I have noticed a trend with learning and effectively communicating a second language. The beginner works diligently to memorize and learn many new words in order to get simple ideas out. Then, as the beginner advances, they learn sentence formations and additional words to fill those sentences. Eventually, they are able fully communicate ideas, facts, and questions to others in a language. But then, after that, they need to forget all of that and learn the short-handed and simple ways to quickly say certain ideas in specific contexts.


This has comes up when I practice judo here. The coaches give commands and instructions in more concise ways than I am accustomed to – things like “move back,” “faster,” or even low usage terms like roll forward are thrown around. When I first began the practices here I felt lost and confused despite my experience with both Arabic and judo. I joke that playing judo in an Arab country means I have to not only worry about understanding the Japanese terms but also Arabic!

Pictured: Sports are an effective way to communicate.

The challenge is not only in my understanding, but in helping others understand as well. There is a large percentage of judokas (judo players) at the practice who are children who are learning important concepts like falling safely and correctly. As an impromptu teacher, I need to be able to both show and explain what,why, and how I am doing these movements. Sometimes I get through, and sometimes I have to ask someone more adept at the language to help me out. Either way, I’m communicating what needs to be done or what the problem is to someone else.

Literally translating doesn’t literally translate.

Pictured: Definitely lost in translation.

This connects with an idea that I have been thinking about since my time here. Communication is so much more than saying literally what you mean. There are many types of communication like body, facial, tonal, and contextual communication. Those different aspects of communicating can really bridge or block a speaker’s intention. I have noticed more stress from communicating with those who have a weak or non-existent background in English. This could be for a number of reasons like it being less frightening to have another language to fallback on. But there’s an unspoken variable that affects the back-and-forth, and it’s the norms and expectations of how to communicate.

For instance, with people I know here who speak English, I have never heard something like “I miss you” from them. This is the opposite of the people here who don’t speak English, where they might say “I miss you” after meeting them for the first time. Obviously, having grown up in my American context, that doesn’t sit well with me. Saying that in English communicates a deeper feeling than what it seems to in Arabic (of course the other one exists too, but there is a context for that!). Having experience with that, I am better able to navigate those situations. But I am conscious to not just spend my time with people who speak English better than I speak Arabic.  This is because I need to better learn the wide-ranging contextual use of the Arabic language.

Pictured: Somethings translate perfectly, though.

Hey, Norm!

My last example of this, I said as-salam a’leykum (“peace be upon you”) after entering a bar. My friend then politely told me people don’t say that when entering a bar. Who knew!