و (“wow”), I’m a Preschooler Again

I have started an entirely new subject from scratch. Language is always tricky, and Arabic is known as one of the more difficult languages to learn. I’m fortunate enough to have patient teachers and dedicated classmates that spur on my learning here in Ibri. As a result, on the ten-minute bus ride home, I’m in a whole new world as I sound out the Arabic script on all the buildings and billboards. In class, I’m giddy when I get something right and turn beet red when I say a word the wrong way or say something ridiculous or completely inappropriate by accident.

Morning in the classroom

I had forgotten how rewarding learning a language can feel. These lessons are refreshing compared to the rigorous, stressful experiences I had in my Spanish classes. Often, I was an anxious, ball-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach student who studied for days toward the next test and then forgot what I had learned the next week. I stopped studying Spanish because I associated it with failure and frustration and hit a plateau in learning. Now, the child-like atmosphere (while sometimes reduces me to toddler age) rekindles confidence in my abilities. The language is beautiful to write and I’m excited to say after two weeks I’m able to form sentences with the all-new Arabic alphabet!

That is not to say I’m not exhausted after five straight hours of Arabic every day. Sometimes I go to sleep sounding out every word I’m thinking. “I’MMMM TYYYYEEE YERRRRD”. Other days, I’m massaging my temples after attempting to correctly pronounce the letter ع (“ein”).

The street in front of my school

Many of the students here have been studying Arabic for years and still have trouble with reading and pronouncing words. But, the atmosphere of encouragement and hard work ethic is contagious and so we carry on in Ibri learning and practicing Arabic.


One of these opportunities to practice is with my language partner. We meet twice a week for an hour to speak Arabic, hangout, and work on my homework.  She is sassy and encouraging and I’ve loved hearing about her husband and her daughter. Every time I open the door to my apartment she looks excited to see me, flashes a full smile of turquoise braces and we kiss on both cheeks before I lead her inside. Today, she brought homemade Karak tea and we sipped and shared about our days while munching on biscuits. I have not met many Omani women and feel so blessed to hear and share stories with such a patient friend — even if she is tough on grammar.

My school

My favorite aspect of Arabic by far is the writing. Last week, we had a lesson on calligraphy from an artist named Mohammed. We all watched in awe as his wrist and fingers slowly and carefully moved his pen over his paper.  Loops and curls with such intentionality formed letters and words in six different styles of Arabic script. Arabic is as much an art form as it is a communication device. We attempted to repeat and replicate his letters but came up empty handed compared to his beautiful pattern. Because of these experiences, I am feeling confident and optimistic about learning a foreign language again —- and و (pronounced “wow”) it feels good.

“Fast Friends” and Other Idioms

On Good Friday several weeks ago, there was a beautiful procession around the block of the church. Every parishioner was holding a candle and walking in a mob behind the priests who were singing hymns. On any given Sunday, I am often the tallest in my pew. Aside from blocking everyone’s view, this height difference was made even more problematic during the candle light procession: my hair was at candle level, ready to combust at any moment. I awkwardly wrapped my scarf around my hair in the name of self-preservation. As I did this, I heard a snicker behind me. I turned around to see a young guy who was clearly amused by my paranoia. After explaining that I wanted to keep my hair in tact, we proceeded around the church together and continued to talk.

His name is Σπύρος (Spyros) and we became “fast friends.” I say “fast friends” in quotes because it is one of the idioms I had to write down in his notebook. You can see him and his trusty notebook in the (candid) photo below:

He began to carry this notebook after growing tired of asking me, “What did you say?” when I said something like “It doesn’t matter,” or “How’s it going?” Now, if I say something idiomatic or complicated, I must write it down. Yesterday we were walking and I asked if he wanted to walk left through the garden, or right through the central square. He furiously scrambled for his notebook and leafed through the pages, “It doesn’t matter!” he said. One evening, my rooommate Kalya and I cooked dinner and Spyros joined us. He sat down at the table and opened his notebook asking, “Am I the…third wheel?” at which point we could not stop laughing.

