Language Learning in Real Life

I grew up in a monocultural, monolingual world in Southeastern Connecticut. Once I hit middle school, I started taking French class with an American teacher who had lived in France for a relatively short time and studied French. We used a combination of the grammar translation and audiolingual methods of second language teaching. (As a language teacher, I don’t recommend either.) With this previous experience, I had a very unrealistic idea of what language learning entailed when I first moved to another country at age 23. It was nothing like five years of French class. Today I realized that probably most people who read my blog have similar language learning experiences and I want to offer a look at what full-time language study really looks like.

Learning another language well enough to live daily life and share deep relationships doesn’t involve books, literacy or dictionaries for us. We use a sociocultural approach that emphasizes relationships. To borrow the words of a wise man, “We do people and people talk a lot.” We don’t have flashcards and I can’t read or write in Arabic with any fluency. We use toys, pictures and a digital recorder so we aren’t trying to “hear with our eyes” by making language learning primarily a reading/writing activity. Still continually trying to speak and listen in another language is not easy, even if the principles we are using are effective. Mostly, it’s Humbling with a capital H.

In our real life, here’s what language learning looks like:

1. Saying things like, “I am taking my daughter to preschool and then I am singing. Ummm, no, paying. Uhhh, returning?” to my auto rickshaw driver while he looks at me puzzled.

2. To another driver: “I need to go to the place of immunizations.” “Ok, you mean the health department?” “No! It’s the place of immunizations for babies.” “Ok, so the health department?” “No! I know the way, I’ll show you.” “Ok.” Pulling up to the place I want to go, the driver says with some annoyance, “So, this is the health department.” Me, a little sheepish, “Oh. Well thanks!” And then I had a driver make a voice recording on my phone so I could learn the new word.

3. Sounding out phonetically from the Arabic alphabet fa-loo-fi and then turning the tissue package over to see they had just transliterated the English word fluffy.

4. (From a friend’s experience but I love it.) At the local market to a group of women, one by one: “What’s your name?” “Me?” “Nice to meet you.” Next woman “What’s your name?” “Me?” “Nice to meet you.” A few more times, and then to herself, there are a lot of women named Me in this city.

5. Sitting at a table for five hours a day, four days a week, listening furiously to the woman who is helping us become participators in the story of this city.

6. From my husband, who learned a greeting incorrectly. For weeks, every time someone said hello to him, he would respond with a loud and friendly, “May God give you peace!” (the appropriate response to another phrase used when someone is hurt or ill.) People looked seriously confused when he would continue with, “How are you?”

7. Me, to almost everyone, “What’s my name? I mean, what’s her name? What’s your name? Never mind.”

8. Walking home from local preschool drop-off this morning, stopping to chat with some vegetable ladies so I can buy garlic. I notice the arugula and ask how much it is. I apologize for my lack of language and say, “I’m new here so I don’t know your language very well. I am learning.” To which she replies, “Enough! You know the word for arugula! You know my language!”

9. The encouraging conversations help. Riding in a taxi in a foreign-dominated section of our neighborhood/borough of this megacity, I started giving directions (rather poorly) in Arabic. The driver, “Wow! You know Arabic!” “I’m new here so I am just learning. Lord willing, I will learn your language very well.” (Okay, it probably sounded like, “I’m new on your country. I learn. Lord willing, I know it better tomorrow” minus pronunciation mistakes.) The driver, “You’re from America?” “Yes, I’m an American (male). Uhhh. American (female) (Love languages with gender differences.).” “Wow! You really know Arabic! How many years have you been here?” “Uh, three months.” “Oh my goodness! I drive people every day who have lived here for years and can’t say anything! Lord willing, you will learn Arabic so well! Only three months! You’re doing so great! Amazing!” Me: Shyly beaming in the backseat with Norah. The praise is undeserved but I’ll take it, Mr. Taxi Driver.

