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 or 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. 🙂

Knitting with the nuns

I crocheted 3 baby blankets, 3 hot pads, 2 children’s scarves, and 1 shawl.

My teacher said I am a machine. There was one pattern that I learned on youtube at which the nuns marveled. “You will have to teach us how to do this!” So there I sat, teaching the ones who had taught me.

For a few weeks, I became the crochet poster child. “How it cost her to learn a chain! And now look!” “And she’s left-handed!”

My goal was not only to learn crochet but to learn it well.

But my teacher had other plans. “Now that you know how to crochet, you can do everything on your own. It’s time to learn how to knit.” She was no longer content to have me happily stay within the safety of crochet. Every class, she would remind me, “You must learn to knit.”

One day, she caught me rather defenseless and handed me a ball of practice yarn and two mismatched knitting needles. And there I was, getting angry with the “arriba”s and “abajo”s and deciding I would have to pore over youtube videos at home before I really understood it at all. But even that didn’t help. I made lumpy little rows with missed stitches. Nothing helped.

In short, I was exactly where I had begun with crochet. And my teacher was in the same depth of despair with my work. Classes passed, me with my knitting needles, glaring at the uncooperative yarn.

Until I learned that to get out of knitting, all I had to do was leave my needles at home and bring along a crochet project.

I’m currently crocheting myself a sweater.

I wouldn’t say I’m giving up on knitting, exactly. Someday, when I feel more confident in crochet, I will pull out those malevolent knitting needles again. And I will probably finally understand it. After all, one day my despairing teacher told another nun,

“She learns well what she wants to learn.”

What’s been happening recently

A lot of time has passed since my trip to North Africa. Really, it feels like more than it was. Instead of trying to fill you in on all of the juicy details, here is a bullet list that might bring you sufficiently up to date:

  • Meeting a friend at the market to browse the various market stalls together and then walk back to her house for a relaxed visit. Recently, she told me I am a friend, not a guest.
  • Spending birthday/Christmas Kindle credit on books I had been drooling over for months.
  • Being stalked… and then protected by friends.
  • Post-Christmas candy-making and caroling.
  • New Year’s celebration complete with candles and fireworks.
  • Starting a hard copy recipe book that doesn’t include dusting my computer with flour every time I bake something.
  • A friend moving in about two blocks from our apartment which meant lots of pop-in visits at both my place and hers.
  • The same friend suddenly leaving town without any plans to return.
  • My Spanish teacher relocating to Madrid… resulting in my class being transferred to a teacher who uses “ustedes” instead of “vosotros.”
  • Crochet class morphing into knitting class against my will. (More on this later.)
  • Friends’ birthdays: small scale parties, a princess cake, and a photo shoot.
  • My friends’ children lighting up when they see me coming—it melts my auntie heart!
  • Blue Hat, Green Hat over and over again as dark, serious eyes soak it all in, even the title page.
  • A friend giving me two flowers she had planted at work. “No!” I cried, since I am a terrible plant keeper. “I’ll kill them!” “Look, you keep two and I’ll keep two and we’ll see whose dies on them first,” she said. The race is on. But, contrary to all reason, mine are BLOOMING!
  • Lots of book reading with children.
  • Helping a friend withdraw money from the ATM… an endeavor that had us laughing ourselves to tears.
  • Walking 45 minutes with a friend to the ER.
  • Anticipating visitors in March!!!
  • Lunch with a friend who started food preparations at 6:30 a.m. What an honor to be her guest!
  • Spending time with American teammates who belong to my culture and speak my language.
  • Trying out a few North African recipes, with moderate success.
  • Making copies at the African store down the street and being asked to run the copier myself since they were understaffed. I enjoyed watching customers’ eyes bulge when a pale face greeted them from behind the counter. The owner even gave me a discount because I had done the work myself.
  • Branching out a little with crochet patterns.
  • Attempting to grasp that God’s promises are for me and that my identity is, above all, a child of God.
  • Finishing up my visa paperwork! Lord willing, all that’s left is to pick up my residency card in March.

Crocheting in Spanish

In October, I started something I never dreamed I would start: crochet class. Last semester, I always left the nun’s home directly after Spanish class. But this year, I carved a little more time out of my schedule for the second hour of craft class.

My first class, I forgot to bring yarn with me. I sat with the other ladies and we chatted in Spanish and Arabic as I unraveled a sweater to recycle the yarn.

“I’m better at undoing than doing,” I warned María, the nun in charge of the class.

That day, I went to the store and bought a ball of yarn and my very first crochet hook. I still was less than enamored with the idea of crochet, but I knew I would enjoy the fellowship with the ladies.

