The challenge of claiming additional languages
“So, what languages do you speak, anyway?”
I am always reluctant to answer this question. I have spent time learning French, Spanish, Turkish, and two kinds of Arabic, and even dabbling in German and Mandarin, but I shrug and say, “Oh, English. And a little of a couple others.” Maybe I am afraid of being tested–“Oh, yeah? What’s ‘software development’ in Spanish? Say something in Mandarin!'”
Maybe I just compare myself to my housemates and friends that speak English, not their first language, at such a high level. Maybe it’s related to my general unease with any claim to ‘speak a language’ or ‘know a language’ – after all, even within English, I don’t speak with all its words, all its grammar, all its pronunciations. I know only a particular slice that changes all the time. Finally, there is the problem of being alone. You might compare language ability to soccer ability. Alone, I can show you some skills that might indicate my soccer ability, but until you see me playing with my team, you don’t really know what I can do.
The problem with modesty
Yet there is a disservice in my modesty around language knowledge, if I call it that. The first disservice it to myself, because I miss a chance to recall some language and play with it. The second disservice is to my question-askers, who might gain something from hearing about linguistic endeavours, be it a new word, a new idea, or just some inspiration to begin walking down a new language road themselves.
“Do you speak Arabic?”
Arabic is a particularly scary language to claim, for me and perhaps for other learners. It’s far from English in grammar and vocabulary, it has its own alphabet (one that runs right to left), and it’s just… challenging (I think I will need another blog post to articulate this better). Plus, the kind of Arabic that I speak best is Moroccan Arabic, which is not a mainstream variety. I joke that I am the Newfie of the Arabic world.
This fall, I plan to go back to Morocco, though, where I will indeed speak Arabic. Because yes, I do speak Arabic.