Say What? Insight Into Language Barriers

Say What? Insight Into Language Barriers

“You want to live here then speak our language. Otherwise go back!”

Sound familiar?

I certainly have never told anyone that, but I know a lot of people who have. I see it posted on social media daily. It’s embedded into conversations even.

I can’t vouch for other countries though. I don’t know, if say, in Germany when an American is trying to communicate with a shop owner, if that German is thinking “Learn German and then come back to see me.”

If we think of it from a tourism perspective, no it probably doesn’t happen that way.

But what if we look at it from the stance of an expat who has moved to a foreign country. Perhaps they’ve moved there for personal reasons or they’re there for work. Usually the visitor has a handy phrasebook or has taken a few simple classes on common phrases. Most people I’ve spoken with that have moved to foreign countries did some kind of studying to be able to maneuver about in a new culture.

I took German in high school for two years and after all those years I can probably read some signs to get me around and can most definitely ask where the toilet is and the beer. (Two staples in Germany, right?)

I would never dream of visiting there and not brushing up though. Even as a tourist. I have the mindset that locals appreciate when you try to speak their language even if you aren’t that proficient. I digress though.

What I want to address is how, we as American’s, approach those that come to our country and are not skilled in the English language.

Before you start mumbling how most foreigners don’t even try to acculturate into American society I want to stop you. How do you know they haven’t?

You don’t.

We just assume because they revert back to their mother tongue, especially when speaking to others from their country, that they just don’t care. We think they might be talking about us behind our backs. How would we know, right? We don’t speak their language. And I’m not saying we have to speak their language. I’m saying we need to stop and think about why they aren’t “trying.”

If you follow my blog or my Facebook page, you know that I have been learning Arabic for the past couple of months.

Arabic is known as one of the hardest languages to learn. And take it from me: it’s very hard. What makes it even harder is the fact that there are so many different dialects from the different regions. I may want to talk to someone in Kuwait but since I’m moving into Egyptian dialect, they may not understand me at all. Also I’ve started out learning standard Arabic and the grammar rules with vowels and such. That means that I pronounce words in a lengthier way.

Take for instance the word “door”. I was videoing with my friend in Egypt and he was teaching me how to say, “Open the door.” Easy enough you’d think and it is except when I pronounced door it was different than how he said it.

ME: “Aftah (<— and that’s not just “ah” it’s more like “hhhhhh”) al baybun.” (And forgive me native Arabic speakers but I spell it how it sounds to me to help me remember!)

HIM: “Aftah al bab.”

Totally different than what I said because he’s shortening to the Egyptian dialect. But just like when we teach our children English, we start out with the formal words. One that comes to mind would be:

“Open the refrigerator.”

Yes, most of us use the word “refrigerator” but many of us, depending on our locale in the United States, will say “fridge”.


And confusing to someone trying to learn our language.

Lately I’m starting to meet new Arab speakers on sites such as Speaky and My Language Exchange.

The gist is that you put in your native language and then which language you would like help learning. Basically you offer to help them with their English and in return they help you with Arabic. Or any other language for that matter. There is an extensive list of languages you can choose from.

These people can be from all over. Tunisia; Jordan; Syria; Egypt…you get the point. They all speak Arabic but a different dialect. I have to be careful that I choose someone who speaks Egyptian dialect and standard Arabic as well. That doesn’t mean I can’t and won’t talk to people from other areas, I just need to make sure that I am able to converse with them appropriately. There is nothing more frustrating when learning a new language, than to have twenty different ways of saying ONE word. It’s something I have to deal with though. And I will. It’s just going to take time.

So let’s talk about my end of the deal so to speak. I need to help them in return, to perfect their English. (By the way, most of them speak very well for English being a second a language.)

There is a reason I am not a teacher. Specifically, an English teacher. English is a hard language to learn and teach. Especially slang.

Do we not all berate and tease each other daily about how we spell or use words in a sentence? Yes, we do. You know you do! I even do it!

It’s so hard for me some times to explain the correct way to put a sentence together using the correct word much less the proper tense and grammar. And you’ll have to trust me on this. I know you’re probably thinking, “Misty, it’s not that hard. We teach our children from the time they are born.” You’re right, we do. It’s effortless for us to teach our children for the most part though. Because they are assimilating into the American culture at the same time. They are hearing hundreds of people around them every day speaking the same language. They are being immersed into the language and really that’s the only way to actually become proficient.

That’s why I’ve chosen to try and speak conversationally with others; to compliment my online tutoring. I will never become proficient in speaking Arabic if I don’t immerse myself in conversations on a daily basis with someone else who speaks the language. No matter the dialect.

Practice makes perfect and that practice can be frustrating.

The only person who I do not shy away from when speaking my child like Arabic is my tutor. I’m used to her. Our friendship has blossomed and there is a certain comfort in the way she laughs when I pronounce a word for the first time. There’s comfort in her familiar face and seeing her beautiful hijab.

Of course she laughs at me but I’m quickly learning that when someone laughs when I speak it is often not because they are making fun of me but because they are excited. Excited that I am speaking Arabic!

It’s hard to explain but from what I have observed, the native Arabic speakers find it cool (for lack of a better word) that someone from another country is wanting to speak their language. It excites them to hear the words they are so used to speaking themselves, come from a non-native speaker.

My go to question has become: “Why are you laughing at me!?” To which they always correct me and let me know they aren’t laughing at me, rather they are happy.

Being a very confident person in any new goal I set for myself, it’s strange to me that I would be so nervous when attempting to speak. I haven’t quite figured out yet why the Arabic speakers have no problem with practicing and making mistakes. Perhaps it’s because here in America we have grown up learning to be ashamed of our failures? Or to see our failures as setbacks and not learning tools.

I’d like to close with the following: Learning another language is hard. We should all be more tolerant of others who do not speak English as a first language.

America is supposed to be the land of opportunity but I see no possibility of anyone feeling comfortable in learning English if we don’t use consideration and compassion when they are learning. I’m not saying you have to bust out your elementary book of English grammar and rules but have a little patience. Try not to judge so harshly those that you do not understand.

We can embrace each other better without the veil of misunderstanding when we throw away pre-conceived thoughts!







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