10. “….” At least half the time, that’s me, wondering how to say what I want to say, letting the moment pass, acknowledging my status as a total beginner, utterly dependent on the patience and kindness of those around me. My hope is that slowly, over time I will become able to turn that silence into comprehension as I listen to the stories of those I meet. One day, I hope I have appropriate, true and loving words to respond with. For now, I’ll just keep putting one foot down on the path in front of me and my other foot in my mouth.


What I’m Learning, Summer Edition 2018

I love to think about all I’m learning, maybe to a fault. At the end of each season, I try to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past three or four months. Here’s the I-just-moved-in-June Summer Edition 2018.

1. Not all spinach is equal. The spinach here looks so beautiful. I was in awe with the first packet I bought. For those of you who’ve eaten with us, you know I add vegetables everywhere and my children (mostly) comply. This spinach was grass. I felt like a horse. I couldn’t even eat it with a good attitude. I ate it but I need to rethink how it fits into our diet.

2. Mornings are so much better when breakfast is already made. Last week, my oldest begged me for crumb cake before he went to bed. I had more energy than normal for 9 pm so I thought, “Why not?” I finished baking it before 10:30 and left it cooling. The next morning, when a dear girl woke me up (why is she always hungry at 6 am?), I had breakfast at the table in ten seconds without having to talk. Since then I’ve tried an egg casserole and also a fresh whole grain bread delivery service (I hate to even tell you that. Please don’t be jealous. Yes, it’s amazing.). I’m trying to think ahead most nights so breakfast can be prepared ahead of time. My kids love to cook and I’m just not always up for the coaching and cleaning required by crepes lovingly created by small people.

3. Textiles make a home. Well, I really believe that people in community make a true home and that true home derives its meaning from the Maker of both people and community. But when trying to settle in, linens, rugs, curtains, placemats, door mats, duvet covers make it feel like home for me. When the floors and windows and beds are bare, I haven’t yet made it “home.” I’m grateful for progress in this home-making season. We’re not there yet but we’re getting closer.

4. Living overseas opens up the world for my children. I know this in theory. Yesterday I asked my daughter what she’d like to do for her fourth birthday and she said she’d like to have a juice drink, go to the Pyramids and get a teddy bear. I laughed because for her at four, all these things are possible!

5. Language is absorbed so quickly when you are three. I admit it, I’m slightly jealous of my daughter’s language learning opportunities. She goes to a local preschool where the teachers love her so deeply and only speak to her in Arabic. I was expecting her to grow in her language abilities quickly but nothing prepared me for that first time she turned to me after three weeks of preschool and asked me for a napkin in Arabic. I was utterly charmed although I didn’t understand what she was saying at first.

6. Buying more than one fly swatter is the wise thing to do. I am not always wise. Where did I buy that again? Time for a trip to the store.

7. Having outside space to play in a dusty, polluted city means that my floors will always be dusty. Having dusty floors is 110% worth giving my kids a place to play that isn’t inside a building. Even if it means mopping my entire house on a daily basis.

8. My husband really values my happiness. I have been looking for a rocking chair since I arrived and yesterday, I went to a craftsman who makes them by hand. He makes some beautiful rockers. I told my husband that I thought the price was 300 (from a previous visit) but later called him from the store and said, “Honey, I wanted to check with you about the price. It’s actually 800.” There was a long, unexpected pause. “I know you really want a rocking chair for the baby but that’s expensive!” I was confused until I realized we were dealing in different currencies. He thought I was going to spend $800 US dollars on a rocking chair!!! When I said it was in pounds, meaning $44, he starting laughing and told me to buy two. (I just bought the one.) A friend pointed out that he had earlier agreed to me buying a $300 rocking chair without question. He really values my happiness. (Furniture here that is imported can be very expensive. IKEA is not for college dorms here but for the fanciest and most Western apartments, and the one rocking chair I could find there did cost over $300 so I understand why he was confused. But the last time I spent $800 on a piece of a furniture was never.)

