I Lived Somewhere For 20 Years Without Knowing The Language

Photo by Mostafa Meraji

This year marks my 20th year of being a resident here in Saudi Arabia. I do visit my home country (Pakistan) often — but, I’ll just say that life is so much more calm here. Get this: you rarely will ever hear a car’s horn being honked from the street — that alone makes the world of a difference in day to day life. I will eventually go back, but for now, let’s talk about how I realized that those entire 20 years here were spent without me even knowing the language spoken here, Arabic.

Ideally, that shouldn’t have been the case. I should have easily ‘acquired’ the language by now by this law of ‘assimilation’ most people speak about. Most of my friends are actually native Arabs. I’ve always been subconsciously overhearing people speaking in Arabic around me since a child. Posters, banners, and advertisements all around are in Arabic. Heck, even my religion points me towards the language, since the Quran is originally in Arabic. All this, yet I cannot for the life of me hold a conversation for more than a minute without getting lost in meaning.

So, what the hell went wrong?

Since I was put in an American school, surrounded by people who knew English, there was little incentive to actually learn Arabic beyond the most basic tier one “how are you, I’m fine” kind of stuff. I even went a step further and convinced myself back then that it’s too “hard” — (which now I realize, it actually really isn’t). This resulted in a waste of the most precious years I had where I could have absorbed a major chunk of the language purely through comprehensible input, as I was already exposed to it everywhere. All I had to do was: listen, and realize its importance.

Your brain filters out all sensory input which are deemed ‘unimportant’. This is why when listening to any random foreign language: it goes in one ear then immediately out the other.

How it has impacted my life

Well, it “sucks” to have this communication gap become apparent only now. I only realize this after high school as my social network extends to potential work colleagues as well. Interacting with Arabic speakers is inevitable no matter where you go, unless you live in some secluded foreigner-only area or something.

There is a limit to how far basic words and phrases can take you. Having a conversation and being able to understand someone (especially in Arabic, with all the dialect variances) can be worth everything here as a foreigner.

How I’m going to make up for this

I am going to acquire the language. How? By opening up my mind to it. Allowing any input (through text, speech, or even a random label at a store) to be noticed. To be given my attention. This impresses upon my mind importance. I am assigning it high value to my sensory receptors. In turn, seeds of the language are being implanted into my brain. As they accumulate, just because of how the brain works, all that preexisting knowledge forms a basis of instinct in the language, making it easier to navigate between the gaps of what you know and don’t know.

Progress so far

Where I’m at: as of now, I can speak at a basic level to be “understood” but not expressively at all — rather, very blatantly and simplistically. My true challenge ahead is simply understanding all the nuances of how its spoken. This involves not studying, but actually talking with locals.

Thankfully, I’ve got a bunch of Arab friends to abuse here :P They each have their own dialect (Yemen, Egypt, Syria etc) and they are of major help, because, trust me, Google translate is kind of useless for spoken Arabic. You need a real human to confirm how it’s “spoken on the streets”.

Now the question is, will I actually acquire the language? Well, it’s a 1:14AM on 24 July 2020, as I type this. We’ll see.

Hello! I’m Sarim. I'll be sharing my best ideas/thoughts here on Medium.