When volunteers start the Palestine Summer Encounter, some of them already know a decent amount of Arabic. While many others don't, they love learning new languages and can hardly wait to begin taking Arabic classes.
Me, on the other hand?
The idea of Arabic lessons made me feel nauseous. Please don't get me wrong, it's not a problem I have with the particular language or culture. It's just that I'm absolutely rubbish at understanding any foreign language. I've spent most of my life taking (when not skipping) classes or braving taster sessions in all sorts of tongues, yet to no avail.
Welsh? I can only read road signs and they're all bilingual anyway. German? I could probably order a beer. French? I know enough to make fun of French people. Spanish? I could start a fight at a football match, not that I'd try. Russian? I don't actually know any but everyone here who works in the tourism industry assumes otherwise, which still remains a mystery to me. Mandarin? I'm aware that the words for "mother" and "horse" are very similar but I'm not as aware of which is which.
I'm being serious here! This is the person who studied in Hong Kong for half a year and came back only knowing the Cantonese phrase for "excuse me".
I am the boorish, bumbling Brit abroad.
Has Palestine been any different? I am relieved to say yes! Not because I woke up one day, the magic of the Holy Land making me into a polyglot, but because there was a motivation that was never there before.
That motivation? My host family.
You see, when I was picked up on my first day, it was only in the car on the way to the house that I was told the host mother I'd be staying with speaks no English. You can imagine the horror that struck me when hearing that! I didn't know any words in Arabic and with the amount of hospitality she then showed me, I was frustrated that I couldn't express my gratitude.
The next day, I learnt my first word in Arabic. "Thank you".
It should be mentioned that the lessons themselves haven't been much different to how I was taught in school, but it's the immersion into daily life in Palestine which both really helps and really makes attempting Arabic a worthy pursuit.
So no matter where your own motivation comes from, I've created three rules for the volunteer who is terrible at learning languages, taken my own embarrassing experiences to spare you from making the same mistakes. Admittedly, I haven't always followed them but I'm never one to listen to good advice either!
1) ENTHUSIASM COMPENSATES FOR INCOMPETENCE.
Everyone can very likely tell you are not a native Arabic speaker. Don't sweat it if you struggle to find the words, it's better to at least try than to not try at all. At worst, you learn something new and gain from the experience. At best, you're better than you realise. Either way, people appreciate the effort and you can meet some interesting people you wouldn't speak to otherwise, from playful children to the patient elderly.
If the alternative is appearing aloof or uninterested, there's nothing scary about attempting a conversation.
Personally speaking, I've charmed my way into getting a few discounts at the market (or maybe those were given out of pity).
2) BE CREATIVE, LIFE ISN'T A TEXTBOOK.
This might sound like something your aunt would post on your Facebook wall but I'll still stand by it. You might not know the grammar but it's worth playing around with words and using them in ways you weren't taught to. It might not be perfectly correct to say but it's possible for the other person to understand your meaning.
When I've planned to stay the night in a place like Nablus or Jerusalem, my host mother understood with a handful of badly mispronounced words.
Sometimes, however, you have no words at your disposal. In that case, feel free to wildly gesticulate and speak obnoxiously slow English. Improvise! Once, I needed to urgently know the Arabic for "please come help me, there's a giant spider in my room and it looks potentially deadly and a bit peeved off". Instead, I screamed.
Unfortunately, no-one was in the house.
3) JUST BECAUSE YOU KNOW HOW TO SAY IT, DOESN'T MEAN THEY WILL LISTEN.
Like many host mothers, mine likes to a feed me a lot. Like, really. A lot. My relief to learn the word for "a little" came as a huge relief, until I first tried it.
My host mother motioned to her mouth; her way of asking me if I'd like to eat something now.
"Yes, but a little," I answered in my awful Arabic.
"A little." She repeated after me, smiling as if I had told her a joke.
She came back with a plate of food which I suspect was a bigger portion than usual.
However, sometimes the context is less comfortable. Whether it's a pushy taxi driver asking if you'd like to go to Jericho for the three hundredth time or a salesman that hovers over your shoulder in a shop, don't blame yourself if they can't understand. It often seems to be the case that it's not that they can't understand but they'd rather you were saying something else. In that case, be firm and know that body language and tone of voice can speak louder than the actual words.
I don't think I'll pursue Arabic any further after I leave Palestine but I still appreciate being able to learn it here. It opens up opportunities not otherwise available and leads to some memorable moments that you'll take back with you.
I'm growing more confident and feeling more independent with each successful interaction, which will aid me when I move to Germany later this year and try my hand once again at German (and at least I can order a beer first!)