Interview with Lebanese wordsmith (and grammarian) Lina Choueri

The following interview was conducted between Los Angeles and Beirut, Lebanon. 

Lina Jonathan
Lina Choueiri - The interviewee               Jonathan Goldberg. - The interviewer  


                                                                                                                                         

JG : Where were you born and educated and in which languages?

LC : I was born in Mansourieh, in the Metn hills on the outskirts of Beirut. I began school before the age of 3, and studied French as a second language. In Lebanon, the choice of second language is important, because this is the language in which all subjects are taught: mathematics, science, history and geography were all taught in French. From the age of 9 through high school, I studied English as my third language for only about one hour a week. After obtaining the French BAC, I simultaneously completed undergraduate studies in two fields, in two languages and at two universities: mathematics in English at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and French literature at l’Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth (USJ).

Lina UAB Lina USJ
AUB  USJ


JG :
Where did you complete your university studies and in which post are you currently employed?

LC : After my master’s studies were twice interrupted by the civil war in Lebanon, I went to the United States to complete my education. First, I was a student at the English Language Institute, at George Mason University in Virginia.  I needed to improve my English, which had been of limited use while I was in Lebanon. Then, I completed a Master of Science in linguistics at Georgetown University followed by a PhD in linguistics at the University of Southern California. I took seven years to complete the doctorate, doing research and building contacts in my field, before I returned to Lebanon.


JG :
What is your field of specialization?

LC : I am a grammarian and the subject of my doctoral dissertation was “The Syntax of Restrictive Relative Clauses in Lebanese Arabic”. I am currently Associate Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at AUB.


JG :
Does your expertise in Arabic grammar have practical application?

LC : The distinction between formal Standard Arabic and the spoken varieties of Arabic in the Arab world is well known. But what your readers may not know is that there is no body of research that describes or exposes rules or patterns of speech for each of the different dialects. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for speech therapists, for example, to understand the characteristics of the spoken varieties of Arabic and to diagnose certain aspects of speech impairment in children. I have been collaborating with speech therapists in Lebanon for that purpose.


JG :
You have mentioned the two universities in Beirut at which you completed your undergraduate studies simultaneously. If you were to examine the motives for which young Lebanese choose one or the other university, what would this tell you about their linguistic preferences?

LC : It is difficult to isolate language preferences when examining the motives for which students make their choice of university.  For example, AUB and USJ, both private universities, are among the top universities in Lebanon, but AUB is considerably more expensive than USJ.  This may be a major factor in the choice of university, since we have very little by way of financial aid for students. Also, entrance requirements to each of the two universities differ. So there is no easy, direct correlation between language preference and choice of university.  One of my masters’ students, who is conducting a study on language choice among university students, has found that more than one third of her participants at USJ studied English as their second language, while nearly half of her participants at AUB studied French as their second language.

The two universities are looking for diversity in terms of the socio-economic background of students, but not for language diversity. Therefore, this current situation is not the result of a concerted effort on the part of those two institutions.

 

JG : Can you tell our readers something about the rivalry between French and English in Lebanon? Was the Sykes-Picot agreement by which Lebanon was put under French mandate a turning point?

LC : There are few studies on the language situation in Lebanon. Here is a simple (maybe a little simplistic) sketch.  To some, the investigation of the multilingual tradition in Lebanon should take us back to the Phoenicians.  I will start with the Ottoman period, between the 16th century and the end of World War I, when Lebanon was a site for various forms of bilingualism among the small educated class, including Arabic-Turkish, Arabic-French, and Arabic-English bilingualisms.  Arabic-French and Arabic-English bilinguals during that period were more likely to be Christians educated in the (American) Protestant and (French) Catholic missionary schools established mainly in the second half of the 19th century.  While the presence of French in education predates the French mandate in 1918-1943, the latter established French as an official language of Lebanon.  This is when French spread across religions and sects.  The status of French as an official language was dropped when Lebanon gained its independence, and Arabic became the only official language.  More recently, we have been observing a decline in the privileged position of French as a language of education, while English has been on the rise.  It is still important to point out however, that multilingualism in Lebanon is very much an educational phenomenon.

JG : Has globalization tipped the balance in favor of English?

