Could you tell that I was not native when you first heard me speak?

This is a guest post from Hanan Ben Nafa.

Hanan is a 2nd year, PhD candidate in Sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has been in the UK since 2009 when she moved for the purpose of pursuing her studies. The title of her PhD project is: ‘Code-Switching & Social identity construction among Arabic-English bilinguals’. You can read a recent publication by Hanan here

If you’ve ever spent time in Manchester, you’ll probably have noticed those 2 people sitting on the bus or in the cafe speaking some English, then switching to gibberish (or, in my case, Arabic). Well, they (we) are bilinguals: along with around 50% of the world’s population, we can speak more than one language and even switch languages mid-sentence if the context is right.

I’m a 26 year old, late Arabic-English bilingual (I learnt Arabic first, and English later on). As a speaker of Arabic, I’m far from unique in Manchester: Arabic, it turns out, is the second most spoken community language in Central Manchester, second only to Urdu (Multilingual Manchester, 2013). But every bilingual’s journey is different. And although I feel undoubtedly lucky to be bilingual, it also brings its own challenges – especially around identity. 

My journey with English began when I was 9 years old back home in Libya: my older sister was studying for a degree in English Language at Tripoli University and, like many younger siblings, I wanted to be like her. One of the ways we bonded was through a shared appreciation for the English language, spending hours holed up together in our family’s car with Back Street Boys or Bryan Adams on the cassette player, following the lyrics which my sister had written out from scratch. I pursued my newfound interest through high school, studying Social Sciences with a specialisation in English Language & Literature. Then, aged 20, I move to the UK to study.

Previously, English was something I had learned from afar, but now I was in the middle of it, and English has become an integral part of identity. Accents are a good example of this. Watching an episode of ‘Friends’ a week after I arrived, it struck me how easily I could understand their US ‘version’ of English, maybe as easy as I find Libyan Arabic – unlike the British accents around me which I barely recognised as speaking English. However, I soon learned to adjust and before long I was ‘faking’ the British accent myself. My positive experience in the UK influenced the way I perceived its citizens, and certainly helped me to speak more fluently – but it also meant I developed an obsession with ‘passing for an English native speaker’. During conversations, a lot of my cognitive load is spent on making sure my accent sounds ‘correctly’ British – something that takes up a lot of the effort I should be saving for focusing on processing meaning and information.

Even now, after over 6 years in England, I still feel out of my comfort zone whenever I open my mouth to speak. I perform constant mental gymnastics, and find myself on guard around English native speakers. Psycholinguists argue that speaking multiple languages is good for the brain and helps develop multi-tasking skills, but I can confidently say that it can also sometimes take its toll: it’s impossible to block one of the languages out even when speaking with a monolingual. Whichever language I speak, I feel the presence of the other persistently interfering. This constant need to inhibit one of the languages has been linked with lots of cognitive advantages, but the psychological and social side of things also matter!

What I’ve recently become interested in, on a personal level but also as part of my PhD research, is the way in which bilinguals construct their identity using the languages they have at their disposal. Based on my experience and that of my Arabic-English bilingual friends, I have noticed that along with feeling grateful and even special, bilingualism can bring its own limiting factors. I am made aware on a daily basis of the fact that I am not quite able to be the same person in English as I am in Arabic. An important dimension of my personality is lost. Not lost in translation, but something incapable of being translated, in fact something I would not intend to translate in the first place.

When I speak English, I worry far more about the way others perceive me. As a non-native speaker, language is a priority for me as I want to make sure that I speak fluently and correctly to avoid any miscommunication. On the other hand, I worry that I will not be taken seriously if I’m fluent most of the time, but occasionally make a mistake or struggle to express a certain idea. In discussions with a native speaker, I always feel that the native speaker must be right, and that if any miscommunication occurs, it’s because I probably mispronounced something or expressed it in an odd way! Even if both of us have equal knowledge of the matter we’re discussing, I often believe that they must be in a better position than me to explain it. Of course, objectively this is not true. But as a non-native speaker I am always ready to take a disproportionate share of the blame.

So I am not always completely at ease with English speakers, but being bilingual means I don’t behave exactly like a monolingual speaker of Arabic either. I still have occasional awkward moments when speaking with monolingual Arabs or even Libyans, trying to think of the Arabic equivalent for an English word. A while ago I found myself struggling to locate a word for ‘workshop’ and trying not to sound like someone with a Mechanical Engineering PhD. The nearest Arabic equivalent is: ورشة عمل (waršat ʕamal); quite a technical term and not as general as ‘workshop’. I’m always conscious not to slip into English in case I’m accused of showing off. It was actually a relief to discover that late bilinguals show a higher rate of the ‘tip of tongue’ phenomenon than early bilinguals or monolinguals, according to a recent study, since this struggling for words is certainly something I encounter!

