I am ashamed to admit that my husband Greg and I have failed to learn not one, not two, but three different languages; which is highly embarrassing to say the least. Many would claim that we can’t even speak English, such is the confusion over our kiwi accents, but that is another story. Our excuses and reasons for our linguistic failures are varied, but I like to tell myself it has nothing to do with lack of intelligence, and certainly was not from lack of trying.
We started our first language learning experience in Bangladesh (I don’t count my attempts at school girl French, which were mostly spent trying to write love notes in French to a certain boy I was keen on at the time).“Ami beshi Bangla jani na, ami Bangla sheikchi, ” (I don’t speak much Bengali but I am learning) was one of the first phrases we learned and we ended up using it for the entire three years we lived there. I was still saying it to the porter who helped with our suitcases on our last day in the country. Greg should have been good at languages, he has the right personality; i.e. doesn’t mind making a fool of himself.
“My name is Greg. I am from New Zealand. What is your name? How is your mother? How is my mother? Do you have a school bag? I like to eat oranges, the apple is red,” he would repeat in his kiwi Bengali over and over to every man he met wandering around our neighbourhood. Sometimes he would get mixed up and say: “My name is New Zealand, and I am from Greg,” which did not even bother him, whereas I would have been mortified. His new male friends would laugh and shake his hand and then not let go, wanting to walk along the road holding his hand so they could introduce him to their friends and on it would go. (In Bangladesh it was very normal to see men holding hands which took him some getting used to.) My language attempts, on the other hand, usually consisted of me planning and practicing the perfect phrase in my head for hours and by the time I was ready to say it, everyone had gone home to bed or had died of old age. Or I would say something that I thought was perfect only to be met by completely blank looks, or worse, laughter, and I was usually left feeling stupid and irritated. Other times I would nod and smile and say “ha, ha, bhalo,” (yes, yes, good) and Greg would ask me to tell him what they had said and I would have to mutter through clenched teeth, still nodding and smiling, that I had absolutely no idea. I kept telling him to stop doing this but he persisted as my nodding and smiling was obviously very convincing and fooled even him.
We were even worse at Arabic, which we attempted to learn when we moved to Jordan after Bangladesh. Fortunately though, Arabic is full of praises to God, blessings, greetings and farewells so we learned to carry on a five minute conversation in which we praised and thanked Allah for the person's health, the lovely day, asked how they were, how was their mother and entire household, did they sleep well, blessed their house, their heads and hands, saying how much we missed them and it was a long time since we had seen each other and insha'Allah we would meet again soon, then goodbye, travel safely, may God go with you and keep you safe etc etc. By by the time we had finished, we felt like we had carried on a fluent conversation without actually saying anything new, but at least we were talking. Greg had a few innovations, such as asking taxi drivers where they kept their combs (usually they kept one in the glove box of their car which they always seemed happy to show him). He also loved to say; “min zayman ma shuftak,” (I haven’t seen you for ages,) to people he had never met. Fortunately, Jordanians have a great sense of humour and are extremely friendly and hospitable, so we managed to get by with a lot of smiling, nodding and doses of our kiwi charm.
Sometimes though, that hospitality and charm would be stretched to its very limits. Greg seldom had this problem as usually some of the men would speak English, but we were often separated and I would be ushered into a room full of women, who, especially in rural areas, could not not speak a word of English. After I had exhausted my greetings and blessings, asked them how many children they had, what their names were and where their children went to school, told them how delicious their food was and that I was from New Zealand and had two children, I was stuck. This would take about 10 minutes. The meals would last about 2 hours so I think you get the picture. Sometimes (thank you God) there would be some children who were studying English in school, so that always helped a lot as we muddled through together. I learned to always take my camera as this takes up time and I cuddled a lot of babies. But there was always plenty of smiling and nodding and by the time I came to leave, hugs and blessings and you must come again soon, God willing. Greg always came out looking full, happy, rested and a little smug, while I would almost run for the car and demand to know why he had to take so long and couldn't he eat a lot faster, or better still, next time suggest takeaways.
So alas, language learning is another thing I am not very good at. By the time we got to Tanzania, I was languaged out. I went to language school for a while, but my tired brain seemed to be saying; “you already have two failed languages banging around in here, add another and I may just explode.” When we moved to South Africa we did not even try. There are so many languages spoken here that we thought we should just stick to the one we know, which fortunately the majority do speak. We were very fortunate that in all of the countries we have lived in, English was a strong second language, so we could usually get by. But this was also the main problem, as I am convinced the only way for me to learn a language is to be surrounded by people that don’t understand a word I say. Then I am sure I would be fluent in weeks, as the thought of not being able to talk for three years would, most certainly, drive me crazy.