Reflections on a Year of Learning Languages

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Since early 2019 we’ve been travelling, primarily learning languages as a way of understanding other cultures.

Most of our posts are guides to learning languages, moving to other countries, or visiting some location briefly.

But we wanted to share a little of what we’ve learned about learning languages, what learning has taught us about the world, and how we’ve changed along the way.

Reflections on a year of language learning - cover image


Read on for more.

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We Start Every Journey from Zero

What we learned from learning languages — we start every language journey from zero
Starting every language-learning journey from zero.

Even though we’ve studied a bunch of languages, somehow it always feels like starting again, starting up at an impossibly long path.

When Jo was learning Farsi, she had the benefit of having me and my family around to help her with any question she had.

But even though Jo had the head-start foundation of Egyptian Arabic (which has some common vocabulary with Farsi), she was surprised by how difficult it was to remember Farsi words.

And the Farsi grammar system, which looks refreshingly simple at the beginning, trips you up with word order and the way Farsi words are sometimes mashed together.

Now I’m learning Korean. It’s my 10th (or so) language, and by now I feel like I should have a language-learning “system”. I kind of do — I know not to get distracted by irrelevant words and to focus on using simple grammar fluently.

But again, in many ways I feel like I’m starting from scratch. I struggle to remember words and I can’t pronounce a few sounds for the life of me. The road ahead to understanding K-Dramas is long and treacherous — I understand only the simplest phrases.

Learning languages to understand TV dramas — My love from the star, a Korean drama
“Why must I love you, even though you’re an alien who is mostly exactly like me, but allergic to kissing, just because you’re cute and save my life and are loaded?”
“Why must I love you just because you’re super cute and the most famous person in Korea, even though I hate your personality which is against everything I stand for?” (Screen still from “My Love from the Star”).

We have learned a lot of humility in the process.

Our parents (in Australia and America) speak English, obviously. Every time we start another language journey, we re-learn to appreciate so much the effort they’ve put into not just mastering the languages, but understanding really hard things.

Like comedy. People don’t understand my jokes at the best of times even if we all speak English. Meanwhile, my Dad, a non-native English speaker, was a fan of the dry British comedy The Two Ronnies on public television, long before YouTube existed for me to find clips.

Learning about a language via comedy. Four Candles, by The Two Ronnies
Four Candles, by The Two Ronnies, probably my favourite sketch I’ve seen from them.

I’ve tried to understand jokes in other languages and it takes patience on both sides. So my hat goes off to those who get it — or who can make jokes in another language! (Good ones, I mean, not my lame puns.)

Immigrants and refugees around the world have to flee crazy places because of poverty, war, or uninhabitable conditions. And then on top of having to rebuild their lives in a foreign country, they have to learn a whole new language.

In the past it was English. These days people flee anywhere they can get to. If it’s Africans fleeing to Europe, they’re more likely to be learning German.

We do this by choice. But we tip our hats to those who do it to eat. So it reminds us that if someone doesn’t understand what we have to say — to be extra patient. And teach, if that’s what they want.

Finally, we just respect people from the West who go the whole nine yards and truly master any other language when they don’t have to. Many do it just for love, but sometimes with a mission. There’s my friend Jesse (well, I met him a couple of times, but I think he’s cool) who uses comedy to bridge Chinese and Western culture, for example. Speak Chinese? I still bet you can’t tell jokes like this guy.

What we learn about learning languages. Jesse appell telling chinese comedy.
Jesse Appell telling Chinese comedy in a small club.

No matter what you’re level, there’s someone out there to freak you out with their ability.

Oh, the Places a Language Will Help You Go

The language-learning missions they took us to some very different end-points to what we expected.

We ended up in the countries planned, but not in the places we thought we’d be.

We learned Egyptian Arabic partly because Arabic is cool, but also because we wanted to figure out a big part of the Middle East.

And Arabic did help us with Egypt, of course. It helped us do things like shopping, negotiating our way around a city, and starting to understand a bit of Middle Eastern/Islamic culture.

But what we didn’t expect was that we’d start to understand some of the pain of what it means to be Egyptian. Egyptians’ day-to-day reality is so far from the time of the Pharoahs that the monuments almost serve as a constant reminder of how much the world has changed — in recent years, leaving Egypt behind.

For example, most blogs will tell you that Egypt is “cheap”. This is true, but it’s an incomplete picture. The reality is that the Egyptian pound has become so massively devalued (due to economic mismanagement) that there’s a huge and unfair gap between what an average Egyptian earns and what someone from the West or a developed part of Asia earns.

