and my American identities.
I studied Arabic for a while in high school, slowly restoring my linguistic skills. My Arabic instructors instilled me with pride and empowered me to discover the richness of Arabic. We watched Assal Eswed, and listened to Umm Kulthum. I fell in love with my language but fear of rejection from American society reigned supreme. It wasn’t until I watched a documentary on the misrepresentation of Arabs in Western media that I ruled my fears illogical. It dawned on me that the reason I felt ashamed to speak Arabic was because America did not understand which made them uncomfortable. I decided to not let America’s discomfort become mine.
At university I have continued with my Arabic studies, deepening my relationship with the language. I believe understanding multiple languages is enriching. The world becomes a limitless dimension where the possibilities of understanding one another extends beyond the confinements of simple words. The Arabic language is beautiful and I have become proud as I currently rebuild the Arabic vocabulary that I spent much of my life trying to lose. An aspect of my identity that I was once ashamed of now liberates me. I am freed from the shackles of a language hierarchy.