Why you should listen
Raised in war-torn Lebanon, Suzanne Talhouk has a masters in physics and a passion for poetry; she has released two collections of poems. Dismayed by what she saw as a lack of power during the recent war in the Middle East, Talhouk saw the Arabic language as medium to unite and empower the Arab world. She launched Feil Amer, an organization that aims to preserve the Arabic language, and to reinstate the pride in young Arabs towards their language.
More and more, English is a global language; speaking it is perceived as a sign of being modern. But — what do we lose when we leave behind our mother tongues? Suzanne Talhouk makes an impassioned case to love your own language, and to cherish what it can express that no other language can. In Arabic with subtitles. (Filmed at TEDxBeirut.)
Good morning! Are you awake? They took my name tag, but I wanted to ask you, did anyone here write their name on the tag in Arabic? Anyone! No one? All right, no problem.
Once upon a time, not long ago, I was sitting in a restaurant with my friend, ordering food. So I looked at the waiter and said, “Do you have a menu (Arabic)?” He looked at me strangely, thinking that he misheard. He said, “Sorry? (English).” I said, “The menu (Arabic), please.” He replied, “Don’t you know what they call it?” “I do.” He said, “No! It’s called “menu” (English), or “menu” (French).” Is the French pronunciation correct? “Come, come, take care of this one!” said the waiter. He was disgusted when talking to me, as if he was saying to himself, “If this was the last girl on Earth, I wouldn’t look at her!” What’s the meaning of saying “menu” in Arabic? Two words made a Lebanese young man judge a girl as being backward and ignorant. How could she speak that way?
At that moment, I started thinking. It made me mad. It definitely hurts! I’m denied the right to speak my own language in my own country? Where could this happen? How did we get here?
Well, while we are here, there are many people like me, who would reach a stage in their lives, where they involuntarily give up everything that has happened to them in the past, just so they can say that they’re modern and civilized. Should I forget all my culture, thoughts, intellect and all my memories? Childhood stories might be the best memories we have of the war! Should I forget everything I learned in Arabic, just to conform? To be one of them? Where’s the logic in that? Despite all that, I tried to understand him. I didn’t want to judge him with the same cruelty that he judged me.
The Arabic language doesn’t satisfy today’s needs. It’s not a language for science, research, a language we’re used to in universities, a language we use in the workplace, a language we rely on if we were to perform an advanced research project, and it definitely isn’t a language we use at the airport. If we did so, they’d strip us of our clothes. Where can I use it, then? We could all ask this question! So, you want us to use Arabic. Where are we to do so? This is one reality.
But we have another more important reality that we ought to think about. Arabic is the mother tongue. Research says that mastery of other languages demands mastery of the mother tongue. Mastery of the mother tongue is a prerequisite for creative expression in other languages.
How? Gibran Khalil Gibran, when he first started writing, he used Arabic. All his ideas, imagination and philosophy were inspired by this little boy in the village where he grew up, smelling a specific smell, hearing a specific voice, and thinking a specific thought. So, when he started writing in English, he had enough baggage. Even when he wrote in English, when you read his writings in English, you smell the same smell, sense the same feeling. You can imagine that that’s him writing in English, the same boy who came from the mountain. From a village on Mount Lebanon. So, this is an example no one can argue with.
Second, it’s often said that if you want to kill a nation, the only way to kill a nation, is to kill its language. This is a reality that developed societies are aware of. The Germans, French, Japanese and Chinese, all these nations are aware of this. That’s why they legislate to protect their language. They make it sacred. That’s why they use it in production, they pay a lot of money to develop it. Do we know better than them?
All right, we aren’t from the developed world, this advanced thinking hasn’t reached us yet, and we would like to catch up with the civilized world. Countries that were once like us, but decided to strive for development, do research, and catch up with those countries, such as Turkey, Malaysia and others, they carried their language with them as they were climbing the ladder, protected it like a diamond. They kept it close to them. Because if you get any product from Turkey or elsewhere and it’s not labeled in Turkish, then it isn’t a local product. You wouldn’t believe it’s a local product. They’d go back to being consumers, clueless consumers, like we are most of the time. So, in order for them to innovate and produce, they had to protect their language. If I say, “Freedom, sovereignty, independence (Arabic),” what does this remind you of? It doesn’t ring a bell, does it? Regardless of the who, how and why.
Language isn’t just for conversing, just words coming out of our mouths. Language represents specific stages in our lives, and terminology that is linked to our emotions. So when we say, “Freedom, sovereignty, independence,” each one of you draws a specific image in their own mind, there are specific feelings of a specific day in a specific historical period.
