By 2015, I may be able to complain in another language

It is a remarkable, if somewhat unsettling, privilege to be able to travel the world speaking only one language

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Like many families, we travel at the holidays and so we’ve logged a fair number of hours in airports lately, witnessing the annual ritual whereby perfectly rational people turn into gibbering maniacs when confronted with the implacable torment that is modern air travel.

Who among us has not felt our tempers fray even slightly as we attempt to make our way from hither to yon despite howling children (sometimes our own, sometimes not), queues that move at a glacial pace, and luggage that vanishes en route, only to reappear on the last day of our holiday?

As I crisscrossed the globe this year, first in search of some much-needed family togetherness and then in search of a respite from all that togetherness, I heard people cursing their travel misfortunes in all the languages of the world – and I had to confront my own not-so-secret shame: I speak only one language. I can complain about my travel misadventures only in my native English, and while I can do that quite fluently, as a resident of a cosmopolitan city, I’d like to be able to complain with a more global flair.

True, I’ve had to adapt to the Britishisms that dot Abu Dhabi’s linguistic landscape – bin instead of garbage can, boot instead of trunk, football instead of soccer – but even so, I’m still only muttering in English. Other than these occasional Britishisms, my only other language is bad French – faux French, I like to call it, although my French brother-in-law does not find my atrocious accent amusante: he winces at my attempts to “parlez-vous.”

Many of my students speak two or three languages, sometimes more; I have colleagues who can have high-powered intellectual conversations in four or five languages; and my children are each studying three languages (one of which I do know: Latin, which while etymologically essential, doesn’t work for complaining about missing luggage at the airport). Both children can now understand rudimentary Arabic phrases and my older son had an epiphany of sorts last month, when he realised he was reading the Arabic shop signs and not just sounding out the letters.

Of course my children are young and their brains are like sponges, eager to soak up new information. My brain is ageing, slowly calcifying; it will probably soon be more bone than brain. I took Arabic language classes when we first moved to Abu Dhabi and you know what? Learning a new language is hard, especially with an old brain. Acquiring a new language may be simply physically impossible for me at this point. It’s entirely probable that my French will stay faux, my Arabic absent, my Spanish specious.

But maybe I should not concede so easily. It’s a new year, after all, and so perhaps I should resolve to embrace Rosetta Stone language lessons. After all, people say you can’t really know another culture until you can speak its language, which means that in a place as polyglot as Abu Dhabi, all of us should be speaking at least one language in addition to our native tongue. Yes, I know, “everyone” in Abu Dhabi speaks English, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could move between languages as easily as we move between cities?

It is a remarkable, if somewhat unsettling, privilege to be able to travel the world speaking only one language. The tentacles of English reach everywhere, which means that even in the smallest village in Africa, I may well encounter someone who is at home in English and several other languages, while I am at home in only one.

This fact humbles me, as does the observation an English friend of mine made, years ago, that in the US a person can speak just one language and yet still be considered well-educated. My friend’s words have stayed with me – not to the point where I’ve actually learnt another language, obviously, but enough to ensure that I feel embarrassed about my inadequacy. I benefit from having English be the lingua franca, but at the same time I wonder if it should really be so easy for me to maintain my linguistic insularity.

I don’t know what my bony old brain is capable of but maybe, just maybe, 2014 will be the year when I finally heave myself out of my linguistic easy chair. Who knows. Maybe next December, I’ll be one of those angry travellers yelling at the hapless airline clerks. But I’ll be yelling in Arabic.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

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