Knowing more than one language can be very useful and has the potential to broaden your horizons in work, love, and travel. Beyond utility, learning a new language can change your life.
Like many Americans from an English speaking household, I learned the basics of Spanish during childhood. Spanish language and culture were all around me; I even had a great-grandmother that moved to Puerto Rico and lived there for most of her life. Still, the Latin world was mostly a mystery to me, shrouded in speech I couldn’t understand.
As a preteen, I watched the Puerto Rican Day Parade on TV. I became extremely interested in the culture, language, and music. I decided I wanted the barrier between me and my Latin neighbors gone; I wanted to really know Spanish.
I immersed myself in the music, food, and every aspect of the culture that I could. People thought I was crazy, and I didn’t care. Within 3 years I’d become fluent without ever leaving US soil, even having skipped all of my family’s annual trips to San Juan to visit my great-grandmother.
I was already a young adult when I became bilingual and clearly remember the process. It was like swimming underwater and hearing muddled voices talking above the surface. I got closer to the top and the voices became clearer. When I broke the surface I understood everything clearly. Then, I was in another realm.
I’ve never stopped being in awe of how at the end, I gained access to a whole new world. 15 years later, I went to a Spanish karaoke club with a friend of mine whose first language was English, too. We had so much fun and agreed that we were glad we were able to partake and “get” all the music, jokes, etc.
And so, foreign language is a true, deep interest of mine. I wanted to enjoy another language in the exact same way, and started looking for a 3rd language to learn. I’ve dabbled in Italian and Hindi, and even German.
During the 90s, I practiced Italian for a short while and got more frustrated than my level of interest allowed me to continue. The similar words with different meanings were like a distorted Spanish. Without the internet being what it is today, finding anyone to explain, clarify, or practice the language with me was near not easy. This made me realize that I wouldn’t have many opportunities to speak the language after learning it, either.
With Hindi, I managed to memorize a couple of Bollywood songs and their meanings. (I love Bollywood music) I’d even started to learn Devanagari, the script Hindi is written in. But when it came time to practice, I wasn’t overwhelmed by native speakers of Hindi that understood my interest in the language. In fact, I think they found it odd. Beyond India’s media, the culture isn’t easily penetrable without a full immersion experience.
On the list of the world’s most spoken languages, Hindi is # 4. But even with 237 million speakers, Hindi is the official language of a small number of countries in the single digits. The #5 most spoken language Arabic, by contrast, is the official language of over 27 countries. When exposed to Arabic I was impressed it’s history and beauty. Observing present-day events it was also obvious why it’s such a critical language. When I hit a point where in life where I needed to change my career and further my skills. I wanted Arabic to be a part of that.
Arabic isn’t an easy language to learn. You have to learn an alphabet which is like nothing you’ve ever tried to comprehend, read from right to left, and learn sounds you’ve never made before. At times, you may feel you’ll never be able to.
I used a free Google app to learn the Arabic alphabet on my own within a matter of weeks. I downloaded a travel app to help me learn basic phrases, but I quickly realized I’d need a human to practice speaking with.
Arabic is taught in a formal language, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) that’s not spoken in daily life. In real life, there are many dialects and every Arabic learner has to pick one to communicate in. Otherwise, they’ll walk around speaking like it’s 1000 AD. Can you imagine what that would be like in English? Not cool at all.
In the beginning, I was learning MSA. I was shocked when I found someone committed to helping me practice online and realized that I had to learn a different word in spoken Arabic for even simple things like “yes”, “no”, “milk”, and “house”.
Native speakers of Arabic willing to teach you Arabic for free are abundant. I signed up for a site called My Language Exchange and while practicing, I’ve learned to read children’s books in Arabic, laughed tons, and formed lasting relationships.
It’s been over 3 years since I decided to learn Arabic as my third language, and despite spending lots of time in Egypt I’m not fluent yet. But I can function somewhat in Arabic, and this feeling is pretty rewarding.
My understanding increases at a pace that ebbs and flows. Occasionally, I think and dream in Arabic. I went through the same thing in Spanish. I know it means that fluency is on the horizon.
Learning Arabic has also given me a brand new appreciation of English, and made me see what I what I previously took for granted: English is a fun and interesting language that when spoken well, can get you far almost anywhere in the world.
Recently, I took a long walk with my mother-in-law who only speaks Arabic. I was able to understand about 85% and answer back in short sentences, albeit with a heavy foreign accent and juvenile-level speaking speed. A sense of humor and not caring about impressing others are must-haves for trying to speak a foreign language. Both have gotten me through comical situations like these.
She was trying to tell me how to make an Egyptian dish whose name translated into English is “Vegetables”. For five minutes of our conversation I was confused and asked her in Arabic, “Aren’t ‘vegetables’ things like tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and salad?” She answered me a little flustered, “Rachel, don’t you remember the dish I made during Ramadan? Did you forget Arabic already?”
We laughed and I thought about the fact that in order to have forgotten it I would have had to have known it well in the first place.
No value can be put on the price I’ve paid to learn my second and third languages in terms of time and experiences, although my direct out-of pocket expense for learning materials is probably less than thirty dollars. It’s taken effort and endurance. And as far as teachers go, well, my mother-in-law has probably been my best teacher yet.