Some ups and downs of language learning

We approached what we hoped was the bus stop, our suitcases rattling along behind and a disgruntled (and tipsy) beggar peering after us. Since disembarking the ferry, we were well aware that we were in foreign territory once again. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Spain anymore!”

“Peace be upon you. Do taxis stop here?” I threw the question out to a group of brightly dressed ladies waiting in a spot of shade.

“The taxis are over there, in the port,” one lady spoke up.

“No, I mean the taxis that you pay by place. Those other taxis are too expensive.”

Back and forth we went until suddenly she started giggling. “I’m speaking with you in Arabic! You’re a foreigner and I’m speaking with you in Arabic!”

Back in Spain, I apparently used just enough of a greeting but not enough filler conversation for a new customer to ask me if I was North African.

I thanked her and laughed because it always amuses me that someone with my complexion could ever be mistaken for a North African.

With wide eyes, she backed away from me, exclaiming, “Tbarakallah!” (God be praised!)
And it’s always refreshing to hear someone say, “You talk like us!” even when I obviously don’t. It makes the weekly log of Arabic study look less intimidating somehow.

Don’t get me wrong. There are also the less-proud moments.

Like when, after an English class, I was zoning out over a bowl of harira, letting the conversation swirl around me. Suddenly, my friend turned to me. “Isn’t that right?”
I swallowed that spoonful of soup and looked back at her blankly. Right? What was I expected to agree to? I groped for context–a word or a phrase, but I found only a blank slate. Oh, boy.

Yet, in the same conversation, a woman who had designated herself as my Arabic teacher told me I was dangerous. Why? Apparently, I understood more than I let on. (At least when I wasn’t zoning out over my soup.)

There are also times that a friend will sigh and look weary while trying to understand what I am saying. Times when I talk in the wrong language, or simply switch back and forth between Arabic and Spanish without realizing it. Times when a joke a witty quip falls flat because it was funny in my mind but not my mouth.

Occasionally, just to be annoying, I speak only in Arabic to a new shop owner. I don’t look North African, but neither do I look very Spanish. I’ve had owners eye me but keep speaking Arabic simply because they weren’t sure if they could switch to Spanish.
But my local shop owner got me back by playing my game with me. In fact, he didn’t let on that he spoke a decent amount of English for two whole years! In the meantime, he was able to eavesdrop on conversations I had with visiting friends. Today, we still talk mostly Arabic and he occasionally gives me language lessons while he bags up my groceries.

Overall, like I wrote last time, language learning is a journey, an act of worship. With its ups and downs, it’s bound to be a bumpy, but meaningful ride. 🙂

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