Editor: my struggles with English as a second language


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I knew before I came to the United States that everybody would communicate in English. I would have been utterly surprised if I’d seen otherwise. Knowing is one thing, but experiencing this is a totally different thing. I know that I speak English well. I can communicate well in both spoken and written mediums. Isn’t that what language is? Well, I realized that it is much more than that. I have been able to speak English for many years, but I haven’t felt what the language is like before I came to the United States. Language is not just a set of words and grammatical rules. Each language has its own culture tied along with it. My first couple experiences in the United States helped me see that language is only an aspect of a culture.

My first stop in the United States was Washington, D.C. I stayed there for four days to have an orientation about life and education. A friendly man was waiting for me and a few exchange students in the airport to drive us to our hotels. He was having a hard time finding the rest of the group. I volunteered to take the sign he was carrying and look for them. I found all of them in less than five minutes. He cheered, called me his lucky charm and gave me a big, tight bear hug. I was shocked. I stood awkwardly stiff, and didn’t return his hug. My Egyptian colleagues who were there saw what happened and laughed. Men and women in Egypt never hug unless they are close relatives. He called me his lucky charm again before leaving the airport and gave me another tight hug. This time I laughed at how awkward I felt. I knew that the hug was just a friendly one, but I still felt uncomfortable because I’m not used to this.

The next day, I attended a session about body language that basically informed the new exchange students that Americans don’t like to be hugged or even touched. They said Americans love their personal space and cherished their privacy. They even demonstrated how to measure personal space. The session lasted for about thirty minutes. I was sitting there trying feeling completely confused. I felt, from my prior experience,  that they were exaggerating. I, nevertheless, decided to follow their advice. I won’t get close to another American unless they show signs that they are okay with it.

However, when I came to Meadville, people smiled and greeted each other everywhere whether they know or don’t know one another. It was a refreshing change after I came from a city where people walk around with blank faces. That was not all. Whenever I go to a shop or the bank, people working there are not only very patient, but they take their time to make small conversations that sometimes are just a kind of routine, but other times they are genuine. They like to share their stories, and they express interest in the people they meet.

The orientation I had in D.C. made me think that Americans like to keep to themselves. Meadville may be an exception, but I found people here very open. I liked that, and I started engaging in conversations with them. These conversations were in my second language, of course: English.

When speaking English, I realized that there are quite a few words that I have never thought of in that language. The question “what’s the word in English?” has found its way into any long conversation I’ve had. After a while, I felt that speaking English all the time was weird. I have never had a close friend who doesn’t speak Arabic. In my mind, English had always been associated with work and study, but not friendship. I even spoke to my friends here mistakenly in Arabic a few times. Their surprised faces would remind me they don’t understand the language.

Similarly, hearing people speaking English casually everywhere felt strange. I remember waking up one Saturday morning and hearing people speaking loudly outside my door. I understood every word in the conversation, yet I understood nothing. They were talking about a football game. It took me some time to get used to hearing English spoken everywhere and stop paying attention to it. I still don’t get football, though. Maybe one day I will.

One reason English can sometimes be difficult is that some people speak too fast, so its hard for me to understand them. I particularly remember one incident when a friend of mine was talking to me and I could only understand the beginning and end of the question.

I asked her to repeat what she said three times, until I gathered that she was inviting me to do something with her that night. To save myself the embarrassment of asking her to repeat what she said again, I told her I can’t join her because I needed to study that night, which was the case. My friend was puzzled. About an hour later, and after I repeated the conversation in my head at least a hundred times, I finally understood what she was saying:

“My friends and I are going to study at my place tonight,” she said. “Would you like to join us?”

This sometimes makes me feel concerned about the way people would perceive me. I am sure I express myself better in my first language, but I have no idea how I sound in English. This thought terrifies me most when I give presentations in any of my classes. I always think that no one will understand my accent, or that my language will be too choppy that listeners would be annoyed by it and not pay attention to what I say.

Even though I have this thought at the back of my mind, I note how people in college are always willing to listen, and even offer opportunities to give whoever wants to speak a space. They also offer advice and help generously to whoever seeks them. The tight bear hug that I received when I first arrived in the United States shows the nature of Americans better than the  thirty minute session that warned newcomers not to approach them.