Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Trilingual Toddler

Here are two conversations my 22-month old toddler and I had recently.
Me: "Nrouhou letounoubil?" (shall we go to the car?)
Baby: "Oui! Auto!" (Yes! Car!)
Tot: "Berra!" (outside!)
Me: "Nrouhou berra?" (shall we go outside?)
Tot: "Oui, berra. Come. Sebbati" (Yes, outside. Come. My shoes)
There's so much going on in these few sentences.

First, my Algerian dialect clearly shows French and Spanish influences: the word for car stems from automobile;  the word for shoes comes from zapato.

Then my daughter says the Arabic berra, the german Auto, the English come and the French oui. Mind you, not really sure whether she's saying come or komm in German.

In any case, BK4 is officially at least trilingual!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Bilingualism has no Advantages!

It is estimated that over half of the world's population is (at least) bilingual. The majority of these people are not exceptionally intelligent, affluent or highly educated.

In many developing countries, speaking more than one language is the norm: the local dialect/language, the lingua Franca for reading and writing, and possibly a third language inherited from colonialism.

It is not unusual for a North African to speak three languages nor for an Armenian to know four idioms.

Another example is an Indian family we knew back in England. The father, from Northern India, speaks Punjabi. The mother, from the South, speaks Malayalam. They speak Hindi with each other and English to their son.


Monolingualism is fairly recent in human history. Its spread coincided with the birth of nations, to aid political, social and economic unity. Germany and France, two rather linguistically-uniform countries, used to have a large dialectal variety before the end of the 19th century.

Studies are rife extolling the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism: better health, better jobs, better prospects overall.

But, what if the human brain evolved to be multilingual?
What if it is biologically normal for humans to speak more than one language?
Is it appropriate to talk about the advantages of bilingualism?
Instead, should we address the shortcomings of monolingualism?

Friday, 2 September 2016

Six False Friends

Of course, languages borrow and steal from each other. That's normal. I've come to realise, though, that a language often adopts a word from another language only for it to mean something slightly or completely different.

Here are a few false friends in French, English and German.


An English word meaning something useful. German speakers, however, use the word to mean mobile phone. Go figure.


Another English word, used in French to mean a kind of a pocket knife used to cut cardboard and other thick materials. Otherwise known in England as a carpet knife.


In French, a costume usually designates a two- or a three-piece suit. In English though, a costume is what people wear to dress up, such as a clown, a witch, Superman etc.


This French word is used occasionally to mean a sheath or a slim-fitting case. In German, it is often used to designate any kind of small case: a pencil case, a wallet, a credit card holder. You name it, if its purpose is to carry any kind of small stuff then it's an Etui.


A French word meaning carrousel, German speakers use it to designate an arena, in particular, a circus arena.


When I hear that someone is being mobbed in English, I imagine somebody running away from a group of people who are ganging up on him. In German, though, mobbing is bullying.

And you, what are your most memorable linguistic false friends?

Monday, 22 August 2016

Arabic Lessons Are Go!

BK1 and BK2 started Arabic lessons on Saturday!

I have been teaching the girls how to read and write in Arabic at home, for a few years now. We've achieved some success in that BK1 (11 years old) can decipher words and spell them. BK2 (8 years old) can do the same with simple, familiar words. However, it's been a struggle. We haven't been able to do it regularly enough.

Now, with weekly classes, it's an hour and a half where they'll only listen to and speak in Arabic.

The face BK2 made when the teacher spoke to her was just a sight. She was like: Whaaaat?Absolutely hilarious! See, not only did the teacher speak in Classical Arabic, but she used her dialect and regional accent.

The teacher is from Iraq - she looked so sad when she told me. The other kids' parents are from Morroco, Eritrea, Sudan, Tunisia. Some of them speak Arabic at home, some only know German.

I am hoping they enjoy the classes!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

On Belonging and Identity

From time to time, it suddenly hits me. I don't belong anywhere. I left my country, where I grew up. Left my family behind, the familiarity.  There are moments where I feel at ease where I am now, lots of times actually. But then , I suddenly realise, I've not been to a family wedding for a while. Only heard of family members passing away over the phone, not been to see them one last time.

