Cairo, Egypt

Confrontations With Language Barriers: Q+A with History teacher Mrs. Cherie Redlings

Increased urbanization and updated infrastructure have influenced the language used in Cairo. 

Increased urbanization and updated infrastructure have influenced the language used in Cairo. 

Samantha: What are some unique places you’ve been where you faced a language barrier?

Mrs. Redlings: I’ve been to China, we went to Beijing and then traveled down south to Shanghai and Xian. I have been to Egypt, to Cairo and then further down the Nile to Thebes and Luxor and I’ve been to places that used to be part of the Soviet block in Eastern Europe, although I’ve been to a lot of other places such as Italy, Spain, England and France. The first three I mentioned are places where the language barrier was the most noticeable. Particularly Egypt where Arabic is spoken and where people in the tourist industry really know English. In China it was the same way. But there are more people in China and I’d say that people in the restaurant business (part of the tourist business). So people in tourist industries speak English too.

S: Do you have a particular memory of a language barrier where it was really hard to overcome?

R: Yes, when I visited Cairo, as I told you, Egypt was in the middle of a revolution and the previous president Morsi had been ousted by the army, Morsi had sponsored a government run by the Muslim brotherhood and so that Egyptian society was pushed out of power. A lot of the service people like taxi drivers were part of that faction that had been pushed out of power. So when we  as Americans would get in a taxi or go to a market, the people would have a lot to say about who and what America supported. We couldn’t understand them, we just knew that they were upset. We didn’t know if they were upset at us or in general. We didnt have a lot of Arabic to talk to them. They didn’t have enough English to make themselves clear. We probably could have talked about it and made them understand what was happening. Why our president had made certain remarks, but we didn’t, we couldn’t. They assumed, whatever your president says is what you think. We couldn’t explain that to them. So that was scary.

S: What do you think is your best experience with a language barrier?

R: I guess one of the best experiences was going to Spain and having some Spanish under my belt and watching a person from Madrid speak to a person from Barcelona. You probably know but Spain and Barcelona are in talks about Barcelona’s independence. Since I could understand Spanish I could understand both points of view so that was great. Another wonderful thing was, also happened in Egypt was when my husband and I were joined  by our son who does speak Arabic. Because he knows Arabic, he was able to transcend the differences when he joined us. And he was able to explain to the people we met the points of view of different Americans. That was great. Also the Middle East, each country, has a different kind of Arabic and it’s really important when you go to those countries and speak their Arabic because they feel you know who they are as a people/ group. So he spoke the Arabic that Egypt spoke. Immediately he was accepted as one of them. So i didn’t know that before. I didn’t know that each country in the Middle East has a different type of Arabic. So when you think about English you think about British, Scottish, we tend to think it’s all English. But in Arabic the differences are a little greater, so they can tell immediately where you are from. If you speak their Arabic you are automatically kind of their friend. The places where English is not the national language is a lot harder than the Soviet block from the 1990s. People are just starting to know English. For instance when we went to Postdam in East Berlin. In the Eastern part not a lot spoke English, but they really appreciated if you spoke German.

S: Have you ever had an instance where someone misunderstood you?

R: Yes that was actually with English. In Scotland they speak differently. In fact the first day I got off the plane and they tried to give me directions out of the airport I only understood one word in the sentence. It was the word garage. It’s spoken so differently, the words are different. If you’re getting out of bed in the morning, it means getting out of your kip. So the actual words are different. 


(Photography courtesy of Dave Easton)


Samantha Clarke