9. I want to help and serve more people than I can. I see needs and pain and grief, and I want to be part of the answer. Yet the needs around me are unfathomable when you mix such a large, multi-cultural city quite close geographically to many recent world events. So I’m learning to bless as best I can, and trust that the Maker of all people sees the needs of His creation. I’m listening for His voice to know when and how to help individuals who have begun to populate my new life here and I’m offering up to Him the burdens of those around me, while trying not to put those burdens on my shoulder without His direction to.

Ten Things I’m Grateful I Brought

“You’ve got to make lists in life….Lists are magical—that’s because they develop a life of their own. Once you start one, it insists on being continued ad infinitum…. A list is never complete, remember. One thing leads to another, and—bingo—it contains items you’d never thought of before. And all because you started to write them down…. I tell you, lists are the mechanics of the subconscious.” Aunt Poldi, from Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions

Every summer I read a lot of fiction. I aim for a book or two a week. I stay up too late reading and read early in the morning if I can. I’m not sure if this started in the 8th grade with my first summer reading list for school or if it has been a more recent development but summers are for fiction in mass quantities.

When I read Auntie Poldi pontificate to her nephew, an aspiring writer, about lists, I highlighted it. My mind has been in list-mode for months. Lists of things to pack, lists of things to sell, lists of things to do, lists of people to email, lists of lists I need to make. Upon arriving, my brain has kept making lists. I’ve started blogging again and most of everything I think to write about is in a list. With a nod to Aunt Poldi and without further comment, here’s a list of ten things I’m glad I packed.

1. Language learning toys. As I’ve mentioned before, we use a play-based, comprehension-driven language learning approach. This means we use a lot of toys and manipulatives as we seek to first listen and understand before we talk. I’m so glad I brought all the language learning toys I did. There are still some gaps in my language kit but I’m grateful I haven’t had to start from scratch.

2. Water bottles. No dishwasher, four kids and two adults, and significant heat yields a lot of dirty cups to wash at the end of the day. I brought water bottles for each of my kids and on the days when we have those ready for them, the dishes are much more manageable by bedtime.

3. My Ergo baby carrier. Herding a biggish family around a truly big city using public transport and walking means having my hands free is essential. I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere or accomplish anything without this baby carrier. It’s hot when I wear it and my son and I both sweat through a lot of layers of clothing but it’s worth every drop of sweat.

4. Art supples. I tend to focus on duty and responsibility to the exclusion of creativity. Being in a new environment reminds me of how much I like to write, draw, paint and letter as I process a new world and a new life experience. Sometimes I need to set my hand or paintbrush to paper and I’m glad I brought some supplies.

5. Kids’ books. We are currently staying at an apartment that belongs to some friends who are away on holiday and visiting family in their home country for about 6 weeks. Their generosity in opening their home to us has been such a gift. Since they have three kids and bookshelves full of books (and toy cabinets full of toys), our things have remained packed in our suitcases. We are essentially using everything we had in our carry on luggage over and over again. In the last few days, I had to search through some of our bags for some items needed in our language lessons. I started pulling out some of the children’s books I packed. Books are friends indeed. Ferdinand and Chrysanthemum, Frog and Toad and Toot and Puddle brought me great joy as I read them to our daughter. Humans are defined by story in many ways and the children’s literature that accompanies us first as kids and then as parents is a significant part of that.

6. A family journal. I have a simple notebook that I record things in for our family. New Year’s resolutions and intentions, reflections on experiences we’ve had as a family, gratitude lists. I brought it with us and have started asking a question a few times a week, like “What was the best thing about this week?” “What do you miss most about home?” and “What has been the hardest thing about moving?” I trust that one day these words will be a treasure for us all as we remember this transition.

7. Pacifiers. I get plenty of negative feedback about my three year old having a pacifier. My personal rule is that no one who has to make a major move or have a sibling has to give up a pacifier at that point, regardless of age. When you have to go through both in a three month period, your mom packs extra pacifiers. And she’s glad she did.

