Commentator Linda Abi Assi speaks three languages–French, Arabic and English–and is a citizen of both France and Lebanon, her country of origin. Recently an American friend overheard her switch languages while talking on the phone with her sister, and asked Abi Assi which language she thought in. She realized thinking in one language while juggling two others is central to who she is: both a Lebanese native and a perennial expatriate.
Lebanese people have a standard greeting: “hi, kifak, ca va?” which, roughly translated, means “hi, how are you?”… using, in that order, English, Arabic and French words. It’s become a running joke in the country and was even made into a tee shirt that’s popular with tourists.
Mixing these languages is an unmistakably Lebanese trait: kind of like fighting over who gets to pay the check in restaurants, always being late, or making fun of Syrians.
We’re trilingual because Lebanon was under French mandate for more than 20 years until independence came in 1943. But the official language is Arabic, and some of the country’s best universities are American universities. I went to one of these, and that’s when I really began to speak English on a regular basis.
My first language was French, and as a teenager I sort of looked down on the mixed up Lebanese way of talking: it means we’re a nation with terrible grammar. But when I moved to Paris at 21, something awful happened… miles from home, I found myself speaking in the exact way I’d resented for so long.
Suddenly I had to always pay attention to the way I spoke in public. Otherwise, I would blurt out random Arabic words like ya3ne, khalas, eno, hek–basically “well, like, or because”… along with the occasional English word when, inexplicably, I couldn’t think of how to say it in French. To this day, “yalla” – similar to “come on” or “let’s go” in English- is part of my everyday vocabulary, not to mention I still swear exclusively in Arabic.
My age has a lot to do with the way I talk. I was born in Beirut in the late 1980s … during a civil war that tore Lebanon to shreds for almost fifteen years. When I was 2, my parents decided it would be safer to move to to France.
Despite my parents’ best efforts, my sisters and I never learned Arabic there, but when I was 9 we moved back to Lebanon. My Arabic illiteracy didn’t matter in some ways: I went to a French school and I lived in a French-speaking neighborhood. But something was missing. People often assumed I was French because of my slight French accent but I never felt French, nor did I ever feel truly Lebanese. I felt like—and I was– an outsider.
After I decided to become a journalist, I quickly realized I would never make it in Lebanon if I didn’t learn Arabic. I particularly remember a press conference given by then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that I had to cover for a French-written newspaper. I remember how baffled I was when he started speaking Arabic. I kept expecting for someone to translate but it wasn’t long before I realized I was probably the only non-Arabic speaker in the room.
One of the first things I taught myself was the Lebanese anthem.
It starts…all for the country, for the glory, for the flag… Learning it made my patriotism kick in. I realized that mixing the three languages actually makes me feel like I belong.
It’s been two years now since I left the country so I’ve kind of lost the habit. But whenever I speak to another Lebanese person, Yalla, eno, hek, ya3ne… somehow resurface. And at last, I’m fine with that.
Linda Abi Assi is currently pursuing a masters in journalism in New York and hopes her language skills will come in handy for her future profession… as long as she can resist the urge to mix different languages in the same sentences.