Brace yourselves. This might shock some of you.
I am not fluent in Arabic. It’s unbelievable, I know, and after 4 years of studying it no less. Moreover, I do not believe I will ever be “fluent” in Arabic. Though in the far future I may be able to consume the Arabic language perfectly through the mediums of reading and listening, I am completely certain that my language production will remain quite obviously non-native.
I dream of future self like this:
Native Arabic Speaker: “Hey you down for getting a bite to eat after we ditch this joint”
Me: “I think that a nice plan but first of all it is necessary for me to go to the house and get my knapsack since I have left her there.”
Despite my language short comings, I can still speak Arabic better than most infants, toddlers, and other foreigners. Therefore, I feel my Arabic studies cast in a particularly ironic light when someone, perhaps a toy shop employee, sees me, surmises that I am not Egyptian and instantly becomes mute, believing he cannot say one word to me unless he says it in English, a language in which he never progressed past “Welcome in Egypt.” He quickly determines that his only other option for communicating with me is through a complicated series of sounds, hand motions, and facial expressions that would be much simplified through the miracle of speech, which he has already ruled out.
Should I begin this mode of vocal communication by speaking in Arabic, the result is usually confusion, surprise, and then disbelief, sometimes with a swift return to hand motions and one word sentences. In the most depressing of cases, the person will not recognize that I’m speaking Arabic (albeit poorly) and will ask someone passing by if they speak English, and I’m standing there like an idiot thinking about my past four years of Arabic study, realizing it’s all led to this point of me being unable to find out where the spices are at the grocery store.
Here’s another example:
Man who comes to check the gas meter knocks on the door. I answer it. He notices I’m probably foreign, tipped off by the American flag I drape around myself at home. I’m speaking in Arabic, he’s speaking in English.
Me: Good morning.
Him: Good morning. (motions to his notebook) Gas.
Me: Please come in.
Him: (motioning with questioning signals, asking where the meter is)
Me: It’s in the kitchen.
Him: (goes into the kitchen, checks the meter, emerges) Eight pound.
Me: (I pay him and he gets ready to go) Goodbye
Him: Bye Bye
Of course, there are plenty of circumstances when I have wonderful conversations with people who are delighted to know that I can speak their mother tongue despite the fact they are slightly baffled that anyone would learn Arabic, saying
“Why? Why do you learn Arabic?” (I often ask myself the same question after every disaster similar to the spice search.)
But occasionally you meet a person who simply will not believe someone of my appearance could speak scribbly. Encountering this disbelief is just another one of the joys of learning Arabic.