8. A learner’s attitude. I’m not doing it perfectly but I’m glad I packed the attitude of learning and exploration. I could have read a bunch of books about where I am and come in “knowing” how “they” do it. Instead I’m just watching and observing and delaying judgment. I feel like I’m learning a lot.

9. My Kindle. Having access through my library account to new books has been so important to our whole family. We’re able to read aloud books with our older two without having to buy them all ourselves. We can get new books and expand our repertoire without having to buy a book we end up not finishing. Being able to use our Kindles here has meant we can keep reading, feeding our minds, hearts and souls with stories and ideas.

10. Kitchen supplies. My husband and I had differing opinions about how important it was that my pots and pans came with us. He assured me I could buy high quality pots and pans here (and I’m sure he’s right). Still I’m glad I brought my nice pots and pans. I wish I had made room for cookie sheets and muffin tins. But those things I wish I had brought belong to another list on another day.

Ten Ways I Know I’m a Beginner

In keeping with my list-making posts recently, I’ve been recording ways I know I’m a beginner. Before I moved, I listened to a podcast that reminded me to be a beginner. For someone who has lived overseas before and could, without humility, do the “I’ve already been here, done that” thing, this was great advice. Especially because I haven’t been here and I haven’t done that. I’ve been there and done those things. But now I’m a beginner and instead of striving against it, I’m trying to learn from it and laugh with it.

Here are ten ways I know I’m a beginner.

1. I can’t find hummus. I live in one of the biggest (maybe the biggest) city in the region and I can’t find hummus. I can find tahini salad, I can find chick peas, I can find baba ghanoush, I can find cucumber yogurt salad, I can find olive oil. I can’t find hummus. I am a beginner.

2. I greet people enthusiastically by saying things like, “How am I?” and “Good morning!” (at 6 pm). In other words, I make so many mistakes over and over again.

3. I get lost within walking distance of the apartment where we are staying. I’ve recently figured out that only riding in the back of taxis and Ubers is a serious disadvantage when it comes to finding my way around a city. I keep asking my husband, “Is that the intersection where we pass the Emirates’ office?” and he doesn’t know. He can look up and I can’t. I only know ground floor landmarks and don’t even know that we’ve passed through a roundabout until it’s almost over. His experience as a man in the front seat is vastly different from mine as a woman in the backseat.

4. My stomach is a beginner in this place. I had to stand up an Uber the other day when my food poisoning persisted. Even my body is a newbie in this place.

5. I don’t have friends. It’s normal but hard. I’m a beginner.

6. I buy my groceries from the supermarket. There will come a day when I have a vegetable seller that I regularly use and can even call for delivery if I can’t make it to his stand. I will also probably go to a butcher with cow carcasses handing in his window (my kids think this is fascinating, awesome and gross, depending on the kid). But right now I buy things clearly marked and wrapped in plastic wrap because as a beginner, I can only handle so much at once.

7. I stand at the cheese counter forever. When I still haven’t figured out how to order, I walk away. I’m definitely not doing the cheese counter correctly.

8. I’m tired. I had a friend once explain that when you are experiencing everything as new, your sense of time stretches. It feels like you live five days in the span of one. He was right. When everything is novel, my brain and body work hard to process it all but I have to live smaller, in slower chunks, and take time for silence and solitude to work through my daily experiences.

9. The familiar brings comfort. Last night we went to a club with a playground and green space. It’s for expats. Like exclusively. To be honest, it’s not the kind of place my husband and I like. But when you are beginning, sometimes you end up places you don’t love to take breaks that you need.

10. I repeat to myself, “In a year, I’ll be able to….” I tell my kids, “In a year, you’ll be able to…alone…or in Arabic…or without fear.” I tell my husband, “In a year, we’ll be…”. I hold out hope for what it will mean to not be such a beginner.

Right now we are beginners. It is good and necessary for now. Still I long for the skills I’ll have in a year, when I can order ground beef from a cow hanging on a hook in the window using words the butcher understands after I greet him appropriately for the time of day. I will have walked there without getting lost or I will have directed a taxi without needing to get out in tears (I’ll tell that story soon, I hope). Here’s to being a beginner.


