Tongue-Tied: The Silent Struggle of Losing Your Native Language

The sound of silence is a precious commodity on the streets of Cairo, where the official soundtrack is a symphony of car horns in F (as in the expletive) major. And yet, in all the taxi rides I shared with my Cairo-based sister during a visit last spring, I was instructed to remain silent. If I talk, she warned me, the driver will recognize my broken, foreign-sounding Arabic and scam us. She’ll give directions, negotiate fare, and handle any small talk.

I welcomed being quiet, invisible even, for a few minutes or, depending on Cairo traffic, an hour or two. In a city where machismo is the default male behaviour, I loved seeing my sister in full-command mode while I sat pretty. The silent rides helped me process something I’ve been struggling to vocalize for years.

I’m a native Arabic speaker who spent 15 formative years in Cairo with my Yemeni family. I excelled in that language’s complex grammar and mastered its local variation. As a teen, no one could tell I wasn’t born in Cairo or that my parents spoke a completely different dialect at home.

Here I am, more than 33 years since I last lived there, stumbling to finish a sentence at the airport or order off the menu in restaurants without giving away the fact that I’ve lost my ability to express myself in my native tongue.

Linguists refer to this phenomenon as “first language attrition,” or FLA, a process that happens when people are isolated from other speakers of that language or when another one dominates. The term “mother tongue” has always implied an umbilical connection to the languages we first learn at home. However, in a world where nearly 260 million people do not live in their country of birth, studies of FLA are gaining momentum and testing what we know  about how we acquire, use, and lose what is most native to us.

My dereliction of Arabic was a conscientious move and part of a journey of self-reinvention I embarked on in my late teens. The Quran, the holy book of the Muslim faith in which I was born, is written in Arabic. As I was coming out as a gay man and reading up on sexual liberation, I needed a distance from both the religion and its official text, which — I felt — vilified my desires. English became more than a second language; it was my gateway to freedom, dignity, and sex.

“My spoken Arabic remains frozen in time. Colloquial Egyptian has moved on, and my relatives now say I sound like a matinee idol from the golden age of cinema.”

From the time I was about 18, I made it a point to stop reading or listening to Arabic, to speak it only when necessary, and to upgrade English from second to first language — a process that became more immersive when I moved to England at 24 to study literature, eventually earning a PhD in Victorian fiction.

Over nearly a decade in England, I rewired my brain to think, speak, and write in one language, burying Arabic deep in the recesses of my mind. I didn’t think of my plans as an elaborate artifice or a makeover, but as a means of establishing a real, new self. I even took classes in German and Spanish just to keep my native language further at bay.

Two more decades in Canada followed and, before I realized it, my Arabic had atrophied to the point where talking to my own family in war-plagued Yemen about anything beyond checking in and ensuring their safety turned into a sorry tale of miscommunication and missteps. I try, but my vocabulary can’t sustain a deep conversation about their emotional well-being. I’ve abandoned them physically by emigrating and psychologically by willing the native tongue that once bound us to atrophy. When they speak of it, my siblings see my transition into English as a combination of self-loathing and rebellion that has outlasted my younger years. I don’t agree, but I don’t blame them for thinking so.

As the war has intensified over the past two years, so has my desire to reconnect with my family. The first step in this journey is reclaiming my Arabic. Can I actually relearn my own native tongue?

As I pondered this question, I came across the work of the Chinese–American author Yiyun Li who compares the process of erasing all traces of her Chinese to her two attempts at suicide. “My abandonment of my first language is personal, so deeply personal that I resist any interpretation — political or historical or ethnographical,” she wrote in one of her books. “One’s relationship with the native language is similar to that with the past. Rarely does a story start where we wish it had, or end where we wish it would.”

I wonder about Li’s highly personal view of language loss. I wanted to lose Arabic for reasons that relate to sexual politics. I wish to regain it, in part, because if the West’s current dance with fascism makes the “Go back to where you came from” rhetoric a reality — a chant that Donald Trump and his base can’t get enough of as his summer rallies and tweets indicate — I want to survive in my new/old homeland.

I’m not alone in reassessing my relationship to my first language. In Taipei last year, I met several Chinese men and women who have returned to the capital of Taiwan in order to regain the Mandarin they lost when their parents moved them to Canada or the United States as children. They revelled in their mastery of English on their new turf after a few years but now lament the erasure of their mother tongue and native culture. Home is where your first language is spoken.

My return passage to my mother tongue has been a disorienting and at times ridiculously humiliating experience so far. To do it properly, I started with some online Arabic for beginners resources, which took me further back into my childhood than I was willing to go. I fared better with mid-level Arabic, but found it too easy. So I decided to plunge myself back into Cairo and see if retracing the geography of my childhood home wouldn’t be a faster way of getting the same results.

The experiment worked in some contexts and backfired in others. My comprehension has improved but my spoken Arabic remains frozen in time. Colloquial Egyptian has moved on, and as I tried to speak it with relatives, they laughed it off because I sounded like a matinee idol from the golden age of Egyptian cinema (the 1940s to the 1970s). I relied on phrases and sentence structures that people in Cairo, even ones my age or older, no longer use. Think of someone coming to Toronto and talking like Cary Grant. As Li predicted, this story with language didn’t end where I hoped it would: a triumphant return to my roots. My Arabic became a laughing matter and an excuse to remain silent.

It took me three decades to unlearn Arabic, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that regaining it may require more time and effort than I anticipated. My story with linguistic reincarnation is not a case of being careful what you wish for, but being better prepared for some unintended consequences when you do get it — including feeling like a tongue-tied stranger in your homeland. The teenage me in Cairo would have wished it so, but the middle-aged Canadian regrets what might now be irreversible.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is a journalist and professor at Ryerson University, and the author of the award-winning books Intolerable and Brown.