Connecting through language

Many students in the US take at least one foreign language class during their high school careers. As with most things, some students hate their foreign language classes, some love them, and some could care less about them. I learned French in high school and actually really enjoyed it. The nerdy side of me enjoyed mastering various verb conjugations and learning new vocabulary words. And of course, watching French movies was quite entertaining. Since arriving in the Middle East, however, I have discovered what I think is an even more important outcome of learning a foreign language.

True Story #1:

After spending a long night at the open session for Nazareth students, Ted and I go for a walk near our hostel. Ted wants me to meet his “potato friend” whom he had met the previous week. We arrive at the door of a small baked potato shop and are welcomed in by a man and a boy. Ted greets the older man, who tells us to take a seat at the one and only table inside the shop. For the next hour or so, Ted and his “potato friend” have a friendly conversation. Ted’s Arabic is still a work in progress, as is his potato friend’s English, but they still manage to communicate with some help from Google Translate.

Later on, the boy enters the shop again after having gone outside for a bit. He is video chatting with his friend from horseriding, whom he introduces to the three of us in the shop. His friend’s English is impeccable even though it is not her native language. We learn more about her favorite things to do in the region. Even though we aren’t talking in person, I can tell that there is a bubbly, friendly aura resonating from her.

We tag along as Ted’s potato friend grabs some knafeh from a nearby bakery. Apparently, he eats nothing but knafeh for all three meals a day; it’s a wonder how he manages to stay so slim. Over dessert, Ted and his potato friend talk some more. Ted admits that he really wants to learn Arabic, and his potato friend admits that he really wants to learn English. They make a pact to meet up again and work on their new goals. I smile to myself as I witness with my own two eyes the start of a beautiful new friendship.

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Eating knafeh with Ted’s potato friend

True Story #2:

As with many ABCs (American-Born Chinese), I can understand Cantonese pretty well, but I don’t speak it all that well. My parents used to make fun of my accent when I spoke, so I simply stopped speaking it. Obviously, my accent hasn’t gotten much better since then.

After nearly a month of not eating any Asian food at all, I decided that I wanted to eat some Chinese food to celebrate the Lunar New Year. I went on a solo trip to a little noodle restaurant in Jerusalem. I told the owners that my parents were from Hong Kong, so they asked if I spoke any Cantonese. I said yes, but after listening to my broken Cantonese, they quickly realized that I wasn’t a native speaker of the language. Regardless, they seemed to understand what I was trying to say, and when I got stuck, they reminded me that they would still understand if I spoke in English. (It’s really quite incredible—they speak English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Hebrew.)

I finished eating my meal and was about to leave when one of the owners asked me if I wanted to join their New Year celebration the following evening. They had invited a couple of their other friends from Hong Kong for hot pot and said they would love to have me join, too. I ended up going and having a blast. Even though they found my Cantonese comical, I think they still appreciated my effort to speak it. Growing up listening to my parents speak Cantonese at home ended up having an unexpected, but nonetheless advantageous side effect; it helped me make a new set of friends in a land far away from home.

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Hot pot buddies

True Story #3:

Shankha and I accompanied Lorenzo back to Bethlehem yesterday night. I stayed at the apartment while the other guys went out because I had to do a video call for school. When they returned to the apartment, however, we all sat around a coffee table and just chatted. Even though Lorenzo’s friend didn’t have the best English and Shankha and I spoke essentially no Arabic, we were lucky to have Lorenzo around to help translate for us and make sure everyone was included in the conversation. I ended up getting to know a lot more about Lorenzo’s friend than I would have if it was just the two of us. We’re now officially Facebook friends, so that’s cool.

The Moral

The power of learning a foreign language comes from the ability to communicate and connect with a larger population of the world. Because many people outside the United States learn English as part of their formal (or maybe even informal) education, it’s easy to assume that others will take on the burden of learning English so that you can communicate with them.

However, the beautiful thing about learning a foreign language is that it symbolizes your willingness to learn about a new culture. Learning a new language signals to people who speak that language that you care about and find value in understanding their culture. If there was anything that I would have done differently to prepare for my trip this month, it would have been to learn more Hebrew and Arabic. But hey, there’s always next time 🙂

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