I left home 19 years ago. Another three years, and I would have spent as many years abroad as in my home country. In my heart, I still feel totally Algerian. But I feel definite connections with the places I've lived in: France and England.

But then, it only takes a random sentence, some get-together, to feel excluded. I don't belong. Despite my language and cultural proficiency, I am not French nor English. Actually, I am not sure I still belong in my home country either. And I certainly do not belong in Switzerland!

Ramadan will start in a couple of weeks. For the last eleven years, ever since BK1 was born, I spent most of it in Algeria. There, activity is reduced, life slows right down. Nobody expects you to take kids to the open-door swimming pool in the searing heat while you haven't had a drink or anything to eat for the last 12 hours. Nobody plans a school musical show preceded by nibbles at 5pm. Nobody wonders why on Earth this crazy nursing woman of four kids would abstain from eating or drinking from dawn till dusk.

This year is different. Because the girls are still in school for almost the whole duration of Ramadan, we'll only be able to fast the last few days in Algiers. And it makes me sad. It makes me long for my childhood smells, the market stalls,  the anticipation of sharing a long-awaited meal with my parents, the long evenings, the rituals.

Today is one of those days.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

That Swiss Habit

If you take the train to Basel, then step off the train into the station, prepare to be welcomed by a dreadful smell. Not the cows, not chemical industry... cigarettes.

Lots, and I mean LOTS of people smoke in Basel. everywhere. train stations, outdoor swimming pools, children play areas, you name it, if it's "outside", it's allowed.

A couple of weeks ago, we were visiting the scenic Wasserfallen. I sat down on a bench with BK4 asleep in a sling, enjoying the sun and the view. Next to me was a pregnant young woman, smiling broadly at me. Sat opposite to us was a young lady, in her early twenties, who found nothing better than to light up.
I mean, seriously?

A quick google shows Switzerland is ranked 21 out of 185 countries for tobacco consumption. Unsurprisingly, it is the third consumer of tobacco in Western Europe after Greece and Spain, and well ahead of Germany, France and the UK.

Having lived 10 years in the UK, I have come to associate smoking with lower social classes, rightly or wrongly. The National Health Service offers many programmes to quit smoking aimed at young adults with low incomes, particularly in council estates.

Here in Switzerland, it seems smoking does not discriminate: young, old, women, men, low and high income.

I find the habit difficult to reconcile with the idea of a people who like the great outdoors, are keen hikers and cyclists. The good news though is it seems smoking uptake is declining.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Why I'll never Learn German in Switzerland

When we made the decision to move to Basel, two years ago, I thought: "Finally, I'll be able to learn German!".


Well, my German has definitely improved but it is nowhere near the level I was hoping it'd be two years down the line.

I've come to realise that Basel is not the place to learn German. Basically, the Swiss do not like to speak German. Many prefer to speak French or English to me rather than Hochdeutsch.

I guess there are many reasons for this.

To start with, people here have their own language, which is unintelligible to most German speakers. Being Algerian, I know exactly how this feels. Algerian Arabic is virtually impossible to understand for anyone who does not come from the Maghreb (time to brush up on your geography!). The best I can do to make myself understood is to speak Classical Arabic. However, I do not like doing so. It somewhat feels false, artificial, forced. The Arab world uses Classical Arabic to read and write, but no Arabic speaker has it as his/her native language.

Secondly, the Swiss may have an inferiority complex with respect to their northern neighbours. With its 80 million inhabitants, strong economy and stature in the world, Germany has the capacity to intimidate many European countries. I have witnessed quite a few Swiss people apologise to the BabelDad for their supposedly bad German!

Thirdly, the Basel area is highly cosmopolitan. Not only does it border Germany and France, but also a third of its population originates from foreign lands. English (and to a lesser extent French) is a preferred Lingua Franca. Moreover, in my experience, Swiss people like to practise their English whenever they get a chance.

In conclusion, I am confident I will learn German, eventually. But it will not be through immersion as I'd originally thought. It will be because I want to and I will put a lot of effort into it.

Ich schaffe das!