When we moved two years ago to a country where Arabic is the main language, one of the thousands of questions bouncing around in my head (like that 1970s video game Pong) was “Will I need to learn another language?”
It sounded like a daunting task for this guy in his early 40s with just two years of high school Spanish and one semester of college Spanish, both taken more than half a life ago. This concern about a language barrier was so high up on my list of anxieties, in fact, that as the school’s HR director picked me up at the airport, I recall asking him two questions:
- “How long have you been here?” (That was the journalism reporter in me coming out.) ANSWER: 25 years (Gulp … will that be me someday?)
- Have you learned to speak fluent Arabic? ANSWER: “No … because I’ve never had to learn, I haven’t.”
You see, Saudi is a country full of expats, both from the west and east. So many people living and working in Saudi are bilingual, even trilingual. Heck, the drive through person at McDonald’s in Saudi, making a wage so meager I don’t even want to know, starts each drive through greeting by finding out which language the person on the other end of the speaker uses.
In the U.S., if you’re bilingual it instantly makes you a more valuable employee. In Saudi, everyone is bilingual. Well, except Americans. We expect everyone to speak ‘Merican … or at least manner of English. (American exceptionalism can be a positive term at home, but it carries a bit of a different connotation overseas.)
As of this blog post, we have now spent four full days at a resort along Turkey’s south shore, each day looking out at the Mediterranean Sea, and we’ve yet to cross paths with another American person. In fact, I have heard almost no English being spoken for going on 100 hours. Just a few broken sentences here or there. Today I went to the concierge to book a tee time for the nearby golf course, but unlike the McDonald’s drive through worker in Saudi, he did not speak English.
So our family has spoken to each other, basically, and that’s it. We’ve otherwise gotten by on hand gestures and my wife’s remembrances from her high school and college German courses.
It’s been relaxing and liberating not talking to anyone, not feeling like I should be talking to anyone, and not expecting anyone to talk to me. I love to talk, but it’s good for my soul and my jaw to shush up sometimes.
Talk about something that wasn’t on my list of reasons to be excited for Turkey holiday. Not talking.
It’s given my wife and I lots of time to talk to each other, and given me a chance to practice being a better listener. Because the only voice I have to focus on is hers.
POSTSCRIPT: Much to my dismay, though — and probably Ryan Voz’s, were he to read this — yelling “Orange Whips!” and twirling my pointer finger around in circles at the wait staff does not, in Turkey, translate to “another round of beers for everyone”. No worries. I’ve adjusted.