Killing a Language

I was thinking about posting a language journal section to document my progress in Arabic. However, today I took a free language proficiency test and scored a measly 18/48. I felt a bit disappointed by that as I’ve been in Jordan for 9 months now, and have been actively learning Arabic for the past 5 months. I’m totally immersed – I should be better than ‘elementary’, as they put it. Upon reflection I wouldn’t have much to document, other than kindergarten level observations. I live in a small house. In the kitchen there is a fridge, and a table, and an oven. Abu Ahmed’s kitchen is bigger, but I like this one. Doh.

I guess I’m feeling particularly sore about the subject because there was a semi-serious conversation with the uncle-in-laws, about why Rachel isn’t speaking Arabic yet. Rachel doesn’t get involved. She won’t learn that way. Bla bla. It doesn’t help that one of the uncles married a Russian lady some fifteen years ago who is now fluent. (Um, fifteen years ago…). She came to live here, much like me, however her husband had just begun his medical residency and she spent her days with his family, most of whom spoke English – the so-called universal language – however she didn’t speak Arabic or English. So they muddled along all day every day pointing and reciting, and she would scribble down the words in her notebook in the Russian alphabet and by three months she was speaking in sentences.

When I asked if she ever felt terribly lonely – and more than that, terribly bored – she replied with a laugh, no, I threw myself into every event. I was desperate to get involved.

And that’s where we differ drastically. Even if I spoke Arabic fluently I would still sit silently listening on the edge of a group conversation rather than throw myself in.


I keep reading that ‘shyness is the killer of language’, which seems grossly unfair. I’m not killing my Arabic, or anyone else’s Arabic for that matter. But yes, it’s true, I have reached a plateau because I’m not actively practicing what I’m learning. The problem is that despite being ‘immersed’, I’m surrounded by a family of fluent English speakers. And instead of spending five minutes trying to express or receive a basic idea, it’s easier to speak English. My mother-in-law speaks about the same level of English that I do Arabic, and it’s when I’m with her in the kitchen that I make the biggest steps, because even if she laughs at my mistakes, I know she’s laughing from joy, the same as how she laughs when she speaks English. We have our own kind of Arabic-English language and we communicate really well. She’s a retired teacher and has an almost intuitive way of communicating information. She’ll say to me ‘jeebie big kasset water’ and I’ll say to her ‘wein al kettle’ and even if it sounds like some kind of schizophrenic mash up to others, we totally get each other. It’s really nice. It also helps that I understand her accent and find her quiet tone easy to follow.
Other than that, it’s only really when I’m alone with my husband that I’ll spew out a perfectly pronounced and grammatically sound sentence. It’s all about comfort and confidence.


The sisters-in-law suggested that I listen to Arabic songs as another way of learning, apart from the books. I was a bit hesitant at first because I find a lot of Arabic music very hard to tolerate (other than my beloved Mashrou’ Leila). However, I have since discovered the beauty in heartbreak songs, and have been reciting them and translating the words I’m unfamiliar with. It’s something I don’t do as an exercise, but as entertainment, which is the best way to learn. I’m a lot more open to exploring the roots of words this way, too, as they’re more romantic and poetic than the root word of, say, office (although even that’s debatable).


The jury’s still out on a language journal… Perhaps I can post my progress once a month. Perhaps in the form of a video of pronunciation, and a picture of song translation…? Oh procrastination, you’ve convinced me – I’ll sleep on it.

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6 thoughts on “Killing a Language

  1. I’m pretty impressed with what you HAVE learned! And I love speaking in two languages at once (for me, it’s usually Spanglish); I actually think it takes some facility with language to be able to code-switch like that. Best of luck learning more – DO jump in and use it! As a language teacher, I know that speaking and listening are the keys to mastery. (I’m shy about doing this also, but my perfect reading and writing did not help me communicate until I jumped in and started speaking more.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve lived in in Jordan for quite a while now and I still can’t speak Arabic. Read, yes. Understand when people are speaking? Most of the time. But conversing isn’t that easy. I haven’t been as dedicated to learning the language as you’ve been. Maybe I should though.

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