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Jonathan & Sofia Morgan

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7 Ways Learning a Language is Like Parenting a Newborn

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

man sleeping 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?

In the Early Days

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? 

Snapshot from a visit

IMG_0632

As part of our language and culture learning we go and visit peoples homes. Many of the families we’ve gotten to know are refugees from Palestine, Syria and Iraq. I took this photo the other day when we visited a family who recently fled one of the ongoing wars. It’s an amazing privilege learning language this way, through hearing stories from these peoples life. Stories of loss, trauma but also of great courage and faith.

Springtime

Spring has arrived! Here's a picture of The Citadel, a large roman ruin right in the heart of Amman. As you can see this time of year it's surrounded by grass and spring flowers. This is definitely our favorite season yet, the city and it's hills are green and the temperature is about 20 C warm.

Spring has arrived! Here’s a picture of The Citadel, a large roman ruin right in the heart of Amman. As you can see this time of year it’s surrounded by grass and spring flowers. This is definitely our favorite season yet, the city and it’s hills are green and the temperature is about 20 C warm.

 

30 minutes from Amman lies a smaller city called Madaba, known to be an ancient christian city. The other weekend we had a lovely picnic on the fields surrounded by olive trees.

30 minutes from Amman lies a smaller city called Madaba, known to be an ancient christian city. The other weekend we had a lovely picnic on the fields surrounded by olive trees.

The Sounds of Our Street

One part of acclimatising to life in Jordan has been getting used all the new sounds that we hear every day on our street. We’ve lived in built up areas before, so traffic sounds are familiar, as are voices, but the streets of Amman have some unique sounds of their own…

7:45am – The National Anthem

Each morning, just before we leave for school, we hear the children at our local primary school singing the Jordanian National Anthem, accompanied by a backing tape. It sounds a little something like this:

The Call to Prayer

This is one of the most familiar sounds to anyone who’s lived or travelled in the Middle East. We hear the call to pray at our local mosque 5 times a day (starting at 5am and finishing at 6:30pm).

The Gas Man

Most people in our neighbourhood heat their homes and run their cookers on gas. It isn’t piped into homes like in the UK, but is delivered in canisters on the back of lorries or by men who use small trollies. As they’re walking down the street, they tap the side of their trolly with the spanner that they use to connect the gas.

Lunch Time: Fruit and Veg

It’s common for families here to eat lunch together, so just as Mums are preparing lunch for their families, the fruit and veg van comes around. It sounds like this…

The first time we heard it we weren’t sure what to think! Was there some kind of protest happening outside?

The Candy Floss Man

There’s a guy who sells candy floss (cotton candy) and other sweets who walks up and down the street blowing a strange sounding whistle. It took me weeks to figure out what this particular sound was.

Tyre Screeches without collisions

Driving in Jordan is of a totally different variety to that of the UK. It’s a far more fluid, high-speed activity. Every available gap is filled by a car and lane changing and U-turning are the norm.

It’s common to hear the screech of tyres as a driver spots an impending collision. The most amazing thing for my ears is that these sudden squeals are usually followed by silence, not the sound of a crash.

There are certainly other new sounds that I haven’t mentioned here, but those are the most notable.

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