When Jhumpa Lahiri decided to learn Italian, she took the plunge. The Namesake author moved her entire family to Rome in 2013 and spent several years refusing to read or write another word in English.
Born to Bengali-speaking Indian parents in London and raised in the United States, 49-year-old Lahiri decided the only way to fully immerse herself in an unfamiliar language was to renounce her own.
“For 20 years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of [a] lake. Always hugging that shore,” she wrote in her bilingual novel, In Other Words, which she penned in Italian, but refused to translate into English herself to avoid the temptation of “smoothing out its rough edges”.
“But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore,” she says.
Lahiri’s experiment epitomises the theme of the recently concluded Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Many of the 140-plus authors who gathered in Dubai earlier this month had written about the journeys they made – both physically and spiritually.
With migration comes the opportunity to embrace a new language and culture – or, in extreme cases like Lahiri’s, to renounce your own.
At a time of great change and of mass displacement of millions of people around the world through conflict, civil strife and the flexing of political muscles, the language in which we shape our identity has never been more important.
But how important is it to learn the language of the country in which you are living? And does bilingualism come at a price? The UAE has long been a safe haven for more than 200 nationalities living peacefully alongside one another, largely communicating in English.
Underlying that tolerance of other cultures, though, are growing calls to protect and nurture the nation’s mother tongue, Arabic, which experts say is in danger of being eroded.
“The biggest problem now is saving the Arabic language because the younger generation are speaking it less,” says Rana Nejem, the author of When in the Arab World, who appeared at the literature festival to discuss regional customs.
“The millennials who are educated in foreign English-speaking schools barely speak Arabic themselves.
“They learn Arabic as a language but because most other subjects are taught in English, their language skills are weak.”
That was a problem recognised by Samar Al Mashta, an Iraqi mother of two, who set up the group ArabRama a year ago to teach children Arabic through drama.
The group meets every Saturday in Jumeirah Lake Towers or Umm Suqeim, where children, aged 5 to 14, meet to stage theatrical productions, sing, try their hand at calligraffiti or play basketball – all in Arabic.
“We do all the normal extracurricular activities but in Arabic,” says 32-year-old Al Mashta. “Children are exposed to too much English here – in schools, supermarkets and at home with their parents.
“We are giving them a chance to practise Arabic in a fun way. They are not just speaking but have to write and think in Arabic.”
She was motivated to start the group when her 8-year-old son Ali refused to practise Arabic once he started school.
“The minute he went to school, he was answering me in English within the first month,” she says.
“The way English is taught in school is much more fun with games, so you cannot blame the children.
“The problem is the way they teach Arabic here in schools.”
She has tried working with schools but met with resistance from some teachers and management committees, who insisted on sticking to their formula.
Al Mashta says the more languages a child is exposed to, the better.
“It is empowering,” she adds. “They develop socially and the younger they are, the faster they learn.”
That experience is borne out by Antonella Sorace, a professor in developmental linguistics at Edinburgh University, and the founder of Bilingualism Matters centre in Scotland, which has 10 branches across the world.
With more than 42,000 schoolchildren in Scotland speaking a language other than English at home, Sorace opened the centre in 2008 to study the effects of bilingualism, particularly on the children of immigrants.
She says while there is a misconception bilingual children are smarter, those who spoke two or more languages were more perceptive, attentive and switched easily between languages.
“There are still people who think it might confuse children, but they really can keep the two languages separate,” she says.
“There is a lot of research showing that having two languages makes the brain more flexible in a range of situations – from paying attention to what matters to multitasking.”
Nejem acknowledges that the nuances of the Arabic language and different dialects make it difficult to become fluent, particularly in the UAE, where there are few opportunities to put it into practice.
“Because we know the language is difficult, we do not expect people to speak it fluently,” she says.
“It sends a message of respect to learn a few words and show you have made an effort.”
Zora O’Neill, the American author of All Strangers Are Kin, went beyond the efforts of most, and wrote about her difficulties in coming to grips with Arabic.
The book is reminiscent of Eat, Pray, Love – albeit a more cerebral version, where the object of her devotion and passion is her love for the Arabic language and people. The book sees her travelling through the UAE, Oman, Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco to dispel myths about the region.
O’Neill, 44, spent seven years studying the language in the US, first as an undergraduate of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University, and then while studying for a master’s degree in Arabic literature at Indiana University Bloomington.
“I got frustrated and gave it up but it was nagging me for a while,” she says. “I could read amazing things, but I could not talk to anyone. My high point after seven years was at a party in Egypt, where I was getting all the jokes for once and was able to tell my own, but I was frustrated with the academic process of learning and decided to let it go.”
It was not until 2007 when she landed a job writing travel guidebooks that she put her language skills into use once more.
O’Neill, whose Arabic first name comes from her “hippy” mother’s travels through Morocco in the 1960s, blames the staid way Arabic is taught in universities.
“Once I got past the first couple of years, all the emphasis was on reading and writing formal Arabic,” she says.
“There was no culture of just trying to speak Arabic because we could. The idea was to get the language fluency so you could do the intellectual work.”
She spent the best part of 2012 travelling across the Middle East to research for her book, which was published last year.
Her highlight, she says, was getting involved in a car accident on a roundabout in Ras Al Khaimah, and being able to put her Arabic to good use – much to the bemusement of the police and the other driver, who could not understand why she was so happy.
At the literature festival, O’Neill led a workshop on how to learn a language in an hour – a title she now describes as a “con”.
“I was covering the tools and strategies out there, especially for people learning as an adult,” she laughs.
“I don’t think you can learn Arabic in an hour.”
But like her book, which takes its title from Imru Al Qais, the 6th-century “father of Arabic poetry”, she stresses the importance of learning the language of the country you are in, whether you are passing through or lingering for a while.
“They call it a language barrier for a reason,” she says. “When someone does not speak your language fluently, you do not get a full picture of their personality.
“The thing I learned most from the book was to listen better. I feel we would be treating refugees so much better if we had any concept of what the life of the average person in the Middle East was like.
“We are not that different and I am hoping Americans can learn a little empathy.”