Traces of a bilingual upbringing

The errors and idiosyncrasies of an Arab-American tongue

Farid Alsabeh
7 min readNov 6, 2022


Going to summer school in Syria apparently wasn’t enough to protect my two native languages from various errors, spillages, and cross-contaminations

Conversations with my parents are strange lingual chimeras. Take, for example, the following exchange with my mom, reproduced here almost verbatim:

—Hi mama, keefek al-yawm?
—Hi habibi, alhamdulillah, I feel great. Al-yawm ‘amilt nus sa’a ‘al treadmill.
—Ya salam! Proud of you, ana wallah lazimli rouha ‘al gym, bes al motivation sar da’eef.

Although this conversational hybridization can only be fully appreciated by the bilingual reader, English-speakers will still notice the strange mixture of intelligible phrases interspersed in the Arabic, a combination which has once been called ‘Arablish’.

But this kind of code-switching isn’t the only sign of my bilingual background: evidence can also be found on the level of single words and phrases. These are like traces or fault-lines: marks of my bicultural upbringing, which are inscribed in my use of both languages.

In this article, I’ll list some ‘linguistic specimens’ which testify to my bilingual background, showing how deeply the bicultural experience intersects with the use of language.

False equivalences (English)

The first category of specimens consists of erroneous or non-preferred phrases translated directly from one language to another. First, we’ll consider English phrases which were translated directly from Arabic.

‘Closing the lights’

Friends of mine have recognized my tendency to say close the lights, substituting the verb ‘to close’ for the one usually preferred in this context: ‘to turn off’.

The origin of this peculiarity is the Arabic language: although the verb طفى, which corresponds to the English word ‘to turn off’, can be used, we more often say سكر, which means ‘to close’. (1)

Knowing about this mistake hasn’t been enough to rid me of it, and out of all the phrases on this list, it’s probably the one I say the most.

‘Eating the cards’

When playing cards, I will usually say eat where most English-speakers would instead use the words ‘collect’ or ‘take’.



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