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I Don’t Speak My Father’s Language

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCSB chapter.

According to my mother, when I was a few years old, I was already a talker. I had no problem babbling, ranting, raving, or rhapsodizing. My vocabulary was apparently very large for a two-year-old, considering I was already yelling things like “I don’t want broccoli!”

Obviously, English was no challenge for me. My maternal grandparents would spend hours singing and talking to me. I was told about the news, what new cooking shows were being aired, and how to properly wash dishes. Of course, I didn’t exactly understand just yet, but they knew that if they spoke, I would listen. By the time I started school, I was a whiz at speaking. Despite an underlying learning disability that I’m sure I’ll cover on another day, English was easy for me.

Arabic, however, was not. I went to a private Islamic school, from preschool through 12th grade. On top of what a child would learn in public school, we were also taught about the Islamic religion, its history, and how to read and write in Arabic. In theory, this description sounds pretty enriching. You take a child and foster their strength in a foreign language throughout their time in school. For those children who were raised in the language, it was. However, for me, it was a nightmare.

From preschool through 1st grade, I would come home crying every day after school because I just couldn’t keep up. Everything after the alphabet was a blur, so while my peers were counting, speaking, and writing, I was forgotten because I couldn’t meet the standard.

The rest of my time in private school went on pretty much the same way. I would busy myself during Arabic class to avoid being chastised by the teacher who knew I wouldn’t understand her lecture anyways. I always came away from class with the idea that I was simply too stupid to understand what my peers did. Because I was only half Middle Eastern, I believed would never be worthy of speaking the language.

I carried this belief with me until I started high school. Having long since transferred to a public school, I had stopped giving much thought to the language crisis I experienced in my younger years. That was until I sat down and read some of my work from elementary school. We’d been asked to explain one of our greatest battles, which could range from those of fantasy to ones of reality. Younger me had settled on a sad reality. I’d written that my greatest battle was disappointing my father by being too dumb to understand his language. Seeing that written by a child broke me.

I cried for a few days over the words I’d written. I didn’t understand how teachers who were meant to help kids succeed just allowed me to believe that I was lacking and incapable. I ultimately ended up laying on my bed for a few hours for three days. Looking up at the same ceiling I looked up at as a child, I began really thinking about why I ever felt the way I had, and if I still did.

I thought back to every reading test and speech test I failed. I thought about every family get-together where family friends and aunts and uncles would laugh at my feeble attempts to communicate with them. I thought about the hours that would pass when I ultimately gave up and sat in silence. I realized it was not my fault. I realized that I was left behind because instead of being taught the language, I was expected to just know it. I realized that the fault wasn’t in my lack of trying, but in the adults around me who paid no mind to my requests for help. It took days of tears, but I realized I was never dumb; I was just a child who needed help.

From that day on, I began healing that inner child who believed she was too far gone to be helped. I re-learned the Arabic alphabet. I learned to count. I taught myself to read and write some basic phrases and vocabulary. I’m not fluent in the language. I can’t read and write like my friends or peers. But I can teach myself, and try to eventually reach that status. I don’t cringe at my feeble attempts at communication but rejoice in the reality that I’m not incapable. I’m simply someone who is trying, and that is all my younger self needed to know.

Senior at UC Santa Barbara. Avid fan of Taylor Swift. Dog mom.