Some people seem naturally adept at learning new languages. Like Mr.YemenEm who speaks French, Spanish, Arabic and a little Chinese. He’s always had a passion for languages, began learning Spanish in middle school, wanted to be a Foreign Service Officer since high school, and majored in Romance languages in college. He even lived in Spain, France, and Costa Rica before the age of 21. Teenage YemenEm, on the other hand, showed up consistently tardy to clase de Espanol in high school and did well enough to get a B, but didn’t really think she’d have any use for the language. See, I never expected to be living abroad, and I’m not sure I ever even expected to travel in Latin America. My theory is that there isn’t a huge difference in people’s abilities to learn new languages – it’s just that some people really see the applicability of learning a new language while others do not. And I did not. Until recently.
I think the first time I really, really wished I had been motivated to learn more from Señora Belanger, my beloved high school Spanish teacher, was when I visited a friend in Guatemala in 2010. After hanging in Guatemala City for a few days, I went north on my own via an 8-hour shuttle bus. Being the only non-coupled person on the bus, I sat shotgun. The driver turned to me and asked “Hablas español?” I replied. “No hablo espanol. Hablas ingles?” He said no, and put in a Spanish cassette of love songs that we listed to 10 times over the course of that day. I wished I could have said something in order to have a conversation with this guy. It didn’t help that the other passengers in the van included an Israeli couple, a Dutch couple and a French couple, all of whom spoke very little English.
When I returned to DC after that trip, I decided that learning Spanish was suddenly applicable to my life, and a group of girlfriends and I hired Manolo, a cool Spaniard who played guitar in a band, to come to our apartments once a week and teach us Spanish. But me being me, these weekly lessons turned more into gourmet Latin dinner parties than real lessons.
When I arrived in Yemen, I immediately enrolled in twice weekly Arabic lessons with Mohammed, my spry, jovial Arabic tutor. As I’ve previously mentioned, my favorite part of my lessons with him are talking about cultural differences between Yemenis and Americans. The language part has been slow going. Mohammad will say a sound such as “Dta” (a T, but a really hard T) I will repeat it in a way that sounds like “Ta” and he’ll say “Yes! Momtaz!” (Excellent). But I think he’s just being nice because the sound coming out of my mouth never sounds much like the one coming out of his. One problem (at least for my motivation) is that we live such a cloistered life here that there isn’t much need for me to speak Arabic. All of my Yemeni colleagues speak very good English and I live in a hotel with Americans. The only time I find myself struggling to communicate is once a week at the grocery store where I make myself even more conspicuous by pantomiming “walnuts” and “eggs” to inquire where these products are. (If you’re wondering why I’m not pantomiming “cheese” it’s because that is the very first Arabic word I learned – jobn – because obviously that is extremely applicable to my life).
When Mr.YemenEm and I return to DC, I will take eight weeks of Spanish to prepare myself for moving to Madrid. I’ve been told that Madridleños don’t speak English, so if I want to maintain some semblance of my personality in social settings while in Spain, I need to really learn. You know when you have a killer joke to tell in a group setting and some idiot tells a less funny joke, thus dominating the joke-telling window and you’re like “Ah! My joke would have been so much better. Oh well.” It seems much worse to have a slam dunk joke in mind and to simply not be able to find the words to say it. I don’t want that to happen. So I probably should consider Arabic a wash, and start studying Spanish in earnest. Don’t worry though, I do already know “queso.” So at least I have that.
To being a motivated language student,