English in Amman

Alex Decina is now a senior at the University of Mary Washington and was a participant in both summer 2011 Intensive Arabic sessions in Amman, Jordan. In this post, he talks about the prevalence of English used in Amman and some frustrations with language learning. Oringinally, he posted this on June 24, 2011.   

I’m a rising senior in college. (With any luck, I’ll graduate with only one extra semester.) Up until this point, I’ve taken three or four years of French in high school (of which I’ve retained just enough to navigate the Charles de Gaulle Airport), a half of a semester of an intensive Spanish class aimed at college students who needed a review of their high school spanish (note: don’t try to “review” a language you’ve never had before), and a year of Arabic (plus one week in Amman so far).  Let’s say my conversational skills in any language besides English leave room for improvement.

Despite my lacking linguistics, I have run into almost no difficulty living in Amman.  This is because I know the city like the back of my hand and have completely adapted to Jordanian life.


This is because the overwhelming majority of Jordanians I’ve met speak English at a conversational level; many of them speak at a level that, apart from the accent, it would be hard to tell English wasn’t their first language.  This is true of the college and high school educated as well as the guy who owns the mini-mart where we get our phone cards.

This is because, unlike in America, the kids learn their second language from a very young age.  They teach English in both public and private elementary schools, however most children start even earlier.  The mother of our host family, who already speaks English quite well, says she wants to learn more with her one year-old daughter.  Many of the kids we’ve met are also already highly efficient in the language.  We met a Jordanian woman with four kids flying with us from Atlanta to Paris to Amman.  She wanted to stick with us in the Charles de Gaulle Airport so that she didn’t get lost.  Unfortunately neither us nor the woman were proficient enough in each other’s language to effectively convey this.  We wound up communicating through her 7 year-old son.  This kid–who was eager to show us his brand new passport–was able to speak both languages with confidence.  (Also, I think he may have been smart enough to figure out Charles de Gaulle by himself.)

While we try to speak as much Arabic as we can on the street and with our family.  It is a great comfort to know that if we get lost or are in any serious trouble, we can say, “هل تفهم اللغة الإنجليزية؟ (Do you understand English?)” and we can easily find someone who is able and happy to help us.

Last night we got lost in what we thought was our neighborhood but wound up being quite far from it.  We saw a man outside his house and said:

“لو سمحت، وين مركز الأمان في تلاع العلي؟” (Excuse me, where is the police station in Tla’ Al Ali?).  Our house is near the police station.

The man answered us in a Levantine dialect. When he realized we didn’t understand him, he switched to Modern Standard Arabic of which we understood a few words.  ”بعيد” (far) was the one that was pretty discouraging.  Realizing we were lost, he switched to English and offered us a ride if we wanted.  We thanked him but, as instructed by our program, did not accept a ride from a stranger in a foreign country.  My instinct, however, told me that he–a middle aged man with three children in a nice house–was not offering us a ride to mess with us foreigners, but was being genuinely helpful.  Having understood why we had to turn down his ride, he gave us directions with as much English as he could.

Flipping the situation:  If I was a Jordanian student studying English in America and spoke as little English as I do Arabic, I would be in a much worse position than I am here.  I wouldn’t have the luxury of falling back on my own language should my English fail me.  The average guy at the super market wouldn’t be able to say, don’t worry, I can speak some Arabic or Russian for you.  Also, as a foreigner, if I asked the average American outside his house for directions, I doubt very much he would be able to help me in Arabic.  Depending on the neighborhood he might even call the police on me.

I suppose I’m very lucky that the rest of the world has responded more actively to a shrinking world than America has, however I think it would be appropriate for us to follow suit.


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Filed under Adventure, Arabic, Jordan

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