LC: It is true that English dominance throughout the world has not bypassed Lebanon. This can be seen in the increasing realization that English is an important language for the future of Lebanon and the Lebanese.  English is perceived to be the most important language for commerce/business, international relations, technology and science.  French is still regarded by many as a language of culture. But while few Lebanese would consider French more important than English, many of them would still consider knowledge of both French and English as important.  The fact is that Lebanon still publishes a daily newspaper in French and one in English (alongside many in Arabic), and while many universities and colleges use English as the main language of instruction, French has held its own in schools. On a personal note, my father pushed me to do my graduate studies in the USA, at a time when my French was much stronger than my English, because he thought that English would open up more career doors.

 

JG : What determines people’s preference for the 3 languages?

LC : [A partial answer can be found above, especially in relation to the division of labor between French and English.]

At the outset, I’d like to point out that, in addition to Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish, and Syriac are among the languages spoken at home by some minority groups in Lebanon. The Lebanese variety of Arabic is the first language of the majority of the Lebanese, the language they learn to speak at home. Standard Arabic is learned through formal schooling.  As I mentioned earlier, in school, most subjects are taught in a foreign language, usually English or French.  When parents choose a school for their children, they are in fact making a choice about the foreign language that will become their children’s second language.

When talking to parents of young children, I often hear the following argument for their choice of school: English is easy; it is everywhere, and necessary for future careers; our children are bound to learn it.  French is more difficult than English; to learn it well, our children should learn it at school.  Parents therefore lean towards choosing schools where French is the medium of instruction. I have heard this argument being made by parents who are francophone and by those who are not. 

The Lebanese may now perceive that trilingualism is the preferred option, but more research would be needed to answer this question more precisely.

 

JG : Do people regard French and English as colonialist languages?

LC : In a global perspective, French and English can certainly be viewed as colonialist languages; more locally however, as you can glean from the brief historical sketch provided earlier, the presence of French in Lebanon predates French colonialism in the region.  During the French mandate, which lasted a little over two decades, French became an official language and it spread more widely, but it lost its official status upon Lebanon’s independence. In that sense, Lebanon’s experience under the French mandate is different from that of other countries under colonial rule, where colonial languages kept their official status, and indigenous languages were assigned low prestige, long after those countries gained their independence.  Maybe the key difference is the role of Arabic in Lebanon, a high-prestige language with a long-standing cultural tradition, which remained closely tied to national identity.

 


JG :
You were interviewed for a radio program of the BBC-PRI (Public Radio International, USA) entitled “Is Beirut the codeswitching LLINA signpostcapital of the world?". The specific type of code-switching referred to is the Lebanese habit of beginning a sentence in one language and ending it another. Another linguist interviewed for that program stated:

“The way people codeswitch in Beirut is unique. … A person in LA might speak Spanish at home and English at work. But in Beirut, “They're all Lebanese, talking with Lebanese, so why all this code switching? You’ll never see two French speaking to each other in German or in Spanish or Chinese, unless maybe there is a reason. But here, it’s a way of speaking in a sense.”

Do you agree with that analysis?

Traditional analyses of codeswitching have not done a good job at explaining this phenomenon, but those analyses are based on the assumption of monolingualism as a norm.  In such a context, codeswitching requires an explanation, since it deviates from the expected norm. In multilingual communities around the world, ‘mixed’ productions such as those of the young Beirutis are in fact very common; they may even be typical ways of speaking.  In my opinion, the Beiruti phenomenon would not be as unique as it is made out to be, if looked at from this perspective.

 

JG : Thank you for those very interesting insights. Of the many dozens of linguists we have interviewed on this blog, you are the first from the Middle East, and we hope you will not be the last.

LC : You are very welcome. I am delighted to have been able to share my experience with your readers.

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Blog notes:

[1]  An Agreement signed on 16 May 1916 between France and the United Kingdom, represented respectively by François Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes. The Agreement divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire by apportioning spheres of influence between the signatories. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Agreement was ratified at the San Remo Conference by the League of Nations, which entrusted the United Kingdom with a mandate over Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine, while France obtained a mandate over Lebanon and Syria. (See also: Il y a cent ans...)

[2] The Phoenicians are an ancient people that originated in the cities of Phoenicia, a region approximately corresponding to present-day Lebanon. The greatest known accomplishment of the Phoenicians was the creation of an alphabet which forms the basis of languages that later spread throughout the ancient world,  even if it was not itself the first language created.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.