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.


Jump: Five Minute Friday

Five Minute Friday

Today is Friday: the day of writing to write, not to edit or analyze. I write with a great group of people at Five Minute Friday. Set the timer, write what comes to mind and join the stream-of-consciousness joy!

“They told me to jump and I understood them!” she shared with a flourish peculiar to young twenty-somethings from Los Angeles, California.

Her language learning had been stalled for months. The reasons manifold, the consequences disastrous. Blocked from the lived story unfolding around her, the wall of noise barricaded her from all that she thought she would experience. Suggestions abounded and flashcards were made. Dictionaries purchased and grammars poured over. Finally, finally, we met to talk about a new way. A way of language learning that went beyond language into the story.

I hate language learning. And I love language learning. Put me in a classroom and ask me to memorize, write out verb paradigms and translate texts and you will see a caged animal. I’ve done it plenty. My undergraduate degree is in ancient languages. My graduate degree is in teaching others to learn language. I’ve studied more languages than most Westerners: Latin, French, Greek, Swahili, Aramaic, Somali, Hebrew. But that whole classroom language learning thing—that isn’t what I love. My passion, now dormant in America, is to live into a whole new story—so to enter the narrative of another people that I see what they see, live what they live and say what they would say. To enter the story unfolding around me to the degree that I am participating, to the degree that there is no “us” and “them” but instead a “we.”

That kind of language learning ceases to be language learning and starts to be a way of life. A life of participation. A life that eschews the cultural anthropologist’s close-and-distant perspective of observer and dives in to the growing participation of a new member, an unfolding member, a gently nurtured member of a story.

On that day, after months of failure, isolation and discouragement, she got it. The rains had come; the desert ground rejected them, leaving us with rivers of water to jump over to get to our bus. She left her front door as she had hundreds of times and heard, instead of that wall of noise, a simple command from neighborhood children: “Jump!” “Bod!” She was only a minor character in the story of that people; two years later she left for good. But in those moments, she lived the most precious privilege offered to those of us living far from home: she found her place in another story and understood the words well enough to live her part.