On the Language Barrier

Nick Schlekewey, student at the University of Oklahoma, completed the first session of Amman’s summer 2011 Intensive Arabic program. In this post, written shortly after his arrival, Nick discusses some of his frustrations adapting to the colloquial Arabic used in Jordan. Originally, it was posted on his blog June 29, 2011.

I’ve studied Arabic for two years before coming here.  It’s been quite a lot of work, but it is just the beginning.  The core of the problem is that I’ve studied formal Arabic while everyone around me is using colloquial Arabic.  It’s like I learned English just by reading Shakespeare and then I went to Jamaica.  So my studies have been helpful but not extremely so, and the language barrier has manifested in ways that I didn’t predict.

I did predict that there would be many times that people can’t understand what I am trying to say to them or what they are trying to say to me.  Even when others switch to formal Arabic, it’s not like I know every word on every subject.  This can be worked around with many hand gestures ,some sprinkled English words, and sticking to topics that I know a good amount of vocab for, so this isn’t all that bad.

I didn’t expect that since everyone uses colloquial amongst themselves and formal with me that I would be left out of most conversations.  They have to speak nearly a different language when addressing me for me to understand, so all of the discussions my host family has amongst themselves leave me nearly completely in the dark.  I’ve talked to them about quite a few really interesting things, but the day-to-day activities and problems are talked about without me.

I didn’t expect how I wouldn’t be able to make jokes.  To those of you who know me, you know that this is nearly unthinkable, but I simply don’t have the skills in formal or in colloquial to make many jokes.  Sometimes I get the opportunity, but I’m lucky if I get one opportunity a day, let alone the one every five minutes that I strive for in English.

I didn’t expect how I wouldn’t be able to discern emotions anymore.  All the words seem really fast to me, so the only difference I can ever see is if the person is smiling or not.  This still leaves a wide variety of emotions that can be rather important to see, but I focusing all my concentration on just comprehending the meaning of the words and what to say next, so any subtlety is lost on me entirely.

So this is the language barrier.  It’s not just shouting words in a language you barely understand to try and get something resembling the food you want in a restaurant, it’s living in a bubble that is similar to obliviousness but is enforced by ignorance.

Nick in Petra toward the end of the 1st session

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Filed under Arabic, Host Family, Jordan

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