“What is your name?” she whispered.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
As I sat in a nurses’ meeting at the local hospital, words I did not understand flew all around me. Then a young woman in a white lab coat and black headscarf whispered the two above questions to me in the local language. Leaning in, I whispered back. She smiled, and in the middle of another question, the speaker’s eyes darted in our direction. In unison our heads snapped to attention. A thrill spread through me, and I suppressed a grin. Several months earlier, I could not speak a single word of Dari, but now, as simple as the conversation was—I was doing it, conversing in another language!
Learning a language is not just arduous. The choice to learn another language is to sign up for torment, humiliation, and a snail’s-pace measure of progress. Like any language learner, I have my favorite embarrassing-language moments.
At the same hospital, supplies were always running short. I needed to do a dressing change, and no gloves were available. I questioned several individuals as to where I could locate some gloves. A young man in a lab coat told me in Dari, “You need to write gloves on this piece of paper, and I will get you some.” I froze. I had learned spoken language, but at this point in my language- learning I had just started learning the ancient-looking Arabic script. I mumbled to him, “I cannot write it; I have not learned how.” He stared at me and said; “Well, you really need to learn how.” Then he grabbed the piece of paper out of my hand, and he scribbled the word:
Shocked, and with open mouth, I watched him walk away. I was extremely embarrassed that he—and those around me—thought I could not write in my own language!
Another day, I had been reading through a fairy-tale story with my language helper and had happened to learn the word curse. Later on that day as I was walking through the bazaar, I passed a group of women sitting on the sidewalk with boxes full of shiny bangles in front of them. They called out to me to come and buy their “beautiful bracelets.” Since I did not need any, I politely refused and kept going. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the elderly women waving her arm in my direction, shouting, “Curses be upon you. Curses are upon your head.” Perhaps, sometimes a lack of language-understanding is bliss.
When I arrived in my new country, the desire to learn the local language of the culture we were moving into was deep. I knew this was not going to be easy, because I was arriving with a four-month-old baby who took incredible amounts of my energy. So, during our six-month language school, my husband went for four hours in the mornings and I went four hours in the afternoon. This gave me a good foundation, but after the course was over I continued in my own home with local language helpers and tried to put myself in situations that exposed me to hearing and speaking the language.
Throughout my time in Central Asia, I aimed for language-immersion opportunities, like doing volunteer work a couple mornings a week at the local hospital. As my language skills grew, the weariness of not being able to understand ebbed away—never entirely, but it drastically improved. Like my simple conversation with my co-worker, it was about connecting in the heart language that became important.
I have witnessed other ex-pat women who for various reasons (some of them extremely valid) were not able to learn the local language. As a result, I saw them struggle (trust me, I struggled too). It appeared to me that they were more isolated and had greater difficulty in connecting with the local culture. Learning the language also gave me better insight into how people expressed themselves, and their expressions became my own, which enabled me to speak truth into their lives.
In the beginning I did not know it, but that deep desire to learn language was the one thing that in the end helped me to thrive.
Question to consider: How have you experienced the following: “Learning the language also gave me better insight into how people expressed themselves, and their expressions became my own, which enabled me to speak truth into their lives.”?