The Unexpected Result of Being Tri-Lingual

A skill that transcends language.


One question I get asked often is, “If you’re Kenyan, how can you speak Arabic?”

The answer’s simple really. My parents moved from Kenya to the Gulf Region in the 80’s, so we grew up there but that’s not the secret.

The secret was The Rule; we (the kids) were not allowed to speak in Swahili (my parents’ mother tongue). My parents were strict about it. The moment we would try to say something in Swahili my mother would say, “Arabic!”

That rule was funny because my parents spoke Swahili among themselves, so we had to pick up Arabic.


From friends, from TV, from the only Arabic lesson we got taught in private schools. But my brothers and I managed well, and my parents learnt the language with us.

The main disadvantage of this is that we don’t have a specific Arabic accent. While my younger brother matches the dialect of whoever he’s speaking to, I tend to mix and match words from Emirati and Palestinian dialects to convey a message.

Now, because of the diversity of countries such as the UAE, being tri-lingual is no big deal, especially when you have that Indian friend who speaks 4 languages.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The unexpected result of how we learnt the language as kids was that we became more attuned to context and non-verbal communication. In other words, we developed the skill of reading people’s expressions, reading between the words they were saying…simply enough, just reading people.

And that’s lead to deeper connection than knowing three languages ever could, because that skill transcends languages. Now I’m not going to claim I’m a pro at reading people. A lot of times I need to calibrate that skill, i.e. I need to know the person well enough first.

But it was common for one of my friends to have a conversation completely in Urdu, then turn to translate only for me to say, “No need. This is what you were talking about, right?”

Or once we had a meeting with our boss who said something to which my colleague’s face expression changed so subtly. When we left the meeting, I asked her, “What were you thinking when he said so and so?”

And she gave me a response I wouldn’t have gotten had I not noticed the microexpression.

This skill was perfectly utilized growing up with a very secretive brother who didn’t like to talk about anything. My mother used to always pick me as the person who ‘understood’ him. “He tells you everything,” she used to believe. It took him leaving the country for me to realize that the only reason I used to understand him was not because he told me anything, but because I read him too well.

This made me realize that sometimes in life, it’s good for you to not have things figured out from the start…that you learn more from the process of seeking knowledge than actually attaining it.

I have to admit, as a kid I found The Rule annoying, especially since we spent 2 months every year in Kenya, and our Swahili was as broken as a glass vase that had plummeted to its demise from a 1 km height. We were made fun of a lot, even though Swahili was supposed to be our mother tongue — technically, it was just our mother ear because we heard it and understood it but were not allowed to speak it.

But now as I get asked more and more by frustrated Arab parents whose kids don’t speak Arabic because of their private-schooling, I really appreciate the gift my parents had given me in setting up The Rule.

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Originally published at medium.com

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