This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2019

Is it fair to want my partner to learn my first language?

Love and communication in a interracial relationship

Ahmad Danny Ramadan@

It’s one o’clock in the morning and I’m tired. Matthew and the three or four remaining guests are in the living room and I smile as I hear their laughter. I’m sneaky. I grab the speakers’ remote-control and lower the volume gradually, every minute or so, until Dolly Parton is hushed in her desperate pleas to Jolene. Someone demands more tequila and I open a cupboard and stash the bottle there, regretfully informing the group that we have run out. The neighbours might put up with a birthday party, but I know their patience is thin. Matthew walks into the kitchen and holds me close, whispers a quick thank you to me for planning this party for him. “Of course, babe, I adore you,” I say, while doing the dishes, trying not to smash a wine glass, “your happiness is the world to me.” He pauses, and I smile. He must be emotional. “Babe, you’re drunk,” he says, and I realize that I have been casting stones in my head while I’m equally wasted. “You’re speaking to me in Arabic.”

It’s 3:30 a.m. and the winter is howling outside like a pack of wolves. My nightmare stays with me after I wake up and I feel triggered to an intensely violent memory of mine. I know how to handle this, I think to myself, and I start attempting to fill my head with positive thoughts. When I’m triggered, I can’t feel my body anymore—it’s a foreign land to me.

The only part of my body I feel is the tense muscles in the base of my neck. I want to rub them, but my hands are still back in the nightmare. I hear Matthew ask if I’m okay and I whimper. He wakes up and starts massaging the back of my neck; this feels nice. He is saying things to me, calming things, his voice is sweet; it echoes in my soul.

For the life of me, though, I can’t seem to understand a word he says in English—my brain is too foggy to navigate his words. It’s too shackled to translate his words into my primary language in my head.

It’s 8:30 p.m. and they’re not born yet. My child is in bed trying to trick me into staying up for one more minute and I insist that it’s time for them to fall asleep. I see myself older, my salt and pepper hair perfectly curly as I always envision it being in my older days.

I know that this child of mine is not going to be my biological child. I have promised my future child that they will not inherit my collective traumas. I have promised them that I will be a better father than my own dad and a better mother than my own mother. I promise their unborn soul that they will be loved. I also promise that they will inherit my heritage. They will carry my story and the stories of my ancestors. They will be Assyrian, like me—and will speak Arabic, like me. I promised them to learn about whatever racial identity they came from and teach them about it too. They will be a beautiful mix for our modern family.

In my head, I pull the fairy tale book of Kalila and Dimna from a shelf and start reading to that child of mine, in my Arabic velvety words, stories of jackals and elephants and kings of forests. I even do voices. That unborn child of mine will love me doing voices.

I want Matthew to learn Arabic and he knows it. He knows that it’s important to me because it’s my language of love, it’s the language I want to hear when I need comforting, and he has come to see how important it is to me that our future children feel this connection to my roots in their upbringing.

Learning Arabic is not an easy task, I admit. Statistically, Arabic is the second hardest living language to learn after Japanese. Also, the fact that our alphabet is Semitic, while English, French, and German—languages he speaks to various degrees—are all Latin languages. Finally, English is a small language, meaning that the word pool of English is limited to around six million words, while Arabic’s word pool is an ever-expanding 560 million words.

“How do you say walk in Arabic?” Matthew asks me.

“Well, it depends! Where are you walking from? Where are you walking to? Which direction are you taking? Are you going west or east? How are you feeling as you walk? Are you walking softly with joy in your step, or walking fast with anger in your head?”

“Okay, okay, I get it: Arabic is hard.”

Sometimes I wonder if it’s fair to ask him to learn Arabic. I speak English fluently and even when I mispronounce an English word, there is enough love in our relationship to see that as a joyful moment of laughter. I spoke English fluently before I met Matthew, I didn’t learn the language for him—although
I have met other couples where one partner had to learn English to communicate well with their spouse.
I also ask myself if it’s fair to compare languages to begin with. Languages carry with them not only a way of communicating but, they also carry culture, song, dance, metaphors, and tradition. Even the voice I use when I speak English is different; English is a nasal language that’s high pitched, while Arabic is a language born in the throat with rolling r’s and spitting kha’s.

Even in their ways of describing the same things, the two languages are vastly different. I find it beautiful that in Arabic when you feel joy you say that your heart is turning to ice, while in English you say that joy warms your heart. It’s not fair to compare one expression to the other: what’s fair is to see both expressions for what they carry in subtext—an intimate tie that tells you about the environment these expressions were born in and the people they represent.

I don’t believe that the issue here is communication: Matthew and I communicate wonderfully. I believe languages represent a way of connection and bonding. There will always be a part of who I am and where I come from that will not be revealed to Matthew unless he learns Arabic. A heritage that will
not pass down to our children unless we both connect to it in our own essence.

The global dominance of English as the prominent language of communication is rooted in colonial practices and cultural occupation. Our personal relationship—essentially, our love—is impacted by the supremacy of English whether we like it or not. Unless we pay close attention to it, we will always communicate well, but will we be able to connect? I would love for our relationship to be a practice in respecting each other’s heritage and the depth of our connection to a land and a tongue.

A final story: I tiptoe into the bedroom. Matthew is already asleep and I slip out of my clothes and into bed next to him. He mumbles something and I smile. I rest my hand on his side and he turns around, smiles to me, and whispers “hello, murderous humanoid.”

I smile and tell him to go back to sleep. The next morning, we laugh about this. I post about it on Facebook and our friends laugh. In a year, I will be sitting around a dinner table with his mother and brother, sleep-talking will come up and I will tell this story. One day in our late 50s, he will be joking with me and he will call me a murderous humanoid in an ominous voice.

I wonder how many times I have woken up in the middle of the night and whispered something so meaningful, so funny, or so dark to him in Arabic. I wonder how many times he smiled but did not understand.

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