“Dad, why did you lose your tongue?” The question was asked by the five-year-old daughter of Le Monde journalist Nabil Wakim, born in Lebanon and relocated in France at around the same age. Why did Nabil Wakim lose his mother tongue? And why do many personalities in France, like Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and Myriam El Khomri, two former government ministers, or the singer Camélia Jordana, the journalist Nassira El Moaddem and many others, carry this contradiction in them? Namely: having spoken the Arabic language at a younger age before losing it. Worse, finding yourself almost unable to relearn it later. Here is the recording of an interview I recently had with author Nabil Wakim, as part of French Morning’s 2020 Bilingual Fair, and a discussion that I further develop in this blog post.
Arabic for All?
To answer these important questions, Nabil Wakim wrote a fascinating book, L’arabe pour tous, pourquoi ma langue est taboue en France (Arabic for all, why my language is taboo in France) published by Éditions du Seuil. The book is both an intimate account and a political essay on the children of immigrants of Arab origin. Born to immigrant parents from Lebanon, Nabil Wakim delves into his childhood and remembers why, as a teenager, the process of integration into French society was more important than the preservation of his linguistic heritage. More importantly, why are the two not yet compatible?
Download an excerpt of L’arabe pour tous
“Arabic was the language of the poor”, he explains to HuffPost, the language of the house, that of maternal orders, the one used to speak quietly about the Lebanese conflict … He immersed himself in French literature, forbade his parents to speak Arabic after leaving school and gradually completely lost his language, which he understood and spoke easily at a younger age. It was in adulthood that Nabil Wakim realized this.
On a business trip to the Middle East, Nabil finds himself unable to speak to his interlocutors, unable to learn his language, unable to transmit it to his daughter. “I’m sort of paralyzed,” he says. And it is the reverse shame that comes over him when he sees that people of non-Arab origin speak the Arabic language much better than he does. While the separatism bill is emulated in France and the debate over learning Arabic in school rages on again, the author advocates for the reclaiming of languages from immigration.
Arabic is “a language of France”, asserts the journalist, “not a language of Islam and even less a language of terrorists.” Spoken by four million people in France, the Arabic language becomes “a treasure that we could all cherish together,” and not just one more item listed on the CVs of privileged graduate students:
There is a form of paradox that Arabic taught to immigrant children from the Maghreb or the Near East is often poorly considered as a language while Arabic taught to the elite is a strong tradition in France dating from Francis I –what we call the Arabist school– in which Arabic is offered at Sciences Po and Polytechnique, in top business schools, and in some prestigious Parisian high schools … a paradox where these elite classes do not include many children of immigrants who come from Arab countries or whose parents are from Arabic-speaking countries. Vice versa, in under-served areas where you find these poorer age groups Arabic is not offered nor taught as a normal living language, despite the fact that this would open doors to both Arab descendants but also to all those who just want to learn. (1)
In the United States
Arabic is the fastest growing language in the U.S., with the number of Arabic speakers growing by 29 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Over the longer period from 2000 to 2014, the number of Arabic speakers in the U.S. nearly doubled, rising from 615,000 in 2000 to 1.1 million by 2014, according to the study, which analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite the prejudices and intolerance that surround the Arabic-speaking community today, knowing how to speak Arabic is an asset that is particularly valued at the professional level, especially in the United States. In the post 9/11 context, many occupations require knowledge of Arabic to respond to the increasing professional opportunities associated with the Arab world. In the United States, although it is the universities that are experiencing the strongest growth in Arabic language courses, the advantage of learning a language at a younger age remains undeniable, increasing interest in bilingual tracks in that language. Nabil Wakim confirms:
I spent a year in the United States and took classes in Arabic at Harvard. It was very interesting to see that there were people from all horizons in the class. Some were people who wanted to become diplomat or Marines, people who realized that this would open doors for them. There were people who were from immigrant families and came from many countries. Some wanted to learn Arabic for religious reasons, other for cultural reasons. And then a lot of American students from different states who just wanted to learn Arabic. It was an interesting melting-pot because it was a mix of social classes and cultures. There is a US history of immigration from the Arab world which is very old, and particularly in some regions such as Detroit or Boston, and in all of Massachusetts. There is an early immigration history of the 20th century which is very very strong and of which we find traces in Ellis Island. Consequently, there are a lot of Arabic stores, bookstores. There is even a monument in front of the Boston public library which pays homage to Lebanese poet and writer Khalil Gibran who lived there for a long time. (2)
Indeed, Arabic allows to distinguish the candidates in competition during the admission process to major universities, to obtain scholarships or to access programs of excellence. Knowledge of the Arabic language and culture has the advantage of allowing better access to careers in commerce, diplomacy, journalism, defense, public policy, and many other fields.
