Growing up bilingual - and translating 'Home Alone' for Grandma

'Home Alone' (1990) Source: MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY

Language can break barriers, especially when you're a little kid keen to share your favourite film with your grandma in Syria, writes Omar Dabbagh.

This story was first published in 2016 as part of a five-part series about bilingualism and language education in Australia

When I was four years old, my favourite movie was 'Home Alone'.

I was the type of child who, when enamoured by a film, would repeat it ad nauseum in the household. Pauses to fully soak in the best scenes. Rewinds to relive them. Then a call-out to share those scenes with my patient sisters.

So when the time came to visit my relatives in Syria for the first time, my prized VHS tape of 'Home Alone' was promptly packed.

Her smile as I rewound the tape has stuck with me for more than 20 years.

I only remember drips and drabs of that visit, but its significance was not lost on me even at a young age. I vividly recall meeting my grandparents, the excitement on the faces of my aunties and uncles, the tears of joy being shed by grandma when she hugged my mum, who she hadn’t seen in years, the laughter amongst all our cousins, and the happiness I felt when my grandfather would later take me for walks around our home village of Latakia, explaining the history of the town and introducing me to his friends and local merchants.

My grandfather passed away two years later, so our brief, albeit priceless, time together during that trip are my only memories of him.

But my strongest memory truly belongs to 'Home Alone' - and my grandma.

Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.
Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.
Mary Evans Picture Library/AAP

Now my grandma didn't speak a lick of English. She still doesn’t. But her lack of English was complemented by how broken my Arabic was. So I sat her down one lazy afternoon so she could experience the crazy world of Kevin McCallister.

This when I began to translate 'Home Alone' for her.

Sure, it wasn’t a perfect translation - I didn’t know how to say many of the words the bad guys where saying in Arabic, and my grammar was as good as you could expect from a four-year-old boy speaking a second language.

But my grandma loved it. She asked plenty of questions throughout, and let out a satisfied "aww" when Kevin was reunited with his mum. Her smile as I rewound the tape has stuck with me for more than 20 years. Sharing that experience, regardless of our generational and geographical differences, solidified our now unbreakable bond.

My second language is a part of my story. My family’s story. I am incomplete without it.

In the past I’ve been asked, “has the ability to speak Arabic changed your life?”, and my immediate response is always one of bewilderment because, put simply, it is my life.

This is also the case for millions of other Australians. Whether they come from a multicultural background, are First Nations people, or have learnt another language for their own wonderment, being bilingual is a way of life. Its origins in this country and the amount of people it touches, irrespective of what the language is, make this a beautiful element of Australia’s past, present and (hopefully) future.

It is also an underrated gem we can inadvertently take for granted.

Language can break barriers. Even when you’re just a kid keen to show off your favourite movie.

Omar's grandmother passed away in late 2017.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch