Multi-Lingual Family Life

Multi-Lingual Family Life

An Entreaty From One Who Learned (the Hard Way)

When a Western woman marries a Saudi man, and moves to Saudi Arabia, she is faced with a language barrier. Her MIL  likely will not speak much English. Even if she does, the Western wife will find herself an object of curiosity and conversation within the family. Her world will both narrow and expand in ways she never thought possible.  In fact, her whole life will close in on itself or blossom out, to the extent that she learns Arabic.

Her husband will be the main person- the only person, at first- she’ll be able to talk with, unless we can count the maid, who might know a few words of English.  The family will help her a bit, but they’ll always run off and leave her, conversationally, and she’ll end up sidelined, finding more meaningful social contact with pre-lingual nieces and nephews.

When her kids start school, she will be unable to communicate with the teachers. The kids will have learned Arabic from Baba, of course, and guess what language they’ll use when they don’t want Mama to understand?

The common Arabic phrases are easy enough to learn. Foreigners cannot help but learn them by osmosis, but permanent residents need to learn more. They need to apply much effort. The language is difficult, and the multi-cultural, multi-lingual atmosphere of Saudi Arabia can lull a person into laziness. An ex-pat worker need not speak a word of Arabic, but a permanent resident needs to do everything she can to get a good grasp of it.

Without a working knowledge of the language of your own family, you put yourself at risk for all kinds of misunderstanding, if not worse.  Please, if you live in a multi-lingual family, do not trust them with a language you do not speak. Learn it, no matter how hard, no matter how long it takes. Consider it an insurance policy of sorts. Consider it your right and your responsibility. Make your husband aware of this stance. If you do not, you remain in a compromised position within the family, even if mutual love and respect suggest otherwise.

About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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24 Responses to Multi-Lingual Family Life

  1. Your post really struck a chord with me, Marahm. Just yesterday I was talking with my husband and expressing my desire to take an Arabic class so I can learn more of the language. I feel like I am missing out on so much by not understanding, and I feel so stupid asking what that meant and not getting an explanation half the time anyway.

  2. Marahm says:

    Susie, you brought up an excellent point in your last sentence, which I repeat because of its importance: “… I feel so stupid asking what that meant and not getting an explanation half the time anyway.”

    This is exactly what will continue to happen. Gradually, both you and they will decide that the task of translation is not worth the effort. No one will talk about this, however. It’s not polite.

    The first step towards fluency is to stop asking for translations. If someone tries to translate for you, tell them no, you don’t want it. You want to learn a new word or two. That’s all. The conversation still flows, you learn a word or two, and you listen, listen, listen…

    As soon as you learn some common phrases, use tham all the time, so they can get used to your accent and the fact that you WILL SPEAK ARABIC.

    If you take classes, make sure there’s an emphasis on speaking. You can study grammar for years (as I have) and never be able to speak. You can also study grammar on your own. An introductory speaking class should get you going!

  3. Knowing the language is also power. A lot of Saudi husband’s really don’t want their wives to learn Arabic and will continually put obstacles in their way from doing so.

    I agree completely with your post.

  4. Marahm says:

    Your point is excellent, and unfortunately true. Saudi husbands are not the only ones, however, who wish to keep their wives ignorant of Arabic.

    My Egyptian husband put obstacles in my path for eleven years. Had he allowed me to become fluent in Arabic, I would have discovered his secrets sooner, but then I might have forgiven him sooner, and stayed married.

  5. Shahrzad says:

    I grew up in the family that they used to talk persian and one another languages spoken in Iran.
    Plus them, i learnt english and Arabic and alittle turkish and russian.
    My husband doesnt know persian at all. He learnt arabic while working in arab countries and he speaks so many other languages and not persian. He has problem to communicate with my family as well, esp he loves my mother so much and likes to talk to.
    While the main language of hisfamily is english, so i have no problem.

    I play the role of translator, but then i translate what i want and the way i want. (for some cultural misunderstandings that may happen) Then both my mom and my husband get mad at me. Bcs they think i am not enough trustworthy translator! 😛

    I wonder what happens to my children. They will have to learn too many languages too..

  6. Marahm says:

    That’s funny, Shahi! Not a trustworthy translator?

    Seriously this is a perfect example of my point. In your family, I sense that no one tries to hide things from each other, not deliberately. They think you are not a “trustworthy translator” because you simplify things when cultural mistunderstanding could get between the words. There’s nothing wrong with that, yet they are suspicious. Indeed, something is always lost in translation.

