We’re going to be finishing Arabic school in a few months, and this means that we’re getting ready for what’s next.
For a while we thought we would probably stay in the Levant (this part of the Middle East) for the foreseeable future. But as you’ve probably noticed, things change quickly in this neck of the woods.
What we didn’t foresee when we started school was that so many from this region would be forced to make their way to our neck of the woods – Europe.
In fact, since we moved here, Sofia’s home country, Sweden, has received more refugees per capita than any other European nation.
Refugees with stories just like Malaka:
As we’ve weighed up our options, we’ve kept coming back to the fact that we actually might be of more use in Sweden, where we are residents, know the system and can help with the process of integration than we could if we stayed.
If you’ve ever spent time in the Middle East as a married person without kids, you’ll be very familiar with being asked “why don’t you have children?” by even the most recent of acquaintances.
After explaining that where we come from it’s common to wait before starting a family, I’ve started to tell people, “for now, Arabic is my baby”.
Here are a few ways that learning Arabic is like having a newborn:
1. You constantly wonder if yours is growing at the same speed as everyone else’s
“He’s a little behind. But the doctor thinks he’ll catch up.”
“She’s already walking, way ahead of schedule.”
“Theirs is already speaking long sentences. At just 20 months!”
Sound familiar? New parents are given continuous opportunities to begin comparing their babies with other people’s. It’s encouraged by the charts that are used in hospitals, by well meaning friends and family members, and by other people with babies.
It can be similar with language learning. How am I doing compared with my classmates?Why does my spouse seem so fluent?
All kids develop at their own pace, and so do language skills!
2. You speak in sentences that others don’t understand
We’re all used to parents speaking to their babies in baby talk. They make sounds that are a bit like their mother tongue, but don’t mean anything.
At the beginning of learning a language, while you’re adjusting to all the new sounds you’re expected to make, you become acutely aware that you sound nothing like a native speaker.
You look at your friends who aren’t learning language and wonder “where do they get all their energy from?” You reminisce about times when you had the energy to talk until the wee hours, while slipping off to bed at 9:30pm.
Of course (before the “at-least-you-get-to-lie-in-at-weekends” hatemail arrives) it doesn’t compare with the unrelenting early wake up calls that those of you with kids experience.
4. People often look in your direction with bemused expressions on their faces
For new parents the bemused expressions are usually focussed at your kids and something they’ve just done. Language learners get used to people laughing at them directly.
As native English speakers who are used to hearing foreign tongues speaking our first language, it’s difficult for us to appreciate quite how intriguing it is to have someone from another country learn our language.
5. You get to watch something grow in small ways each day
This is one of the most satisfying parts of language learning and (I imagine) parenting. It’s a big deal for new parents when they notice small signs of development, and with newborns these changes seem to happen every day.
If we language learners pay close enough attention, we can recognise and celebrate small changes – a conjugation that didn’t take up all our brain’s capacity, pronouncing a word a like a local.
Celebrating the little steps gives us strength to keep going.
6. You miss your baby when you’re away from her
A classic story for new parents is when they go away on their own for the first time without their baby. Instead of lapping up all the much needed space, they spend the whole time wondering how their little one is doing!
As Arabic learners, when we leave somewhere that Arabic is the main language, we find that we really miss hearing our new language. We long to get back and keep growing.
7. You can’t stop talking about it (especially to other ‘parents’)
Just like parenting a newborn, language learning is so engrossing that it’s often all you end up talking about with anyone who’ll listen! Find someone else who’s learning a language? Even better! You end up discussing methods, strategies, flash cards.
And just as with parenting, there are different approaches and schools of thought. It’s not uncommon to find people who are so dedicated to their way of learning that they defend it energetically when asked about it.
That’s my list. Can you think of any other ways that learning a language is like parenting a newborn?
We began our penultimate semester at language school today!
Coming back to Amman and getting reacquainted with everything that’s different from our homelands has got me thinking a lot about about how challenging it was the first time around. We didn’t know anyone. We couldn’t speak Arabic. We didn’t know how to do the simplest of things (order drinking water, get connected to the internet, etc.)
Usually when you think about moving countries, you expect to be challenged by logistics and homesickness. But when you move somewhere with a completely different culture, there are some unexpected surprises.
For one thing, Amman is about 20 degrees (celsius) hotter than our home countries during summer. We come from places where, when the sun’s out, people are outside sunbathing, swimming, or just enjoying the outdoors. But in Jordan, the sun is so hot that most people don’t spend extended amounts of time outside until the evening. There are nights when it’s too hot to sleep without a fan.
Then there’s the unexpected tiredness. When you’re new in a country and interacting with the outside world predominantly using a language you don’t know very well, you get really worn out. You might expect to have the same energy levels as you do back home, but we found that by 3 or 4 PM, we felt ready for bed!
This tiredness gets exacerbated if you’re a sleep walker like me. When I have a lot to process, I wander the apartment at night.
Add to that the heightened emotions that come from being permanently out of your comfort zone. If someone’s mean to you, you get more upset than usual. From moment to moment you oscillate between extreme optimism and cold feet at your decision to be here.
Thankfully, as the weeks go by, these feelings start to fade. They get replaced with a sense of familiarity. You start sleeping better. Normal life takes less energy, and you start to understand how the world around you works.
Have you had similar experiences when you’ve moved to a new place, with a new culture?
When we arrived back in Jordan we discovered that the government had declared Wednesday a public holiday because of the impending snowstorm. We were cynical at first – “how could they be sure that the storm would arrive on Wednesday?” – but it did.
By the time we went out for a walk this afternoon, the snow had begun to melt.
Unlike countries that receive regular snow, Jordan’s 2-3 days of snow per year bring the whole place to a standstill. Very few have central heating, so there are queues to buy gas and the supermarkets were packed with customers.
Yesterday and today have extremely peaceful, with most people staying at home (as advised by the government!) and catching up on sleep.
We’ve had the joy of visiting some neighbours who we hadn’t seen for a while.
Our local park
There’s an old Arabic proverb, roughly translated “choose your neighbours before you choose your home”. It emphasises that it’s more important to have good neighbours than that your house is in perfect condition.
We’ve been blessed with very good neighbours who are always ready to offer us hospitality, or help us with any questions or needs we have.