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.
3. You’re tired all the time
Image credit: reynermedia
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?