Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

Ana Bahky Araby [I Speak Arabic]

It may have an unconventional presence in my life, but Arabic, not just English, undeniably makes up part of who I am.

Nov 21, 2022

Every semester as I register for the next semester’s classes, my eyes dart down to the Arabic language section of the course registration website. My mouse dances over it, testing the waters, before slowly, reluctantly, moving away to another course category.
I am always tempted to click it, but fear ultimately overrides my desire to properly learn the language I am supposed to already know. A language that I always felt inadequate in.
Growing up, I lived in a world where Arabic was spoken at home and English was spoken everywhere else. A world where the outside dominated over the inside, and triumphed in a battle to determine my primary language.
Now, I feel like I do not know where I stand with my relationship to Arabic. It is complicated. Am I a beginner? No, I know how to read and write. Am I advanced? No, my grammar is awful. I float somewhere in between, but cannot pinpoint where. Am I at least classed as a native speaker? Yes. No. I do not know.
I obviously understand my family who primarily speak to me in the Syrian dialect, I grew up around the language. I am native in that respect. But am I a speaker?
My relationship with the Arabic language feels like a dog chasing its tail. I am always reluctant to speak in Arabic, to family, to friends, to strangers, because I am insecure about my ability to speak. I feel I speak with broken grammar, and that I cannot pronounce all letters perfectly, and that I have to think about how to translate a word from English for ages sometimes, only for the word to never come, eternally escaping me.
Sometimes I feel like I am speaking like a toddler, or a confused google translator, jumbling together Shami, Halabi, and Fusha dialects with nonsensical, incorrect expressions. I feel like I am doing it wrong. I become too afraid to speak and to disappoint people that I am close to and to be ridiculed by strangers. I am afraid to be made an example of someone who lost their language in an ongoing battle against English, an encroaching global language.
But at the same time, I want to speak, because I know that I will never improve until I do it. It is easy enough to blame people and circumstances for my inability to sufficiently express myself in Arabic. I blamed it on Arabic teachers who treated me as a lost cause and did not try to educate me. I blamed it on myself for not making a greater effort to speak when I was younger. I blamed it on living in an English dominant world. But in all this blame, I treated my linguistic ability the same way as those teachers did: as a lost cause and something that I could never recover. I treated it as something buried away long ago that I can only mourn now.
However, maybe I have been looking at this all wrong. Maybe my knowledge of the Arabic language is not lost in the sea of my mind. Instead of thinking of the ways I am alienated from the language, I should be thinking about the ways I do use it in my life.
Arabic exists in the random words I covertly insert into everyday conversation, in the “Shlonak [how are you]”s and “Biddi [I want]”s sprinkled among English words. It exists in my utilization of fake words like “Mom, I was saly-ing [praying]” that are actually profound fusions of the English and Arabic languages. It exists when I mumble along to Arabic songs or lullabies. It is present in my religious practice, such as when I read the Quran. And sure, I do not clearly roll my r’s, but I can pronounce some other letters unique to Arabic. Arabic is also present in my mind, when I subconsciously think in it without realizing, even if I have a harder time expressing these thoughts verbally. It sometimes overpowers English when I think of certain topics, such as food, family, and Syria. It is used verbally with people I know who do not speak English at all and who force me, reluctantly yet gratefully, to get out of my comfort zone and mental cage.
It may have an unconventional presence in my life, but Arabic, not just English, undeniably makes up part of who I am. Sure, I can learn how to better articulate my thoughts and verbally construct more coherent, full sentences in the language. Maybe I would benefit from working up the nerve to take an Arabic class and improving my technical skills. But my inability to do so right now does not necessarily mean that I do not speak Arabic at all, nor that I am unworthy of claiming the language as part of my identity.
Instead of there being a formidable wall between my ability to speak and not speak the language with a singular gate in between denoting fluency, words in Arabic surround me. They exist in a chaotic, unorganized state, and while I cannot always grab onto all the words I need in a given moment, they remain close by and do not desert me.
Maybe, just yemken, bahki araby [maybe I speak Arabic].
Sidra Dahhan is Features Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo