You’re sitting in a traditional Libyan gathering, sipping red tea and served an array of date-filled and sugar-powdered sweets.

The conversations in the room overlap and though it is hard to focus on one in specific, the overall sound has a unique order to it. When you are asked a question, silence falls over the room.

This moment you spend thinking of what to say can feel like a full minute to someone new to Libya, and halting in Arabic or, specifically the Libyan dialect. Whether you are a foreigner or a Libyan from abroad whose tongue feels and sounds heavy when pronouncing the elegant Arabic “R”, your speech will stand out, and so will you.

It wouldn’t be right to launch The Bifocal column without addressing the most important topic relating to the insider/outsider complex. A language barrier is the first thing that distinguishes a person in a given society.

How you speak has a great influence on people’s initial impressions of you, but you can also learn a lot about a person’s reception to diversity. How open-minded a listener is, can be conveyed in his or her reaction to how you speak.

Even within Libya there are distinguishable sub-dialects. Libyans who live in Tripoli but originate from the inner rural cities of Libya have expressed to me their hardships of being expected to match Tripoli jargon.

There are plenty of Tripoli residents, who will express their appreciation of your developing speech or different dialect, and I’d like to think they compose of the majority; however, almost every newcomer experiences the unfortunate situation where the “barrier” in the common term “language barrier” is built right before their eyes.

Normally, the term refers to a verbal barrier between two people who do not share a common language and which prevents them from communicating effectively. However, the “barrier” in the unfortunate situations to which I am referring has less to do with the listener’s failure in understanding your meaning. Barriers here are built voluntarily.

A Listener may impolitely point out the mistakes you make, or in extreme cases, laugh at you for making them. The Listener’s intention may be to teach you something, but the only thing succeeded with this type of reaction is that an implicit barrier between the two of you was created.

Recently, I found myself in one such unfortunate situation. While speaking fluently to an acquaintance at a wedding in Tripoli, Arabic words not belonging to the Libyan dialect found their way into my speech – a natural result of having learned Arabic by Syrian and Palestinian Arabic teachers abroad. The Acquaintance found my usage of these words funny.

Because I don’t like to take myself too seriously, I joined in the laughter. Her intentions seemed innocent at first but her tendency to focus on the actual words I was speaking, as opposed to what I was saying was inconsiderate. However, she seemed oblivious that her actions might hurt my feelings or cause me to withdraw all together from the conversation.

This language barrier is the hardest thing to overcome for newcomers. Surveys conducted in cultures around the world, including one by Statistics Canada show that immigrants reported language barriers as their biggest difficulty next to finding adequate jobs.

For someone new to a culture, what you learn from the quick interactions in a grocery shop or when meeting someone new, can prove influential on the general judgment you make of the society.

It takes time to realize that unfortunate situations like the one described, are not ill-intended as they seem. Instead, they are representative of the restrictions Libyan society was subjected to in the past.

For a long time, under the former regime’s rule, it had been one way or the highway. If you didn’t sound, act and think exactly like the people around you, you didn’t belong. Now that restrictions have been lifted in the new Libya, it is a matter of overcoming that backwards mentality.

We don’t have to sound exactly like each other to understand or connect with one another. Libya’s discomfort with the “different” is evolving. In the new Libya, we have to bridge the gaps one awkward situation at a time.


Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post‘ on May 17, 2012

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