You may find yourself dancing to her heartfelt romantic jazz in French or in English or enjoying her sultry and melodic music of the Middle East in Arabic. Whichever the language sung, the smooth and luring voice of Julie Slim evokes feelings and sensations which seem to spontaneously connect us with others and with ourselves. As it turns out, what Julie Slim conveys through her music is a genuine reflection of who she is and what it was like growing up multilingual.
Born in the United States, Julie grew up in Lebanon from the age of two. Early on, Julie’s life was always surrounded by multiple languages, in stories and in music, French and Arabic being the two official languages. Whether on the street or at home, these two languages in addition to English were spoken interchangeably and freely. On her local radio stations, she enjoyed listening to music in a variety of international languages including English, Italian and even Greek. In addition to the radio, Julie’s mother could always be heard singing while working or doing other activities throughout the day. It was her mother’s singing and the music that filled the air that fueled Julie’s passion for music. In fact, even before she learned to speak English as a child, she remembers learning and singing songs in English (though later she did discover that some words were not actually what she thought they were).
As a second and third language learner, Julie, intuitively at an early age, discovered the power of music and singing for language acquisition and as a form of human connection. (To learn more about the importance of music and singing for language learning, click here). She and her sister would compose songs in English as teenagers and perform for guests and at local coffee shops. While talking with Julie about her early singing as a child, she shared her mother’s memory of her as a toddler barely able to walk and talk, waddling to the turntable to pick a Doris Day record (apparently her favorite at the time for a song on the album called Que Sera, Sera). She then gave a gentle laugh as she recalled once singing Ole’ McDonald with her sister at a local coffee shop for comedic fun, simply because she loved doing the animal sounds.
For Julie, learning more than one language was not only part of every day life but also necessary for communication and academic learning. In Lebanon, Julie attended a bilingual French school that taught all subjects in both languages, everything from writing to reading, literature to history and geography, except for Math and science. To this day, Julie reverts to French in her head whenever she is dealing with numbers, only because she is faster in that language. When she was nine years old, while her father was on sabbatical, Julie spent six months in Boston and six months in Canada. Like most kids, the desire to communicate and play with other kids her age motivated her to learn English while abroad. One story that stands out for her was the desire to play with a little girl she met in her neighborhood shortly after she arrived. Since the girl only spoke English, Julie remembers running back and forth to her home and then back to the little girl to get the translation for what the little girl was saying and how she could respond. It was this word for word learning stemming from her desire to communicate that encouraged a young Julie to first speak and communicate in English and then motivated her later to master English in school. When she returned to Lebanon a year later, Julie continued to build on the great foundation she had gained abroad at her school in Beirut, which added English to the curriculum starting in middle school. Hence, academic support along with the social need to communicate enriched Julie’s language learning and gave her her own voice and perspective in each language.
I asked Julie about the intermixing of languages during our conversation since many parents site this topic as a concern and a reason for not teaching their children a second language. It turns out that Julie, who also has a Masters from the University of Michigan in Linguistics, knows much about this topic. She explained in a multilingual community, code switching, whereby using more than one language in conversation is very normal and can be an efficient way to communicate since some ideas or concepts may be more embedded in one language. When asked if it is easy for multilingual people to communicate in one only language when necessary, she confirmed that it definitely was. She gave an example of her own experience as a student at a French school in Lebanon whereby only French was allowed to be spoken during French classes and recess.
The ability to draw upon multiple languages also provided Julie with a richness of concepts and culture that has shaped her personality, perspective and artistic expression. We talked about how each language spoken brings out different aspects of one’s personality and levels of expression. These different expressions of personality stem from each individual’s personal connection to and experience with the culture associated with each language. We discussed how, for example, in one language, you may find yourself feeling more warm and outgoing while in another you may feel more reserved; and how this is exhibited in body language and facial expressions as well as in speaking volume. Yet it is this ability to experience these different personalities through language which allows us to live more fully as human beings. (For an article on personality and language, click here).
Notwithstanding, Julie recognizes the challenges of trying to become multilingual and maintaining it in a predominantly monolingual society. Here in Texas, when her daughters were young, (between the ages four and six and between the ages of six and eight), Julie helped a Lebanese friend of hers run a school that taught Arabic to second generation children ranging from elementary to middle school, so that her daughters could also learn their heritage language. During that same time, Julie’s mother-in-law, who lived with them, also taught at that school and spoke mostly Arabic to her daughters. Unfortunately, Julie discovered that these two modes of influence were not enough to engage her daughters’ interest in learning Arabic at that young age. The pervasive culture was monolingual and the girls did not perceive a need to learn Arabic. Moreover, because their grandmother also spoke broken English, her young daughters found it was easier to encourage their grandmother to communicate with them in English rather than trying to communicate in Arabic with her. Julie recognizes in hindsight that since she and her husband’s main form of communication with each other and with their daughters was also in English, her daughters had no real need to communicate in Arabic. Thus they resisted being taught Arabic.
Nonetheless, Julie’s efforts to instill a love for their heritage language and culture was not in vain. In their teenage years, her daughters, proud of their heritage, engaged in learning Arabic on their own. They even enrolled their grandmother to be their chosen teacher through conversation and inquiry about unfamiliar vocabulary words used in their conversations. To this day, whenever they engage in conversation with their grandmother, Taita, it is always bilingual. She speaks in Arabic and they answer in English or back in Arabic, when they can. They are also more open and aware of Arabic being spoken around them. For example, they try to understand the content when they randomly hear it on the streets or in the subways of New York City, where they now live.
All of these life experiences in combination with her education taught Julie that language learning must be purposeful and born out of the need to communicate and to satisfy a desire for information or knowledge. Learning language should be also fun, alive and engaging with role playing, movement, music and art. Language learning does not happen in a void, but is a conduit for building relationships with people, both temporary or permanent. It also has to be community driven whereby schools or community wide programs set the expectation and the example that learning a second language is important. We are very honored to have Julie Slim participate in our upcoming Bilingual STEAM event on November 12. You will get a chance to hear her talk about her own experience and to enjoy her lovely voice in both French and Arabic. But don’t wait! You can also enjoy Julie Slim’s music on Sunday, October 16 with the Bereket Middle Eastern Ensemble at Central Market North from 6:30-9pm.
To hear Julie Slim’s music, click here to visit her website.