thought spot: language acquisition in a new country

I’m going to take a moment and level with you all about something: languages. Specifically, language acquisition, and how the rest of the world is putting America to shame. A 2006 survey by the European Commission revealed that while 56% of Europeans considered themselves bilingual, only 15-20% of Americans can say the same. [1] Studies have also shown that the earlier someone becomes bilingual, the easier it is to learn additional languages, because the brain creates a language processing network from having learned the first two. [2]

And in Morocco, knowing English is nice, but knowing French and Arabic is much more useful. Unfortunately, I can only claim 2/3 (English + French), but I’m working on the third (Arabic). And what a time it has been!

At Moulay Ismail, I take Arabic four times a week for two hours, in addition to two hours of the Moroccan dialect, Darija. According to my program directors, by the end of the semester, I’ll have had enough “contact hours” for a year’s worth of credit. Imagine that! Arabic is in the Afro-asiatic group of languages (specifically, Semitic), so it presents a stark contrast to the languages I already have a working knowledge of: English, French, and Spanish.

"Alif Baa," my textbook for learning the alphabet. We're almost done with it!
“Alif Baa,” my textbook for learning the alphabet. We’re almost done with it!

There’s so much to learn about this new language: a new way of writing (right-to-left), new sounds (emphatic consonants, anyone?), and built-in cultural phrases. For example, it’s very common to hear the phrases “hamdulillah” (blessings to God) and “inshaAllah” (God willing) in greetings or everyday conversations, something that was very different from what I’m used to. And I have to admit, sometimes I feel like a child again repeating the alphabet and doing dictation, but you have to start somewhere, right? Even if it means practicing sounds over and over again while your roommate (in her second year of Arabic) giggles at your rudimentary skills, not to mention embarrassing yourself by saying shukran (thank you) instead of salaam (a shortened version of hello).

The "copy books" our professor gave us. Yes, they are for children.
The “copy books” our professor gave us. Yes, they are for children.

What I’ve noticed, however, is how much easier it is to pick up this fourth language. It is my fourth week of school and already I can start to piece together the sounds for street signs and a word here and there during the news. And as my knowledge of vocabulary improves, so will my ability to speak Arabic. So far, I can introduce myself and tell people where I live, but I can already feel the world opening up many a باب (“bab” = door).

So, to all of my multi-lingual friends: keep rockin’ on! And to all of my monolingual pals: why not start learning a new language and possibly change your life, or at least your perspective of it?

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One thought on “thought spot: language acquisition in a new country

  1. I’m guessing Americans don’t excel at learning foreign languages simply because they don’t need to. For the overwhelming majority of situations in America, you don’t need anything more than english; even in terms of contact with foreigners — either in America or abroad — a lot of the communication can be done in english. I think for a lot of languages that one could study, Americans might even have difficulties finding situations where they could actually use that language. And of course for most parts of America, you aren’t going to be able to hop in a car (or train), take a 2-3 hour trip and find yourself in another country where they speak a different language.

    I’m not trying to knock learning foreign languages, merely to point out that most Americans have no pressing reason to learn one, and would probably have to go out of their way to find opportunities to use them on a regular basis.

    I’d be willing to bet that most Americans who’ve studied a foreign language (a) never reach any real fluency in it, (b) don’t get to use it all that much once they stop studying, and (c) end up mostly forgetting it.

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