Basically, I started to notice a pattern that will be familiar to many bilinguals: a feeling that I am not seen as an insider to either language group! I can’t help but think that one group may perceive me as not quite native, while the other accuses me of abandoning my heritage language because it seems I can no longer speak Arabic without the need to switch to English occasionally. As a result, I find that I need to prove to myself that I can still use Arabic at a reasonably fluent level. Months ago, I sought out translation opportunities and finally found a charity that wanted an Arabic speaking volunteer to translate for them. I was excited to have the chance to showcase my bilingual skills and be able to use both my languages for the benefit of others. As I expected, it was not an easy task particularly because – as Grosjean (2010) rightly argues – ‘bilinguals aren’t born translators’ (another discovery that made me feel relieved).

But here is where things get even more complicated. Modern Standard Arabic might be my official first language, but it is Libyan Arabic that I first acquired at home and it’s through Libyan Arabic that Libyans carry out most of their daily routines, whether interacting with the teacher at school, conversing with family and friends or speaking to a customer advisor. I always tell non-Arabs that Modern Standard Arabic is technically my second language and that my native language is Colloquial Libyan Arabic. (Ironically, I’ve written this piece in my “second” language of English, but would not be able to write this piece in my “first” language of Modern Standard Arabic – or at least, I’m not brave enough to try!). The first task the charity gave me was to translate their membership application into Arabic – Modern Standard Arabic. I knew it would be a difficult task but I did not expect it to take me 4 hours! Official, written contexts like application forms are generally the only time most people would use Modern Standard Arabic nowadays, and although we might have lots of practice completing such forms, we have much less practice producing them! So although I would certainly recognise the right word if I come across it, it is not something that I’d automatically retrieve or correctly produce just because I can speak Arabic. This is unlike the situation with English, where as a second language learner I was systematically taught how to write academic English throughout my education. Expectations of literacy in bilinguals can be unrealistically high – just because someone learns a community language at home, it doesn’t mean they are practiced in the formal written language. This can be hard for some monolinguals to understand.

Of course, I usually manage to express my feelings and say what I want to say effectively in both English and Arabic, but the two languages seem to activate distinct world views. In English I can freely talk about my PhD project, have a chat with my supervisor, or tell my sister that I miss her. In Arabic… let’s just say that I’d not be able to talk about any of those examples in exactly the same way, or I wouldn‘t feel comfortable doing them (particularly the last one). Arabic expressions for ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’ feel intensely expressive, so I find myself embarrassed to use them, while the English feel less intimate and more pragmatic.

Having said all this, I remain hugely grateful to be bilingual, and I especially love the luxury of using the two languages together – or when I ‘code-switch’ to be exact! The only time I feel fully in my comfort zone is when I’m in the company of other Arabic-English bilinguals, specifically those who are as advanced as me – basically my friends! Switching between Arabic and English can feel like the only way I can be myself. I don’t only switch to English because I sometimes need to, but because it just sounds right in some situations or because it’s easier for my brain to retrieve. I also use it for all sorts of identity-related reasons, like when I want to sound cool, or to add an authoritative element to my voice, or to indirectly tell my friend that I do not quite agree with what she is saying.

What I find most amazing about code-switching is not only the way it highlights the distinct characteristics and connotations of each language, but it’s actually the meaning behind this act of switching from Arabic to English or vice versa that I find quite meaningful and subtle. It’s rare that we bilinguals would literally say: ‘I’m bilingual, open-minded and I want you to perceive me that way’ … No! We communicate this through our linguistic performance in our interactions. For example, I may switch codes to emphasise my Arabness at some point, then I switch to my PhD student character, which does not mean I am no longer Arab. Then, I am that female immigrant who is fluent in English and likes living in England. I am all of those, but from different angles. Switching between languages is my way of showing these different angles to their best advantage.


Kreiner, H., &Degani, T. (2015). Tip-of-the-tongue in a second language: The effects of brief first-language exposure and long-term use. Cognition, 137, 106-114.

Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: life and reality. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press.

Multilingual Manchester. (2013). Multilingual Manchester: A Digest. University of Manchester: Manchester.