Language Literacy in Lebanon: The Struggle for Arabic

As a child, every visit to Lebanon reminded me of how linguistically deficient I was. While my cousins went around waxing poetic French, I could only get by on conversational Arabic—for shame!—and English. I always felt so uncouth and vowed I’d opt for French over Spanish to fill my high school foreign language requirement in California.

You can imagine that in the ‘90s, English had no place in Lebanese society. The majority of private schools were Francophone, and French was emphasized more than the national language of Lebanon. Not only was it a status symbol, with affluent and upper middle class families affording to enroll their children in private schools. But it also pointed to the League of Nations mandate post-World War I, when France occupied both Lebanon and Syria. 23 years of French presence had left a longstanding impact on Lebanese culture.

Fast forward to the new millennium, and it is evident that English has trumped French in popularity and indispensability. Having become the universal language of business, which arguably underscores America’s growing prominence around the world, the Germanic language has ousted the Romance language in coolness factor among Lebanese.

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I’ve never actually felt more at home, often speaking in unadulterated English among friends, colleagues, shopkeepers, and restaurateurs. In fact, I find it lends me a certain credibility, not only because I am so much more technically fluent in English than I am in Arabic, but because I speak with a fairly uncorrupted American accent. 20 years ago, no one would have paid me any heed. Today, I immediately win favor with professional and social acquaintances as soon as my perfect English starts tumbling out.

Of course the language that has taken the biggest hit in this handover is Arabic. While I was decently fluent in conversational Lebanese before moving here, I’d say I’ve only improved about 10-20% over the past six years. Sure, I’ve broadened my vocabulary and particularly honed my slang, but I still cannot conduct a full conversation from start to finish in uninterrupted Arabic. The four times I’ve gone on live television, I’ve reverted to English when I couldn’t quite place my finger on the Arabic equivalent. And one LBCI reporter (rather unjustly!) cut me off for it, though admittedly it was probably the show producer barking in her ear to transition to the next soundbite.

But I’m not the only one who’s guilty of inadequacy. Lebanese-born and bred kids can be as reproachable as I, especially those whose elementary, high school, and college educations were aggressively in French or English. Some academic programs don’t even require an Arabic language curriculum of their students, excusing them on account of their foreign passports.

And the issue extends beyond the classroom.

How many times have you been greeted by a vendor in French or English? Every time I saunter into Subway just across the street from my office in downtown Beirut, the staff salute me with the chirpy “Welcome to Subway!” The last time I went for a blood test at Al Hindi labs, the nurse fell into French as she disinfected my arm and prepped me for the ominous needle. I had to ask her to either “ralentissez, s’il vous plaît” or kindly switch to Arabic.

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So what’s the big deal, and is anyone to blame? I’m a fan of globalization, so I don’t mind (read: I’m stoked!) that English, my mother tongue, has become so predominantly spoken and embraced. But by the same token, I’m a staunch supporter of preserving cultures, and living in Paris for one year inculcated that appreciation in me. In France, every new word adopted in the English dictionary has a matching French equivalent invented by the Académie Française, a preeminent French council for all matters relating to the precious language of Molière.

In Lebanon, that overprotective attitude doesn’t exist, likely because the Lebanese don’t confer much value on the imperative of Arabic in a global setting. Our society encourages young graduates to continue their education or to seek employment abroad, and what good is Arabic there? English and French are necessarily more vital.

And almost anywhere you go in Lebanon, you can make do on your English or French. Freeway and landmark signage, restaurant menus, and even movies are translated into the three widely accepted languages. Many churches offer French, Arabic and English services at different timings on Sunday to accommodate worshipers in their language of preference.

Trilingual signage throughout Lebanon (photo source:

Need to hop in a cab but want to avoid being ripped off by sly drivers who can pick up on your poor Arabic? Summon Uber or Careem, where you’re hardly expected to utter a hello or goodbye!

At the end of the day, no one’s to blame for Arabic’s sidelining but us, if blame is to be assigned. We shape our culture, and the institutions around us follow suit. In struggling to put Lebanon on the map, we’ve readily shrugged off the things that define us most in order to be recognized and accepted.

Die-hard purists might argue that we’re fostering our own demise. But personally, I think our colorful identity, our hodgepodge of spoken languages, are what give Lebanon its distinctive flavors and render it so attractive, so unique, in any country mash-up. There is beauty in variety and flexibility, and hey – you’ll never need to dig up a translation for “hamburger” or “croissant.” Because everyone, and I mean everyone, will understand you crystal clear.

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