If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart. – Nelson Mandela
Language is a splendid thing. From the way it sounds to the way it is written, it peppers our lives with infinite possibilities: every click, clack and roll of the tongue against our teeth and through our throats, every long line, dash and character accumulate themselves to create a manifestation of how we interpret our own existence. What is funny about language is its extent of diversity; how one individual may look upon a page scribbled in an unfamiliar script and find themselves unable to gauge a meaning at all, whilst another individual may find the same page to contain content worthy of inducing everything from tears to laughter.
That’s why I find learning language so worthwhile, and infinitely respect those who spend time doing so. Language allows you to connect with others in a very personal way, especially if you don’t know them very much at all.
Three weeks ago, I encountered a most wonderful, serendipitous occurrence: not only did I have five full, glorious days off school, I also had the pleasure of stumbling upon Timothy Doner in the World Wide Web. Tim Doner, in short, is my personal hero. From the age of 13 when he first started learning Hebrew, he began delving deeper and deeper into the depths of what language had to offer until he reached where he is now: today, he has taught himself over 20 languages ranging from Pashto (which I’ve read about, and it seems incredibly difficult!) to Xhosa; from Mandarin to Lao. Although he may not be at a native level for many of them, when you watch him talk in languages with such confidence, gusto and charm – after learning them for four days (!!!) – it is hard not to believe that fact. I infinitely admire Tim not only for his love of languages and his ability to wrap his head around what, at first, are completely foreign concepts, but also because he spends the time and effort to enhance his own life – and the lives of others – with his passion. If a high school student like Tim could have expanded his heart so greatly to take in all of these new languages, what’s stopping someone like me from doing so? Watching him, a part of me regrets having bemoaned the ‘lack of time’, but more than that, really, is a burgeoning want to do what Tim has done, and allow myself to touch more hearts as my life carries on.
That is why, straight after discovering Tim’s story, I decided to spend a fair portion of those good ol’ five days dabbling in the hectic, mysterious, charming and magical realm of Arabic (and a bit of Berber). Because I was due to travel to Morocco in a week’s time, I thought a great way of making the most out of my experience would be to grasp the fundamentals of the language in the hopes of gaining a sliver of enlightenment on the culture, too.
Here’s a word to take note of: the internet literally has everything you need. After hours spent with my eyes fixated on a screen, I began learning the pronunciation and writing of the alphabet, before learning a few vocabulary words such as الإبل (camel) and the like. (Note: Unfortunately I cannot type Arabic, so I had to resort myself to the ancient method of copy and paste. One day, however, I’ll try to type in some Arabic of my own.) My roommate at summer school this year actually learns Arabic, so it was great having a personal resource as well; with her help, I was able to learn about short vowels, long vowels and what the accents on Arabic script actually mean. Thus, by the end of around three hours of study, I could say a few Arabic phrases and recognize letters of the alphabet.
Which is pretty meagre, honestly. But when I found myself in Morocco, I discovered that even meagre was enough: whereas Arabic had always seemed distant and a little cold to my eyes and my ears, now it became a language I was even more curious to learn, absorb, and enjoy. It made the sensory awareness I felt in Morocco that much greater. Recognizing the fact that car license plates in Marrakech contained either a ا or a ب (A or a B respectively in the Arabic alphabet; those I actually typed – woohoo!) made me strangely more engulfed in their culture. Knowing that the lady in the hammam wanted to pay for two (‘zuz’) people gave me a similar sensation too. Yes, these examples may be quite trivial, but being aware during travel was one of the greatest favours I could have done myself.
Thanks to my meagre understanding of the language, I also got to bond with people in stronger ways. You know how there’s a local guide on almost all school trips to foreign countries? Well, on previous trips I never really developed a connection with the guide and simply, almost, took their presence for granted. This time round, we had a whole series of horsemen, chefs and mountaineers who spent quite a significant amount of time with us, whether they were helping us climb Mount Toubkal or taking us through Berber villages. By expressing my interest in the language, greeting and thanking them in Berber, even trying to count in Berber, I felt I had developed a sort of external connection to these people. Knowing that we had a common interest – the languages spoken in Morocco – allowed us to open more doors for conversation, jokes and general goodwill. I also got several opportunities at practicing my Spanish, a language we also switched to and fro.
So language, I find, is a powerful tool. It really boosts one’s awareness of their surroundings and how the language reflects the culture one enters. For example, it was interesting for me to learn how gender affects variations of terms in Arabic: terms for ‘I love you’ or ‘God be with you’ differ depending upon whether you are talking to a male or a female, which is different from other languages such as Spanish in which you change depending on the speaker‘s gender, not the recipient. Which then again is different from English, where this is no distinction at all. I found it interesting, the fact that perhaps this may reflect something about the culture in Arab countries and how they treat men and women in different ways.
But above all, what I found most wonderful about language is how it allows you to not only reach people’s heads, but their hearts. Nelson Mandela’s wise words will always ring true. By talking to a man or a woman in his or her language, not only are you implying respect for the culture and their ways of being, but you are also showing a conscious effort to create a special connection with whom you are talking to. When I was in Spain, speaking with people in Spanish always led to more fulfilling conversations for both parties ; and, of course, some of the people I met in Spain were some of the most influential people I have ever met. When I was in Morocco, although I couldn’t fluently speak Arabic or Berber, expressing my interest in the language allowed me to develop stronger bonds with the locals, giving both myself and them a more incredible experience.
So give it a shot. Next time you find yourself traveling to a country where they speak a language you don’t know, spend some time working out the fundamentals and immersing yourself deeper in your own experiences. It’s worth it; it really is.
Perhaps if I do go to Croatia later on this year, I might study a little bit of Croatian. It’d definitely be an interesting experience for me seeing as I don’t know any Slavic languages at the moment – but in a few months’ time, we’ll see. 😉