Lost in Translation

I can’t tell you how hard it is to learn a new language. I never really understood what my VIPKID students go through every day in class until I moved to a country where I did not speak the language.

This past January, I moved to Morocco with my husband for four months. He is completing an Arabic study abroad program and is fairly fluent in the language. I, on the other hand, do not speak any Arabic.

Book Fair in Casablanca

Since being here, I have been forced to learn some basic Arabic words like “Thank you,” “I don’t speak much Arabic,” and “How much is this?” along with some really random words like “lazy,” “cockroach,” and “light switch.”

Let me start by saying, Arabic is really freaking hard to learn for a native English speaker. It has sounds that do not exist in English as well as a completely different sentence structure. From what I understand, they also don’t really have words for “is”, “are”, and “was”, which is really hard for me to wrap my mind around, but that’s another story. It’s about as similar to English as Chinese is to English. Even if I know the word in Arabic, half the time, I can’t pronounce it correctly, and the person I am speaking to will stare at me in confusion.

There was also the time when I learned how to say, “good day” and “rainy day” on the same day; that led to all sorts of confusion when I started mixing up the two phrases, so I was telling people to have a “rainy day” rather than a “good day.” The word ‘rainy’ in Moroccan Arabic also sounds a lot like an English swear word, which can make things really interesting. Let’s just say learning a new language is not for the faint of heart.

Starbucks sign in Arabic and French

Many people assume I know some Arabic and will start speaking to me in Arabic like I know what they are saying. I feel like a Level One trial student, who just stares blankly with a look of utter terror on my face. I have no clue what they are saying, even if it is just something simple like, “Are you cold?”

In the past, when I have traveled to a foreign country, it’s always been to a country where they speak something similar to English like Spanish, German, or French. In those situations, I could most of the time cognate my way to some success and understanding. Here in Morocco, there is no cognating my way to success. Arabic words sound nothing like their English equivalents. I am like, “Please, please give me some TPR! I have no clue what you are saying!”

This experience has made me a much better English teacher for VIPKID. I more aware of how confusing incidental language is for new English speakers as well as how important TPR and props are to increasing understanding. Prior to this experience, I would find myself getting frustrated with my low-level students, especially in trials. I would think to myself, “I said BIG A twenty times already! How have you not learned it yet?”

Now, I have completely changed my attitude. There are so many times when someone will tell me a word in Arabic, only to have me forget it two seconds later. Repetition is so important. You might find it boring saying, “BIG A, small a” fifty million times, but Baobao honestly needs that. I also know it can be frustrating when all Baobao is doing is repeating everything you say (including every “good job!”, “draw a line”, and “circle”), but I do that a lot with Arabic. Sometimes, it’s the only thing I can do. There are also many situations when I stare blankly at the person speaking. Many people have assured me, this is part of the language learning process. So try not to worry too much if Baobao is halfway through level two, and they still are mostly repeating (or even still staring at you).

Rooftop view of Morocco

Be compassionate with your VIPKID students. What they do in class is amazing! Learning a new language is so hard and takes time. Be patient and kind to your students. Someday, I hope I will be able to speak Arabic half as well as my VIPKID students speak English.