In the same way, I have begun to carry around my own notebook so I can write down new phrases like, “να σου πω την αλήθεια…” (To tell you the truth…) and idioms like, “να ‘σαι καλά” (for your health). My Greek language class is very very good, but there are some common words and phrases that are too informal for me to learn there. You would not believe Spyros’ patience as I butcher Greek, saying phrases like “Perhaps we shop for the bill,” instead of “Maybe we should pay.” and “I have fullness,” instead of “I’m tired.”
Every time I fail he says the sentence in proper Greek and I repeat it. Of course, there are some times when my Greek is so far from anything correctable that I receive a head shake and a sad “Δεν καταλαβαίνω.” (I don’t understand).

It’s been very fun to practice Greek and walk around Athens with a person who has lived there his whole life. However, meeting new friends is just another reason to be sad to leave in only twenty days. On a lighter note, I think I will ace my final Greek exam on account of all the extra practice I’ve had.

Evolution of Learning a French Word

As the semester draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on how far I’ve come in language acquisition. While my classes are without a doubt helpful in acquiring new vocabulary, I’ve found that just living in France is indispensable when wanting to learn new words and phrases. Picking up vocabulary through context is far easier than memorizing a list from a book. Not only that, but sometimes not having a direct translation makes the words come easier.

Seeing the same words on signs is one way of learning them--"sur place" means you sit down and have your food. "à emporter" means "to go."
Seeing the same words on signs is one way of learning them–“sur place” means you sit down and have your food. “à emporter” means “to go.” Also, milkshakes are not milkshakes.

One of the things I discovered upon arrival to France was that I didn’t know how carry a conversation. I knew mostly how to uphold my end, but when another person–my host mom, for example, was talking, I didn’t know how to indicate that yes, I was attentive and involved. When living in a homestay, it’s important to let the other party know you understand and you’re not just smiling and nodding. But saying, “Oui, oui” all the time gets boring and starts to sound like you don’t understand after all. So what do you do?

1. Recognize there’s a word you need that you can’t replace with other words.

There are a lot of ways to get around not knowing something. Every week or so, there always seems to be a word popping up often that nobody knows (a few weeks ago it was “sneeze”–éternuer). You can say “I did like this,” fake a sneeze, and continue on. You could say, “that thing like a cough, but not a cough,” and people would guess what you meant. However, doing this frequently usually brings you to the realization that this really is a word you ought to know. Why say five words when you could say one? And what happens when the word or phrase you need isn’t something you can look up in a dictionary, like “stuff to say to let someone know you’re listening?”

2. Ask, Look up, or Listen.

Asking is usually the best way to go if I want a quick answer. Looking it up is all right too, particularly if I’m alone, but asking means I’ll have a more tangible memory of my question. It helps to have a better context in which to remember the word. Describing it, acting it out, or pointing to it are all viable options. But what about words or phrases that aren’t so concrete? In that case, I usually listen. For this example, I started listening to things my host mom and professors said that I’d brushed over as “filler” before. Turns out I needed it! I started noticing that one of my professors said, “Ah ben, dis donc!” often, to let a student know she was listening to what they had to say–and that she agreed with them. I’m guessing an English translation might be, “Wow, yeah.”

3. Try it out

This is the hardest part for me. What if I’m wrong? Even after being here 4 months and making a mistake a minute, I still have a hard time going for something and knowing it might end in a correction. But it’s always worth it. Even if you’re wrong, you either get an explanation why, or an alternate thing to say–and context to remember it by! Sometimes, something wonderful happens and you don’t even realize you’re going for it. The other day, when my host mom was talking about something, my mouth opened and out came “Ah ben, dis donc!” Except it came out more like: “Ah, ben…dis…donc?” At first I was confident because after hearing the phrase so long, my subconcious knew what to say. But by the end, I was surprised to be saying it! I hadn’t planned it.

4. Repeat with confidence!

The best way to remember anything is to keep doing it. “Ah ben, dis donc” is probably going to become my “thing to say” for a couple weeks.

And that’s it! A quick little progression to show how I’ve learned some of my favorite day-to-day lingo. I hope there’s lots more to come during this last month!