Language isn’t one, two or three words or letters put together. It’s an idea inside that relates to how we think, and how we see each other and how others see us. What is our intellect? How do you say whether this guy understands or not? So, if I say, “Freedom, sovereignty, independence (English),” or if your son came up to you and said, “Dad, have you lived through the period of the freedom (English) slogan?” How would you feel? If you don’t see a problem, then I’d better leave, and stop talking in vain.
The idea is that these expressions remind us of a specific thing. I have a francophone friend who’s married to a French man. I asked her once how things were going. She said, “Everything is fine, but once, I spent a whole night asking and trying to translate the meaning of the word ‘toqborni’ for him.” (Laughter) (Applause) The poor woman had mistakenly told him “toqborni,” and then spent the whole night trying to explain it to him. He was puzzled by the thought: “How could anyone be this cruel? Does she want to commit suicide? ‘Bury me?’ (English)” This is one of the few examples.
It made us feel that she’s unable to tell that word to her husband, since he won’t understand, and he’s right not to; his way of thinking is different. She said to me, “He listens to Fairuz with me, and one night, I tried to translate for him so he can feel what I feel when I listen to Fairuz.” The poor woman tried to translate this for him: “From them I extended my hands and stole you –” (Laughter) And here’s the pickle: “And because you belong to them, I returned my hands and left you.” (Laughter) Translate that for me. (Applause)
So, what have we done to protect the Arabic language? We turned this into a concern of the civil society, and we launched a campaign to preserve the Arabic language. Even though many people told me, “Why do you bother? Forget about this headache and go have fun.” No problem! The campaign to preserve Arabic launched a slogan that says, “I talk to you from the East, but you reply from the West.” We didn’t say, “No! We do not accept this or that.” We didn’t adopt this style because that way, we wouldn’t be understood. And when someone talks to me that way, I hate the Arabic language. We say– (Applause)
We want to change our reality, and be convinced in a way that reflects our dreams, aspirations and day-to-day life. In a way that dresses like us and thinks like we do. So, “I talk to you from the East, but you reply from the West” has hit the spot. Something very easy, yet creative and persuasive. After that, we launched another campaign with scenes of letters on the ground. You’ve seen an example of it outside, a scene of a letter surrounded by black and yellow tape with “Don’t kill your language!” written on it. Why? Seriously, don’t kill your language. We really shouldn’t kill our language. If we were to kill the language, we’d have to find an identity.
We’d have to find an existence. We’d go back to the beginning. This is beyond just missing our chance of being modern and civilized.
After that we released photos of guys and girls wearing the Arabic letter. Photos of “cool” guys and girls. We are very cool! And to whoever might say, “Ha! You used an English word!” I say, “No! I adopt the word ‘cool.'” Let them object however they want, but give me a word that’s nicer and matches the reality better. I will keep on saying “Internet” I wouldn’t say: “I’m going to the world wide web” (Laughs) Because it doesn’t fit! We shouldn’t kid ourselves. But to reach this point, we all have to be convinced that we shouldn’t allow anyone who is bigger or thinks they have any authority over us when it comes to language, to control us or make us think and feel what they want.
Creativity is the idea. So, if we can’t reach space or build a rocket and so on, we can be creative. At this moment, every one of you is a creative project. Creativity in your mother tongue is the path. Let’s start from this moment. Let’s write a novel or produce a short film. A single novel could make us global again. It could bring the Arabic language back to being number one. So, it’s not true that there’s no solution; there is a solution! But we have to know that, and be convinced that a solution exists, that we have a duty to be part of that solution.
In conclusion, what can you do today? Now, tweets, who’s tweeting? Please, I beg of you, even though my time has finished, either Arabic, English, French or Chinese. But don’t write Arabic with Latin characters mixed with numbers! (Applause) It’s a disaster! That’s not a language. You’d be entering a virtual world with a virtual language. It’s not easy to come back from such a place and rise. That’s the first thing we can do.
Second, there are many other things that we can do. We’re not here today to convince each other. We’re here to bring attention to the necessity of preserving this language. Now I will tell you a secret. A baby first identifies its father through language. When my daughter is born, I’ll tell her, “This is your father, honey (Arabic).” I wouldn’t say, “This is your dad, honey (English).” And in the supermarket, I promise my daughter Noor, that if she says to me, “Thanks (Arabic),” I won’t say, “Dis, ‘Merci, Maman,'” and hope no one has heard her. (Applause)
Let’s get rid of this cultural cringe.