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Sara Al Mheiri: Mother tongue epidemic
October 03, 2014
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I watch as all the kids gather around the food for lunch, still giddy from playing an intense game of tag; the sound of chatter rose. My eyes wander all around the room, searching for my little sister. And there she was. Sitting on the couch with the other girls her age. Yet between them and her is a significantly large gap.

These girls are not strangers but our cousins; girls she shared baby formula with, learned how to crawl alongside and now were at the age where they could have an actual conversation. And my sister is not a shy girl so why is she the clear outcast of the group? She looks the exact same, with her Arab-trademark thick black hair, large brown eyes and tanned skin.

The reason is, she doesn’t understand them. My sister is only nine-years-old and yet she struggles understanding her own language. 

Many a times, she’ll whine about how she had no clue what her cousins were saying or asking her. It breaks my heart when I see the scenario actually play out in person, you can visibly see her squirm as she tries to piece the words together.

The source of this dilemma is the international school with very few locals that my parents placed her in. Add into the mix that we live in an area where the number of locals is also very low so her friends, teachers and everyday interaction with society is all in English. The only time she truly speaks her mother tongue is every Friday when we go to our grandmother’s house.

My brother and I grew up dealing with the same struggle and often our cousins would talk back to us in loud, broken English. It was highly offensive and made me feel even more of an outcast. However, I didn’t feel the need to combat my issue head on until I stumbled upon this beautiful poem by Sujata Bhatt called Search for My Tongue.

The poet perfectly describes both our plights with such lyrical melancholy that it was impossible for me not to connect. Bhatt describes being bilingual as having two literal tongues in your mouth both fighting for their rights. It was the lines, “You could not use them both together even if you thought that way…. Your mother tongue would rot, rot and die in your mouth until you had to spit it out.”

Bhatt gave me the wake up call I needed to understand that even though Arabic is my mother tongue, it doesn’t mean it will be there forever. I was embarrassed by how I just let the language of my family and ancestors slip right out of my mouth and get lost in the American snow.

However, by the time the snow melted, I found my tongue again and just slipped it back in. It was awkward at first and didn’t fit right but now it’s in sync with my mind and body. My sister’s tongue has a different story. It has fallen into the desert sand of the UAE, her own country and she only half-heartedly searches for it.

She is not the only one. My mother called me once exasperated. “What can I do to help her? I have tried everything!” I tried to calm her down and reassure her.

Through my university I have met people from all over the world; countries that I had never even heard of. I can now tell you such stories that paint the most beautiful and intricate painting of these places yet the music of their people, I could not even begin to fathom.

They too grew up in international schools or their parents moved them to America when they were still young and impressionable. The majority of them could only utter a few words in their native tongue. You could see how proud they were to share what skills they had in a language besides English but embarrassed once they admitted it wasn’t even strong enough to put on their resume.

I often ask them, “But how do you communicate with your parents?” They would reply with embarrassment, that they would talk to their parents in English. A language their parents could not claim they were fluent in. If you were to intrude on their conversation, you would not think it was between father and son but two strangers coping to find a similar dialect.

I fear there is no ‘cure’ for this epidemic and only pray that one day, I don’t have to watch my children struggle piecing together a few words just to communicate with me.

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Sara Al Mheiri is a young Emirati woman who is currently living
in Boston, USA, where she is specialising in media studies with a
focus on women's studies. Sara is the ultimate nomad who flits
between countries observing new societies and their culture.

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