Egyptian Pound's historical value chart since it was floated in 1960. the Pound's value has been halved many times, falling from US$3 to US$0.06.
The Egyptian Pound’s historic decline

It wasn’t so much the language that taught us that, but studying the language in the country gave us a chance to meet a lot of people and go to a lot of places and see for ourselves that Egyptians really struggle. We figured out that that “cheap” $1.25 bowl of food was around 2-3 times what many workers will pay.

Koshari - cheap, carb-laden, and delicious
Koshari — cheap, carb-laden, delicious. (Also, vegan!)

People we met were educated and all spoke better English than we spoke Arabic (obviously), from a mix of good schooling and foreign work experience. But their short-term outlook on Egypt was bleak.

It’d be hard not to have a bleak outlook when you’ve seen friends shot in the head by snipers for protesting in Tahrir square

But despite the struggle of every-day Egyptians, they’re an optimistic people in the long term. The friends we met were smart, witty, sarcastic, and cautiously optimistic that Egypt still has a bright future ahead of it.

Swahili, on the other hand, taught us some very different things. Mainly that a language is just the tip of the iceberg, that Africa is crazily diverse, and that there’s so much to learn (and so little time).

Reflections on a Year of Learning Languages 1

Swahili isn’t used in East Africa in the same way Egyptian Arabic (or any other Arabic dialect) is. Swahili is the lingua franca of Tanzania and Kenya. But people in most parts of Tanzania and Kenya have other local mother tongues — unless they’re from the coastal region, where Swahili is the mother tongue.

So we went to Kenya and Tanzania knowing this to a degree but determined to learn Swahili anyway. It was fine, and useful. People were happy we spoke it. But we could speak two words of a local language (like a greeting) and get a much more enthusiastic response.

Many wageni (“guests”, the more polite word for outsiders than wazungu) learn basic Swahili — though few (other than Peace Corps volunteers) learn Swahili to mastery. But almost nobody learns local languages — even though those languages may have millions of speakers.

We’d still recommend learning Swahili if going to Tanzania and Kenya. But what we’d definitely add to the list is learning maybe 20-100 words of a local language, and staying in one place long enough to be able to use it.

While in East Africa, we started to get a glimpse of the massive diversity just in that region, before even exploring the other regions of the continent. There are so many African languages with over a million speakers!

And while you might find a few words or grammatical concepts common to a family of languages (like the Bantu family, to which Swahili belongs), knowing one isn’t much of a platform to learning an unrelated language.

The most spoken language in Africa is Swahili, with 100M speakers, mostly in East Africa. Ninety-five per cent of those are non-native speakers.

But the second-most spoken language in Africa is Hausa, with about 65M speakers, mostly in West Africa. And it’s from a totally different language group — Chadic. After that, there are a few major African languages, including Yoruba, with 40M speakers mostly in Nigeria, Somali, with 35M speakers mostly in Greater Somalia, Amharic, in Ethiopia, and a long tail of languages with millions of speakers each.

Native language and ethnicity are highly inter-related in Africa. The main reason someone would learn a language that’s not their ethnic/regional one and not a lingua franca (like Swahili, English, or French) is for business or family reasons. And marrying/having children between tribes — in the same country, even within the same region of a country — is something people pause before doing, even in today’s modern society (see this Reddit thread of people warning against inter-ethnic marriage in Kenya, for example).

So after three months in Africa, we felt like we barely scratched the surface of a few cultures of just one corner of the country. We got a glimpse of just how much we don’t know.

The Importance of Going Home

Going Home - to Central Australia, Arnhem Land
Arnhem Land, Australia

The whole time we have lived abroad we have been asked: “Where are you from?”

Since we aren’t white, we know the answers mean: “Why do you look like this?” and “What language do you speak?”, and to a degree “Where is your house?”. So we answered the question we knew people are asking and told them our ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Firstly, it’s a much less offensive thing to be asked your race first-up in any other country than in America, Europe, or Australia, white-dominated countries.

In other countries, people are just trying to figure out how to relate to us. Are you Chinese? Some kind of Indian? We’re guests, minorities, and yet also not discriminated against or economically disempowered.

Explaining “where we’re from” has had an unusual effect on ourselves. It has made us realise how much we don’t know about our own backgrounds. We realised that we were weak in our native languages and know relatively little about the history.

This became the basis for our mission to “go home“. It’s why, in 2020, we’re focusing on learning Korean in Korea, learning about Aboriginal Australia in some region of Australia, and possibly visiting Central Asia (somewhere where they speak Farsi because we can’t just go to Iran).

Our 2020 is full of adventure and growth. May yours be, too.

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