It turns out that the fellowship came at a pretty steep price for me: my pride.

I was usually ahead of the ladies in Spanish class, but this time, they were far beyond me. Even when we started on the same level of nothingness, they were crocheting in squares  by the second class. One show-off was even making a doily. I plugged away at my simple chain, class after class.

As a left-hander, I struggled to imitate instructions, especially since they came at me in rapid Andalusian. Not only that, but sitting in the courtyard made me vulnerable to anyone and everyone passing by on their way to class.

One moment, I would be wiggling my crochet hook through the invisible yarn triangle, and the next moment, my project would be whisked out of my hands and somebody else would take a shot at it. Or another would critique how I held my needle and try to teach me something new.

Once, an elderly nun came to teach me a stitch. A few minutes later, she came to check on me… only to be disappointed. “No, no, no! That’s not how you do it!”

I sighed and half-laughed to cover my frustration. “I think I need to practice in private.”

She backed away quickly. “Okay. Okay. You practice in private.”

I went home and watched youtube tutorials to no avail. I was a terrible crocheter.

One day, I went to the store and impulsively bought thicker yarn. (Maybe now I would be able to see what I was doing.)

I made a scarf. Success!

María proudly examined my work and told me that no one would even notice how I went from 13 squares to 12.

Río Duero

Río Duero, río Duero,
nadie a acompañarte baja;
nadie se detiene a oír
tu eterna estrofa de agua.*

(Douro River, Douro River,
no one to accompany your descent;
no one to stop and hear
your eternal stanza of water.)

We had gone over this poem for the last five classes. At least. We had already unpacked the literal and figurative meaning of each word and noted the poetic devices.

We had written paragraphs and held discussions on the importance of water. And we had drawn a map of all the important rivers in Spain.

And still…

Río Duero, río Duero,
nadie a acompañarte baja;

“Trish, you read. The first stanza.”

Fine. “RíoDueroRíoDuero…”

“Ah! That’s not poetry! That’s prose… badly read prose! Listen…”

My teacher burst into a triumphant recitation of the first lines. Once again, those syllables rattled around in my head.

I imitated her enthusiasm, but my version may have been more obnoxious than triumphant. “RÍO DUERO, RÍO DUERO…”

The second hour students paused their pencils over their copy books and stared at me. But my teacher remained unimpressed. “Not that either!”

What did I care about the Duero River with its silver beard and its eternal water stanzas?

But I tried again. And as I read, I heard the poem… maybe for the first time. I saw the Duero flowing on alone, used but unseen.

Used. Unseen. But still flowing.

And suddenly the poem was less about a river and more about a life lesson I needed to be learning.


* The first stanza of “Río Duero” by Gerardo Diego
Photo by Migsar Navarro on Unsplash

Victim of the Tower of Babel

As a life-long language learner, I often always struggle to find the right word in the right language. And I always often end up using the wrong word anyway.

One time, a friend in the thick of language school told me that she had burst into laughter when a non-native English speaker used the word “elephant” to describe an “eggplant” dish. Although she was embarrassed by her own uncontrollable giggles, she knew that it was coming from a sense of relief that other people make mistakes too.

I can understand.

Heavily accented English. Mispronounced vocabulary. Misused idioms. Misspellings. I can smile… because when I do, I am smiling at my own mistakes too.

Like my language school director once told me on a particularly bad language day: “You’re a victim of the Tower of Babel!”

I’m glad I’m not the only one.

peanut butter label
electric lint remover instructions

Spanish with the nuns

Buried in my neighborhood is a tiny green door that leads to a tiled courtyard full of vibrant plants. Charming little rooms surround the tiled courtyard, completing the charming little haven.

In one room, there is a set of five sewing machines. Four treadle. One electric.

In another room, there is a plastic table with accompanying plastic chairs and a rough blackboard.

This is a sewing and Spanish school for immigrants. It is managed by nuns. A friend brought me along to class one day to see if I could enroll.

The first time I met the nuns, I had to bend over at the waist to greet them with kisses on their dainty little faces. Only one seemed more than five feet tall. And not one of them was under seventy. Maybe eighty.

I was captivated. “Is it possible to sign up for Spanish class?” I gripped my friend’s elbow as I awaited the nuns’ answer.

It was possible. After Semana Santa, I officially enrolled for the final trimester of the school year. (And by officially enrolling, I mean that I jotted my information on a scrap of notebook paper.)

On the first day of class—a lesson of body parts vocabulary—the teacher chalked a stick figure on the board with a rectangular trunk. For good measure, she placed a few wild curls on the faceless head to classify the figure as “female.”

