Life As a Bilingual Student
Hey Beacons! The following interview is a piece highlighting a fellow Beacon, Caitlin Bowen. She is a sophomore here at NCU with a double major in Education and English:
Where is your home in Abu Dhabi and what is it like?
“My family lives off island, in a villa that’s about forty-five minutes from our school. Home in general is just Abu Dhabi. It’s more about the people than the physical locality of everything. I’ve got friends all over the country. So home, is Abu Dhabi in general.”
Which language did you learn first? Was it through family or through school?
“So, before moving to Abu Dhabi, we were in the states. I was born in Los Angeles, and so my parents only speak English, maybe a tad bit of German from what they remember from high school. And so, my first language is English, and I get over there and it was mandatory by the Department of Education, that all children in elementary school learn a bit of Arabic—just for a cultural spice up. And I was like, you know what? I’ve done, what—four years of Arabic? Why not continue through middle school! Best and worst decision of my life. And so, I continued Arabic through middle school, my first two years of high school, and I was like you know what—Arabic isn’t going to serve me much purpose back in the states, and so I spent the last two years of high school learning a bit of Spanish. So that’s that third language kicking in there. And then just for the fun of it, I am currently trying to teach myself Irish.”
Have you ever found yourself switching to a different language?
“Oh yeah, all the time. Usually if I can’t come up with the word in English I’ll throw something in Arabic and vise versa. My sister and I, we would purposefully talk in Arabic, and nothing but Arabic, we just wanted to practice. We both speak classical Arabic, which is the English Equivalent of ‘thee, thy, though’—you know, that kind of English. It’s one of those things where the classical version is more of the Arabic that we’re taught. That way we can understand the holy text of the Koran. That’s what it’s written as—and because all of the locals speak slang Arabic, they can’t actually read the Koran, so they have to have it spoken to them. They memorize it via hearing, but they actually can’t read the text. That’s why it was mandatory we learn classic Arabic at the school. You’ve got the Arabic that’s spoken in the UAE that’s divided between classical and slang, and then in the middle eastern region each country has its own version of Arabic. So, you’ve got Egyptian Arabic, you’ve got Syrian Arabic, and you’ve got Lebanese Arabic. It’s just slight differences depending on what people you grow up with and things like that. Whatever word we can’t come up with English or some other language, we’ll substitute it—so like my sister, if we couldn’t come up with an Arabic word, we’d come up with it in Spanish. If we can’t come up with it in Spanish we’d throw in Arabic or English. It’s a whole mix.”
Do you find it difficult that you aren’t able to speak your second language or third or fourth as often as you would at home?
“I mean I still do speak quite a lot usually, it’s a good way to vent to myself. So I do speak a lot, and then just to make sure I keep up with grammar and things like that I do actual practices online and, you know, handwritten. It’s kind of weird not hearing it and seeing it around here and there. ‘Oh, here’s an English sign with Arabic beneath it.’
Have you ever considered teaching Arabic?
“I have but I would have to get much better at actually speaking. Speaking is actually my weakest. I can read it, I can write it, I can understand what’s being said, but actually speaking is harder for me—it was more important to be able to read and write.”