Thursday, March 14, 2013

How to practice Arabic when everyone speaks English

Thanks to my beautiful, totally-not-coerced models Lisa and Ashley
To be honest, sometimes practicing Arabic can be embarrassing, frustrating, and feel totally futile. I often wonder, as I'm surrounded by Omanis speaking perfect English, if I'll ever have linguistic ability above the level of a 5 year old. But if I ever want to stop embarrassing myself with my Arabic, I need to start embarrassing myself with my Arabic more often--that's what this post is about. 

1. Greet people with a Salam Alaykum

Seeing that you're a foreigner, most Omanis will automatically speak to you in English, and it's so easy to go along with it. But returning a "How are You?" with "7umdililah, kayf 7alik?" shows the other person that you want to make the effort, opening the door to a bi-lingual conversation.

2. Practice with shopkeepers
It's much easier to talk to people who are impressed that you know any Arabic at all, so that even though your words are stunted, laboriously produced, and poorly formed, at least they find it cute that you're trying. An uncrowded stall in Muttrah or local coffeeshop are good places to strike up a conversation. But be careful that the person you're chatting with actually speaks Arabic (dishdashas are a good indicator)---one of the funniest scenes I ever saw in Muttrah was caused by a British tourist, wearing a one of those hilarious sexist-joke T-shirts and what looked like the European conception of a "Turban" wrapped around his head. It was around the time that a cruise ship had dropped anchor and unleashed its inhabitants on the old souq. He lumbered into the shop and began speaking loud, formal Arabic at the Bangladeshi store owner--a sad case of assuming brown person = Arabic speaker. Don't be this guy. 

3. Practice with taxi drivers
Oman is one of the few countries in the world where taxi drivers are nations--it's actually a law here. Car rides are good opportunities for low-pressure conversations; it's not too hard to say "I need to go here, take the next right, go straight" etc, and you can always get a driver talking about their family or how much they hate their job. Girls here won't have much opportunity for contact with taxi drivers because the official word is that "taxis are dangerous," but I've had some very entertaining conversations with Talal and Sayid, the highly emotional drivers who take us to after-school classes. 

4. Practice with kids
It's way less intimidating to carry on a conversation with a six year old than with a sixteen year old. Your vocabularies are much closer in scope, and kids are much more accustomed to communicating through pointing. That being said, kinder-gardeners have no qualms about mocking hilarious American accents, but if you're really internalizing criticism from humans who still eat their own boogers, you probably need to reevaluate your life. 

5. Read subtitles
Reading TV subtitles can make even the most boring parade of B-movie romcoms on MBC entertaining. The Arabic they use is very formal, so most of it makes no sense as a translation of casual conversations. Through subtitles I've learned the exclamation "Taban leka!" and other, equally useful phrases. 

1 comment:

  1. Ha! I can totally relate to this. We watch those same movies on MBC every night (or maybe a few hours later, but in any case thank goodness they're not showing "The Hills Have Eyes" anymore) and I regularly get laughed at by six-year olds as well. And of course, we all use the same Al-Kitaab.