During class, the figure was blessed with a chalky esophagus. No other organ required equal visual explanation, so the figure proudly sported her solitary organ until the end of class. And as the teacher erased both the figure and her esophagus, we students trickled out of the shadowy room and into the blast of sunlight that spread across the courtyard.

Since then, class has brought me in close contact with other immigrants as we reveal tidbits of our lives in choppy Spanish and laugh about our language woes. We share struggle and community. We even share goods: sometimes we carry home peppers, cucumbers, handcrafted sewing class projects, or even potted plants.

As the final trimester enters the final month, attendance has dwindled as most of the women fast for Ramadan.

The first and second hour classes combined and I suddenly found myself in a class of women who struggle with pronouns and simple verbs. But the energy and fun we have together is rewarding enough for me.

Yesterday, while practicing the structure “I like,” a classmate smiled and said, “I like Trish’s face.”

“Yes, yes,” agreed the teacher. “Trish has a nice face.”

The other students murmured their agreement and admired my reddening cheeks. Until, for lack of a Spanish equivalent, I burst out the Arabic expression, “God be blessed!”

The lighter side of language learning

I have no history with the other foreigners I have met here in North Africa: no previous inside jokes, no awkward memories of growing up together, etc.

Yet, because we are here together, we have begun to share something that I cannot share with people from home: the joy of mixing our common languages. And the beautiful thing is that we understand each other.

My class is known as the class that laughs a lot. My classmates and I are often drawing parallels from Arabic to English. There are verbs that in their conjugated forms sound like “guilty” and “dirty”, and nouns that sounds like “slave” and “smelly.” So we utilize them as their false English cognate, so much that our teachers have begun to do the same.

We also like directly translating from Arabic. In Arabic, many verbs are a slight variation of their nouns. “Do you want to coffee with me and have coffee at the coffee?”or “The chicken eggs eggs.”

And then there are times when we make up our own words completely such as tacking an English ending onto an Arabic verb or even using both Arabic and English constructions on the same root word.

For example, in Arabic the passive voice is typically the normal verb preceded by a “t” sound. And, as you know, the regular past tense verb in English ends in “ed”.

One day, as a friend and I were walking down the street, a guy from a passing vehicle hollered, “Bonjour!”

We giggled. “We’ve just been tbonjoured.”

Hungry or not, here I come

How exactly does a one hour tutoring lesson turn into eight hours? Simple: I agreed to stay for lunch.

It was my first day of tutoring. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure how the protective father would view my method of teaching his 5-year-old son.

Exactly ½ hour before we had agreed to meet, the father came to pick me up.

He took me to his house where I met his family, extended family, the maid, and of course, his son. After a long conversation–some of it typed in google translate–we had breakfast (their first; my second). Then I spent exactly one hour teaching and reviewing with the little boy.

“Will you stay for lunch?”

Noting the family sitting around the salon table, I agreed. But I soon realized that I wasn’t sitting down to lunch; this was pre-lunch! After two breakfasts, I was expected to fill up on bread, cookies, and tea and then eat lunch a little while thereafter.

When we finally did get lunch around 3:00 p.m., it was several courses: a salad followed by a beef and plum dish with another salad on the side, and then a huge chicken stuffed with vermicelli noodles and resting on a bed of rice. Everything was eaten with bread.

And all of the while, if I wasn’t reaching my hand into the platter, I was being told to do so. “Eat! Eat! Please eat!” The extended family kept a calculation of how much I ate while persistently informing me that it was not enough. We finished with luscious fruits for dessert, of which I was too full to enjoy.

This story has no moral, except not to take a tutoring job if you’re on a diet!

Bad mood

I am telling myself it’s a combination of yet another rainy day and of not having a break from school. I’m exhausted and on the last day of the school week, I am required to slosh through puddles and mud and still be late for class.

And then I get home, reheat the coffee I didn’t have time to finish before school, and try to drown my melancholy mood in language study.

But in the apartment below, I hear the neighbors playing the Qur’an. The sing-songy chant grates on me. So I turn on my own music:

You’re the God of this city.
You’re the King of these people.
You’re the Lord of this nation.
You are.

You’re the Light in this darkness.
You’re the Hope to the hopeless.
You’re the Peace to the restless.
You are.

There is no one like our God.
For greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done in this city.

No matter how “done” I feel with life right now, His work has only begun in this city. And He wants to use me now, right where I am. In the middle of puddles, mud, and too much homework.

My calling to glorify Him isn’t based on circumstance.