    Imagine, then, a family in which one or more individuals does want to hide something. Image certain family members deliberately trying to sabatage other member’s efforts to learn the language of the family.

    Your kids will be fine, as long they do not feel that they are being deliberately excluded from a certain language.

  7. Solace says:

    I can totally relate to what you wrote and my dh doesn’t even speak a foreign language! In the community I live Urdu is used – a LOT. Some functions are even held in Urdu only. One time I attended one such function and found myself totally bored – the presented was making jokes and I didn’t have a clue what he said. And when I asked someone what he said… they simply said I won’t understand since the translation is not as funny as the original Urdu.

  8. coolred38 says:

    I posted on this subject not too long ago on my blog. An husbands wanting to prevent the learning of the language as a form of power is absolutely true…after finally convincing mine to let me take arabic classes (after years of begging)…I flew through the first course…learning so much in such a short time I was wondering why he didnt let me learn this way to start with all those years ago…but the dream was short lived…soon as he got upset with me about something he pulled me from the class and refused to pay for or agree to have me sign up for the next course. What does one thing have to do with the other I dont know.

    Now that Im divorced Im seriously looking into taking another course…but now time is in short supply where as before I had all the time in the world…not to mention money…these classes arent cheap for some reason…sigh.

    I agree with marahm…learn short phrases and use them as often as possible…and when your in a room of chatting women..just listen to what they say…eventually you will start to recognize certain phrases etc and thus sort of figure out what the convo is about…what ever you do…dont let the ladies gloss over your mistakes…if they dont bother to correct your mistakes your not learning anything…and will always look somewhat foolish years later when your still making the same 1st grader mistakes you were making way back in the beginning. Maybe its something in the culture of “dont point out mistakes” in among the arab peoples…but I find that most of them will not correct your grammar and pronunciation mistakes but will just chuckle at your cuteness and move on with the convo…not helpful.

  9. Marahm says:

    Solace, you’ve shown clearly that a woman becomes alienated a when everyone else understands something and she does not. Without cooperation from the group, she eventually drifts away.

    Coolred, you make a good point about mistakes; native speakers do not point out your mistakes. I found the same problem in Italy when I was learning Italian. Family will not correct mistakes. That’s one good reason to take classes.

    My heart goes out to you; I suffered similar rejection from my husband when I tried to speak Arabic with the family. I am now convinced that linguistic oppression is as dangerous as any other kind of oppression.

  10. coolred38 says:

    I agree Marahm

    When you cant speak his language and his family cant speak yours etc…your left depending on him entirely just about in regards to communication…so he can either make it a trial or a joy depending on his personality…a controlling abusive husband will not make it a joy thats for sure…sigh.

  11. uneekmuslimah says:

    I agree with you but I think this is not only with foreigners who marry Saudi men but even foreigners who stay in Saudi and want to attend Tahfiz and other religious gatherings …. boy I sure felt left out ….. Even though I do know how to speak arabic (the fusha and tha ‘amia) and the accent also comes Alhamdulillah though I’m slow compared to the actual arabic speakers ….. but still foreigners are foreigners after all 😦 ….. it’s a real pitty though …..

  12. uneekmuslimah says:

    Sorry forgot to say I love your paintings Marahm ….. Wish I could learn it from you personally …. 😉

  13. Marahm says:

    Uneekmuslimah, thank you so much for the lovely compliment! I can tell you that I haven’t learned anything except by trial and error. There are many good photo editing programs available. All you have to do is start playing.

    Your point about the religious gatherings is very good. While people from many countries speak English, relatively few foreigners speak decent Arabic, so maybe Arab speakers are still uncomfortable with foreigners speaking their language.

  14. uneekmuslimah says:

    Could you please tell me which one you use …. I’ve got one on my computer but I don’t understand head or tail of it 😦 ….. still I’m trying …. Alhamdulillah I too have learned many things on Microsoft Word just by playing around ….. but creating such beautiful paintings like yours …. I still have to work on that ……

  15. Marahm says:

    Let’s move to email for a photo discussion! I’ve sent you a message, Uneekmuslimah.

  16. Amina says:


    That’s very interesting and important post you wrote. I don’t think many ladies there, that marry and follow hubby to his country really realize how big impact it’s gonna have on them and how difficult daily life can be.
    thanks for sharing

  17. Aafke says:

    This is a very interesting point and discussion!
    Speaking the language seems to me one of the most important things to start on!
    Coolred’s description how she was denied lessons is disgusting!
    Only for love alone I imagine one would want to speak one’s husband’s langauge, but from the viewpoint of understanding Islam I would think you could call it a religious duty, and what can hubby say against that?