Twenty Things I Didn’t Know About Living Overseas (Twenty Things I’ve Learned in the Past Ten Days)

I flew across the world about ten days ago. A few days ago I wrote about things I had forgotten about living in another culture but was bumping into like old friends as I adjust to this new place. Today I am writing about twenty things I had no idea about before I came. It’s been fun to keep a list and begin to grow in unexpected ways. The growth I see in me and my family is likely one of the biggest gifts I receive as an expat and one of the important reasons I wanted to transplant a semi-large (for an American) family to another culture.

I didn’t know…I have been learning about…

1. How to use Uber. This is my main means of transport right now as it’s very hot (for walking) and my language is at zero (for giving directions in regular taxis or on a bus). I had never used an Uber and I’m terrible at getting the pick-up spot nailed down. Still, I’m getting better.

2. The volatility of emotions in jet-lagged, culture-stressed kids. I’ll leave the examples to your imagination.

3. Life in a world with a non-Roman script. Learning how to read and write and decipher numbers in a completely “other” writing system is taxing my brain. I do better with spoken language, apparently.

4. How my children make me braver than I am. I explore more because I want to show them that exploring is a gift.

5. How many different kinds of feta there are.

6. That one buys baby formula at the pharmacy. Cue rising panic when neither my husband nor I could find formula at the most Western of grocery stores. Thankfully Facebook groups exist and are full of good advice. (Also, one buys dental floss at the pharmacy.)

7. How overwhelming it is to pick a “neighborhood” in a city of 20-30 million people. If you are a praying person, you could pray for us to be wise and to find a home that fits us as a family and fits us in terms of budget. In the words of a dear friend, I might have “champagne taste on a beer budget” (really, I just want a tiny bit of dirt or grass but that comes with a hefty price tag).

8. How rude some expats can be to their hosts. I had my groceries delivered (it’s a thing here!). I wrote my address as best as I knew it but left off the apartment number. There are three apartments on my floor and as I waited for my groceries to arrive, I heard a loud and ugly, “NO!” screamed out in the hall. I opened the door and another expat was slamming the door in the grocery man’s face. I tipped him times three and learned where that “ugly expat” stereotype comes from.

9. How consistent electricity makes all the difference. It’s hot here. But since I lived in “the hottest inhabited country in the world” for four years, I thought I knew what I was getting into. We haven’t reached the highest temperatures that will come our way this summer but life with consistent electricity in a hot, hot place is really different than life without consistent electricity in a hot, hot, hot place.

10. How hot places make afternoon naps seem like the best possible thing.

11. How glad I am that I allowed my boys to buy a Nintendo before they came here. Sometimes.

12. How much green living things restore the soul. (Okay, I probably did know that but I had forgotten.)

13. That I could fall asleep sitting up, fully clothed, holding a baby and consider that a good nap.

14. How at home and brand new I could feel at the same time.

15. That stationary stores would be my happy place in a big city. So many pens.

16. That public libraries count as some of the many official buildings I am not allowed to photograph. Sorry, Mr. Guard at the library. I know I didn’t make your day happy. The unhappiness was mutual.

17. How crazy my stir-crazy kids can make me. If only “go outside” worked here. Instead we are going on lots of errands.

18. That pickled lemon is a thing. A very good thing.

19. How awesome fourth babies are. Maybe I’m just ready for the awesomeness as a mom. Maybe I pay more attention. Maybe I’m more aware. Maybe he’s just a super amazing baby. Whatever the reason, we are enjoying this kid more than we knew we could.

20. How much I hate ironing. Okay, I knew it. But still. Six people and no dryer leaves a lot of wrinkled clothes to iron. Ugh.

21. Bonus. How cute it would be to hear a three year old say, “I’m so tired of walking. Call me an Uber!!!” I don’t know why but this cracked me up and made me feel grateful for this completely difference growing up experience my daughter is having, even if I would like her to ask more politely.