…Or at least try. There are those who can pick up languages faster than they can pick up their luggage at the airport, and then there are the rest of us who need a while to fumble along. If you have the resources, enroll in language classes. They force consistent practice, help you understand the structure of the language, and allow you to become comfortable making egregious and embarrassing errors in public. Do I speak from experience? Barely. I have probably taken a grand total of about seven Arabic courses over the entire extent of my time here (#financiallychallenged), but I’ll get there soon. For now, I get to make the egregious errors without the support group of fellow fumblers.
When I was living in Mexico after high school, and before I’d picked up Spanish, someone once asked me why I was so quiet in group settings. It was because I was embarrassed about my lack of Spanish, and I wanted to explain myself. I responded: “Porque soy demasiado embarazada para hablar” (“I’m too pregnant to speak”). Right. Classic case of a false cognate. Swallow your pride and move on. Luckily, the Arabic language also provides ample opportunities to familiarize yourself with the feeling of linguistic failure in that department. The Lebanese word for “pregnant” is remarkably similar to the word for “stupid.” It’s as if they did that on purpose.
Then there is the matter of trust. When learning a language, there is a remarkable degree of trust that you must place in the people around you. This is something I very quickly learned on my first full day in Lebanon back when I moved here to pursue my masters in 2011. I was introduced to the extended family of the woman I’d be living with, and her sweet, kind, compassionate nephew took me out to coffee to meet up with his friend. Before the friend arrived, I was given my first Arabic lesson. I was told how to say a simple “How are you?,” which I could practice once the friend arrived. I repeated the phrase over and over and felt proud of myself for memorizing it so quickly. I even felt I was beginning to master the accent. So, when the friend arrived, I stood up to greet him boldly with,
“Shou hal jasad ya asad”
Tremendous laughter followed. Maybe my accent was off? Maybe they were just astounded at my courage? No. Through tears of laughter, the friend asked me if I knew what I had just said. “How are you?,” I asked tentatively. No. No, that is not the meaning of the first phrase I was taught. I had been told to say “What a body you have, you lion!” to a complete stranger.
So yes, trust is important as well. Choose your teachers wisely, and don’t say much when addressing a pregnant person. Then again, you can’t really learn if you never open your mouth and try. Just accept that you’ll be a language loser far longer than you like, unless of course you’re one of those special language learners. Or are surrounded by trustworthy teachers. Not me, friends, not me.