Tag Archives: languages

A Date With Language

Dreaming is also an effective way to get to know a language better

Have you been studying a language for a while and still feel there’s a formidable barrier? Do you feel there are layers of difficulty in it you haven’t even scratched? No wonder you and language can’t communicate very well–you barely even know each other! Why don’t you take your language friend out on a date? Attempt to find out its favorite restaurant through a prolonged game of charades and twister, and then give up and take it to your favorite restaurant instead. Language will understand that you did your best, which was slightly less than good enough.

After ordering and waiting a quiet half hour eternity, most of the dinner will be spent immersed in either silence or endless repetition of basic questions regarding each other’s career path, family roots, favorite colors, the weather, etc. Hand gestures provide a poor yet necessary replacement for the lack of mutual understanding, and thus when eating commences and hands are occupied, the conversation will dwindle as each listens to the sound of the other chewing and then swallowing food. You become acutely aware of how bizarre the act of eating is, fascinated by the idea of ingestion.

The food consumed, you will pay the bill and leave the restaurant, both of you secretly desiring for the date to end and be put out of its misery. However, there is still a movie that must be attended, the one you agreed upon while pointing at pictures together on the computer screen. In the darkness of the theatre, you feel the gap between you and language closing a little bit, but this is only because the movie supersedes real interpersonal communication and disguises the crevasse that remains. This fact becomes painfully clear afterwards, when the conversation is limited to asking if the other liked the movie and who they thought was a good actor.

You had wanted to get language’s opinion on the movie’s social commentary and whether or not the director took a reasonable stance, but the words simply are not there. Coming off the high of the interaction-free movie to this point of disenchantment is difficult; you feel it might not work out between you two. As you walk language to the door and say goodbye, you suddenly realize that you have understood a word language said that you didn’t know before the date began.

Rainbows burst out of your skull and your heart leaps in your chest at this morsel of progress as you are once again filled with hope. You get out your phone and use rudimentary pointing and grunting skills to determine the next date time, before vigorously shaking language’s hand goodbye and calling up your friend about the great time you had together. Soon, it seems, you and language will be strolling down tree lined country roads arm in arm, talking about everything from childhood to economic theory and the relation between the two. The future is sweet indeed, you think, just as you remember that you forgot the word you learned.

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You’re not from these parts are you

One of these things is not like the other

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.

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