The Linguist

The Linguist 54,5

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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Page 16 of 35 OCTOBER/NOVEMBER The Linguist 17 FEATURES "The advice I give students now is 'always go above your head with languages because you're not going to waste your time'. The things I learned, the people I met and the interests I gained in that year ended up being crucial for everything I did in my life after that." It was the first time he had lived abroad since leaving Senegal, and the "giant beating metropolis" of Cairo was a world away from the town where he had grown up. "It's totally disordered at a law and order level but totally ordered at a cultural level, and suburban America is the opposite, where you have a strong law and order regime but people are culturally atomised and disconnected from each other," he says. Egypt became his second home and he returned every year until the coup of 2013. From Egypt to Iran While Egypt was refreshingly different from America, Brown found Iran to be surprisingly similar when he went to the country to learn Persian in 2004. "In the US you get this idiotically monochrome view of Iran, but it's a lot more like the US than people in America like to acknowledge: it's very polarised, there's a lot of very conservative people, there's liberal people," he explains. A year earlier, he had gone on the 'Reading Iran, Reading Iranians' summer school at the University of Texas, while studying for a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. "I was one of only two non-military intelligence people there and the lessons were things like 'a shady deal' or 'a green card marriage'. Although we told them we were PhD students, they just thought we were even deeper under cover," he laughs. The programme was so effective that within two months he was able to have conversations in the language. "Learning Persian was really important to my work and it's been important to me as a person. It's an incredibly rich tradition of poetry and culture. It also allowed me to learn about the non-Arabic tradition of the Islamic world." Brown uses Persian and Arabic daily, mainly for research, but also when travelling abroad, with delegations from overseas, and for occasional speeches and classes. His graduate students have to know Arabic well, but there is also a general language requirement for all undergraduates at Georgetown University. "Whatever language they're studying, I always encourage them to take it further. If a student comes to me and says, 'I'm taking Chinese but I think I'm done with it', I say 'don't stop taking the language, just take one class,'" Brown tells me, with a tinge of personal regret: despite studying Russian to a high level, he has now all but forgotten the language. "It really makes me sad," he admits. "I knew it very well and I travelled a lot in Russia. It was an important part of my life and I feel like I lost that." He adds: "I would encourage people to learn a language, especially when you're young. When you get older you don't have the flexibility to be able to go abroad or the time you need to learn a language." This is also something he knows from personal experience: he started learning Turkish because he was spending a lot of time doing research in Turkey, but he stopped due to family responsibilities (he has children aged nine months and two and a half). A passion shared Our interview is interspersed with fragments of domestic life. Brown breaks off to speak in Arabic to his son (who is about to break something) and wife Laila (who can't find her phone). Although he mainly studied Egyptian Arabic and tends to use Classical Arabic for his work, the home language is Palestinian. "My wife's family is Palestinian – they were refugees from 1948 and grew up in Egypt, so my wife spent part of her childhood in Egypt, although she grew up in the US," he explains. "So I mostly speak Palestinian, because a lot of domestic Arabic – like how you say 'the child has drooled all over his bib' – is something I've only learned in Palestinian Arabic." He is determined to pass on not just the Arabic language and the opportunities it brings to his children, but also a passion for languages more broadly. "Learning a language isn't just about learning to speak to other people, it's about learning another view of the world," he concludes. "It will open up horizons and possibilities that you don't expect, and it gives you tremendous insight into your own world, your own language."

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