Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Learning, like little children

I am repeatedly reminded of the similarities between us as language learners and very young children as they are learning to talk. When we walk the streets of Juba and greet someone we know, other heads turn in amusement. “You speak Arabic?” they ask. When we say yes, we are learning Arabic, people are excited, and often want to quiz us on what we know. One fruit vendor pointed to different fruit “what is this? And this one?”, celebrating the ones I knew and correcting the ones that I had forgotten. And then they might rattle off some question that we don’t understand at all. When we ask them to repeat and slow down, they happily comply, simplifying the language so that we are more likely to catch the meaning.

We enjoyed a long talk in Arabic with Santos about life, family, and farming –
using lots of gestures and props to help when words were lacking.

One of our favorite places to practice has been Mary’s friendly tea stall across the street. The tea stall only has room for about 8 people, all facing each other. It is a great atmosphere for conversation, and often everyone gets engaged in the conversation. It is rather humbling and embarrassing when other conversations stop as people ask about why we are in Juba, where we are from, etc. We have met some wonderful people and patient teachers on our random visits there. Many people patiently repeat what they are trying to communicate or help to correct our pronunciation—just like you might for a two-year old. When we manage to use a word or phrase that is an idiom, or is perceived as beyond our beginner level, people laugh and exclaim and praise us—just like you would for a precocious young child. And then, of course, there are the times when people talk ‘over’ us, conversing about us while we are left guessing what they are saying. Or going back to their ‘real’ conversations while we listen and observe and just guess at what they are discussing—just like children overhearing bits of the ‘adult’ conversation!
Mary, making tea for us at her tea stall

Most people we encounter are amused and affirming of our desire to learn Juba Arabic…even when we make mistakes. When we are trying to say something but have the words bumbled up or the wrong pronunciation, they are patient with us as we search for words or try to explain until they finally understand and laugh at our mis-pronunciation or wrong words. We are grateful that we can provide some amusement, and also grateful that people are willing to be patient with us and help us learn…just like adults do for young children!

And we DO make plenty of mistakes. Here are a couple of our recent faux-pas.:
During a language lesson, Bob got  call from a man who wanted us to come visit. “Let me talk to Kristi”, Bob said in Arabic, and then meant to say “then I will call you back”. Except that the word “call” in Juba is the same words as to ‘beat’ or ‘hit’ something. So without the right conjunction, what Bob said was “then I will beat you”. Our language teacher, listening to the conversation, corrected him and then burst out laughing at the difference. Lesson learned!
I was sitting outside with two women, Umi and Mary, one evening. I mentioned an area of town where we had visited a church, called in Arabic “the Arab neighborhood” because historically there was a concentration of Arabs there. Except that I did not remember the name correcty, and instead said, essentially, “The neighborhood of the long white robes”. Similar word and similar concept, but they found it a rather amusing slip. Umi roasts and sells pumpkin seeds on the street, so she offered some to Mary and I as we chatted. I was happily chewing mine, when Mary asked me “Kristi, where are your shells of the seeds?” I realized then that she was spitting them out, and I was swallowing them. Oops! They laughed again at my naivete, but I am so grateful for they were willing to point out my mistakes and help me learn.
It feels like this is a sweet ‘period of grace’ in our language learning. After three years, we will no longer be the novel new people, and will not be shown the same grace and patience with language that we are today. We hope that with the help and correction of many ‘elders’ around us, we will improve and mature in our ability to communicate in Arabic.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a delightful post to read. Thank you for sharing. I'm sure your eagerness to learn, coupled with your sense of humor, has endeared you to many of your encounters. And what an opportunity to share in this season of grace - lots of open doors provided. Loving you both