Arabic is currently undergoing rapid development in the United States. With over a million Americans speaking Arabic at home are interested in the Arabic-speaking sector speak another language at home, like Russian or Chinese, due to the multicultural landscape of the school district. These families see bilingual education as a gateway to improving their children’s education, like the special classes for gifted students found throughout the United States. Arabic instruction thus attains the status it has so often been denied in the past. Now, families in several neighborhoods do not miss the opportunity to see their children master a second, or even a third language.
Among Arab-Americans and Arabic speakers, the fear of discrimination has been very present in the United States since September 11. They are often portrayed negatively in the media and systematically viewed with suspicion, simply because of their linguistic and ethnic background, or their physical appearance.
Similar to the French context discussed by Nabil Wakim in his book, Arabic speakers in the United States are often categorized as Muslims while most of them are in fact Christians or followers of other religions. Disputes and attacks of all kinds continue to take place, although government authorities and federal agencies are trying to recruit more and more Arabic speakers for positions as interpreters and translators, among others. This overwhelmingly unfavorable attention is a source of tension, discomfort and disarray within the Arab-American community, as Zeena Zakharia, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, explains:
I think indeed that the political situation is not the same for the Arab communities. It will have consequences. People don’t want to be noticed, don’t want to cause trouble, and don’t know whether asking for something is looking for trouble. (3)
This nervousness is palpable among people who speak Arabic in public and even at home between parents and children. Often, families prefer that their children not even learn Arabic, as Zeena confirms:
Arabic is not a language with noble status. The policies around Arabic are very difficult. It is not easy. Even in Lebanon, where I was the director of a bilingual school, I met parents who came back from the United States with their children to live in Lebanon, saying: “I don’t want my child to learn Arabic”. (4)
The erosion of the Arabic language Zeena describes in the United States and the rest of the world is baffling. As we have seen in other linguistic communities here, the fear of discrimination and the deep desire for assimilation are powerful forces that work against bilingualism in America. In the face of adversity, Arabic has become the latest victim in a long list of languages in the United States that have succumbed to growing pressure based on social and ethnic prejudices. Fortunately, some parents and educators have managed to reduce these prejudices somewhat, and learning Arabic in New York now seems to be reborn as illustrated by the beautiful story of PS/IS30 which I discuss in my book, The Bilingual Revolution, which was recently published in Arabic by Austin Macauley.
Read the story here: Overcoming Prejudice: The City’s Arabic Dual-Language Programs
In spite of recent hardships and setbacks in the face of adversity, the New York City Arabic-speaking community has achieved enormous success in establishing two bilingual programs in recent years. Much of their success lies in the unwavering support of school administrators, foundations like Qatar Foundation and QFI, and local community organizations that allow for such valuable programs to exist in today’s political climate. Similarly to PS/IS30‘s, similar success stories are possible in France, as Nabil Wakim confirms:
Yes, it is absolutely possible and there actually are many cases in secondary schools. There are bilingual classes that exist from 6th grade and up where it is possible for French middle-school students to learn both Arabic and English together. It is possible and it works well. But there is the same type of reaction when classes in Arabic are created, you often see campaigns –not necessarily in the press but sometimes online– when some local elected officials are very reluctant to Arabic classes or when it’s even school principals and teachers who think that it will bring a different population to their school and therefore who fear having to deal with a class full of Arabs and having to change their educational approach… I give an example in my book of the town of Aubervilliers, outside of Paris, where they managed to create five Arabic classes in different schools in a few years because the municipality were smart to work together with parents, parents’ associations, teachers, and school principals. (5)
For the Arabic dual-language programs in New York City and in Aubervilliers, it took a village to allow these school communities to start their own Bilingual Revolution. Although active participants in their own dual-language program, Arabic-speaking parents may not be the initiators of Dual-Language programs for all the reasons and the taboos discussed above as well as in Nabil Wakim’s book.Yet, the creation of Arabic dual-language programs in France and in the United States offers a much needed testimony to the importance of collaboration and support from many different sources in order to foster greater tolerance, respect, and mutual understanding in our schools and in our societies.
(1) November 2020 Interview with Nabil Wakim
(2) November 2020 Interview with Nabil Wakim
(3) June 2016 Interview with Zeena Zakharia
(4) June 2016 Interview with Zeena Zakharia
(5) November 2020 Interview with Nabil Wakim
Fabrice Jaumont is a French educator and researcher based in New York. He currently serves as Education Attaché for the Embassy of France to the United States, a Research Fellow at Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, and an adjunct professor at New York University and Baruch College – The City University of New York. He is President of the Center for the Advancement of Languages, Education, and Communities, a nonprofit publishing organization with a focus on multilingualism, cross-cultural understanding, and the empowerment of linguistic communities. An award-winning author, he has published five books, including The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages, which provides guidance and advice for parents and educators who want to create a dual-language program in their own school. Jaumont holds a Ph.D. in Comparative and International Education from New York University.