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A Musical Ear for Languages

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Meet Subhi: Musician, Engineer, and Arabic Tutor

Here at Conversations Unbound, we consider our tutors the heart of our organization. Traditional narratives of humanitarian aid often frame people who have been forcibly displaced as victims of circumstance, rather than humans with agency. CU’s programs emphasize our tutor’s position as knowledge producer and teacher, thereby challenging and reframing that traditional narrative.

Below is an interview with one of CU’s long-time Arabic-language tutors, Subhi, who is an accomplished musician, poly-linguist, lover of history and art, and has also studied mechanical engineering — truly a person of many talents! In the following interview he talks about what it is like to be multilingual, his process for learning new languages, his musical talents, and his humanitarian work in supporting education and literacy for everyone.

To begin, could you please take us through your language-learning journey?

Arabic is my mother tongue. I learned English in school. I also studied French for six years but never got around to speaking it with other people. Before leaving Syria, I initially thought I would be going to Germany, so I began learning the language to increase my chances of emigrating there. Finally, I learned Turkish from starting my new life here in Istanbul.

You play the violin, oud, nay, and clarinet. Was learning to play instruments similar in any way to your language learning process? Perhaps in a way, figuring out the major chords on an instrument could be a similar exercise to identifying basic grammatical structures in a new language. Do you agree?

It’s all in the musical ear. You either have it or you don’t. But if you have this gift in a very small quantity, you can develop it. I first discovered I was interested in languages in the 7th grade. I was observing that my skills were above average, above those of my peers. I was excelling in English exams without studying. I think it’s because of my ear. Listening closely with your musical ear really helps you figure out if what you’re listening to is correct or not.


"It's all in the musical ear."


What is so appealing about being multilingual? Is it empowering or disempowering?

Learning and speaking several languages is empowering because it gives you new perspectives on life. Every language gives you a new perspective, different from any other you previously had. Languages also enhance your feeling of significance. Living in a metropolitan city, Istanbul, and speaking three languages [Turkish, Arabic, and English] that quite a lot of people know, I find that I can relate to the three communities of speakers, while many cannot. If I meet someone who only speaks one of these three languages, I can still relate to him/her and have a long conversation. With people who understand all three, I can also shift and mix languages to communicate my ideas in the best possible way because then I have three whole languages to choose and borrow from, and all the vocabulary and expressions they each have. For example, there are so many expressions in English that do not exist in Arabic, and vice versa.

You’ve worked for an education & illiteracy eradication association, for the protection of vulnerable people through psychosocial support, and in physical and mental special needs care. In addition, you’ve completed a protection induction training, a course on conflict resolution…. What has drawn you to humanitarian work and social causes?

I am still in the process of discovering myself and my interests, more and more. When I first moved to Turkey, I needed a self-acknowledgement: “I exist.” I moved to a new country and had to start from scratch. I didn’t know anyone who could help me find my way, who could help me out. No mentor, nobody. I had to create my social circle from scratch, and I knew I could do this through volunteering. Building this social network through volunteering made me feel better. I was contributing to these organizations’ missions. Doing something, instead of nothing- because everything was new and different- helped me integrate. I felt that my existence here was important. These experiences allowed me to feel valued.

Whether through UNHCR reports, official documents, interpretation during refugees’ interviews or medical exams, you play a crucial role in connecting people who do not speak the same languages. What is the power of translation? How do you see it as building bridges between otherwise disconnected people and organizations?

You can contribute significantly through translation. Without you being there, no one else can solve the problem; no one can understand each other. You can feel your significance at your job. This is my main motivation for doing translation. I feel responsible; I need to be there to help the people out. Another motivation would be exposure to all different kinds of people. I get to hear so many people’s stories.


"You need to love the people who speak the language you are trying to learn."


What advice would you give to people learning a new language, for overcoming vulnerability when they have to craft sentences out loud in front of others, whether in a class setting, a tutoring session, with native speakers?

It is partly an emotional process. But if you don’t practice speaking the language, you can never truly learn it. You need to love the people who speak the language you are trying to learn. I was very fortunate to make wonderful Turkish friends. I tried to always surround myself with Turkish people, and really made an effort to experience everything with them. During the first year, I never spoke. I was only able to say words such as, “how much?”, “how are you?”, but never able to construct actual dialogues. Like a baby learning his/her native language, I spent my first year observing a lot. I picked up on sentence structures and verb tenses. Imitating and repeating phrases in my head really helped. But during my second year, I just exploded! I would catch myself thinking, “oh wow! I just spoke Turkish!” I quickly realized I had developed vocabulary without even knowing it. Suddenly I was able to use words I didn’t even know I knew or remembered.

Have you had experiences similar to Subhi when learning a new language or a new instrument? Comment below to share your stories!

If you want to learn more about Subhi and other CU tutors, click here.

Thanks for reading!

Interview conducted by: Eva Kerisel

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