    Dutch is a lovely language: virtually no foreigners speak it, so you can always make a short comment in Dutch if you want to keep it private :mrgreen:

  18. Marahm says:

    Thanks, Amina and Aafke, for your comments.

    Yes, learning Qur’anic Arabic is a religious duty, at least to the extent that prayers are said in Arabic. My husband did not discourage this at all. I learned lots of Qur’anic Arabic, and Tajweed, but he wouldn’t let me speak.

    Spoken Arabic is a language far different from Qur’anic Arabic. Knowledge of one does not provide a grip on the other. Add to this the variation in dialects. Egyptian language is different from Sryian is different from Saudi language, etc.

    Your comment regarding Dutch proves my point. People switch languages to keep certain things private from others who might understand.

    I thought of you today. I was in a bookstore and saw some books on Dutch language. I wondered what Dutch sounds like; I’ve never heard it.

  19. Safiyyah says:

    Salaams Sis:

    You wrote of being left out conversationally.

    I experience this here in America in the masjid.

    If the Arab women are upstairs, they are all speaking Arabic. And the Pakistani women will be downstairs speaking Urdu.

    If I walk in on a conversation in progress, no one cares that I do not understand or cannot be a part of. They even say to me, “Sit down, Safiyyah” and then continue talking in their language 🙂

    I can almost understand being a third wheel in an Arabic country. It is their country, culture, and language. But here in America, I don’t expect them to leave me out of a converation. On the other hand, they have made the effort to learn English, so I should make the effort to learn Arabic, lol.

    I agree that conversation immersion is an excellent way to learn. When I studied Spanish in college, I was an excellent student. When I lived in Puerto Rico, initially I could understand no one and they couldn’t understand me.

    It takes time and patience.

    Good post!

  20. chiara says:

    I came late to this discussion–kind of by accident 🙂 but I am glad I did.

    I think the relationship between language and power even among well meaning family members and friends is extraordinarily important as eventually even in the best of relationships there can be conflict and abuse of power, or perceived abuse. Also translating constantly can simply be tiring or a disruption of the social interaction (I know I’ve done it, as it has also been done for me).

    I also think some families play with the knowledge of language, claiming they want you to learn but then being resentful they cannot have their secret code, or some members may be jealous they are losing an area of perceived superiority (this happens in a friend’s family with her spouse who is not good at learning languages). They alternately encourage, demand one learn and then sabotage the attempts. And the “you didn’t even bother to learn my language, but I speak English” trump card can always be trotted out in an argument. Realistically, most people desire to, are required to, and have more opportunity to learn English than dialectical Arabic, or as in my friend’s case a more rare language.

    “Linguistic oppression” is a wonderful term and a new one to me. In the information given to university students about abusive relationships they talk about controlling and abusive behaviour in a number of spheres (physical, emotional, sexual, friendships, family, financial) but that is an important new one.

    On a more positive note the more one masters a language the more enriched one’s life is in any number of ways. And some families and spouses do genuinely encourage language acquisition.

    An excellent blog and post! Shokran!

  21. Marahm says:

    Welcome, Chiara! I’ve been reading your thoughtful comments on Bedu’s blog, and I am pleased to have you visit here!

    “Linguistic oppression” is a magnificent term! I love it.

    Safiyyah, your comment reminded me that yes, here in Amerca we have to endure the Pakistanis speaking Urdu, as well as the Arabs speaking Arabic. Pakis are numerous in the Muslim communtiy, and I, too, have found myself the “third wheel” at gatherings with Pakistani women.

    I don’t get offended, though, because they are not my family, and they have no emotional stake in whether or not I speak Urdu.

    My Arab family kept secrets from me; they would talk about their secrets in front of me, without restraint.

    I never blamed my girls because they were just children following the lead of their father.

  22. Chiara says:

    Thank you, Marahm for your kind welcome.

    I am sorry about the secrets in your family–families with major secret are often/usually dysfunctional. You are so wise not to blame the children for their dependance on, and naive following the lead of their father.

  23. Aafke says:

    Marahm, that is really low and illbred. And so unkind. You can’t blame the children, but I do blame the grown ups!
    I’m sorry you had to deal with this too 😦

  24. Marahm says:

    Thanks, Aafke. I found out later the girls felt terribly uncomfortable with what their father was asking of them. They seemed to have a built-in sense of justice that conflicted with their father’s self-serving lies.

    All of that is “water under the bridge” these days, and we’ve repaired all our relationships. However, I remain divorced– my choice.

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