Listening To Learn the Language

Posted by Aaron Snipe
July 10, 2009
Airplane Silhouetted at Sunrise

About the Author: Aaron Snipe is a Foreign Service Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Muthanna, Iraq.

Transiting back to Iraq from my final R&R in the United States, I settled in for my last eleven-hour flight to Kuwait. As I decided upon which book and magazines I would read during the long journey, a cacophonous family of countless children came pouring onto the plane. With an empty seat to my right and left, I braced for the worst. I quickly reached deep into my backpack to retrieve the tactical earplugs that had served me well during many flights aboard Black Hawk helicopters high over the deserts of Iraq. I feared even the earplugs’ ballistic technology would fail to protect my tender ears from the onslaught of these rascals.

As their exhausted mother directed them to their seats, I wondered which child would become the bane of my existence for the next 11 hours. While I pondered this question, a young boy quietly sat down next to me. He must have been around eight or nine years old, and as he settled into his seat, he quietly and carefully surveyed his surroundings. He was dressed smartly in a black suit his mother had no doubt made him wear. With an oddly-colored clip-on tie and matching pocket-square peeking out of from the breast pocket of a blazer that didn’t quite fit him, he was inarguably an adorable sight to see.

From listening to his mother try to corral his siblings, I knew the young boy was Arab, and I looked forward to a little light banter with my young traveling companion. I quickly learned the boy’s name was Ali and broke the ice with a friendly question.

“How are you?” I asked in Modern Standard Arabic, unsure which part of the Middle East or North Africa he hailed from.

Zain,” he responded.

His one-word response immediately put a grin on my face. It was the Iraqi dialect word for “fine.” The word is also used in other parts of the Gulf, so I asked where he was from.

“Iraq,” he said.

How fortuitous, I thought.

“Are you Arab?” he asked.

“No, I’m American,” I responded in Arabic.

He seemed a bit confused by this, and after a few minutes, the game was up. The moment I made my first inexcusable grammatical mistake (no doubt using a verb form that referred to him as a her), the boy’s brow furrowed, and he paused for a moment.

“Hmmmm. Let’s speak in English now. Your Arabic isn't very good. I speak English, you know . . .”

Ouch.

I wanted to ask Ali all the political wonk questions I always ask Iraqis, but recognizing he was not yet 10 years old, I felt it wisest just to help him plug in his headphones and find the cartoon channel on the seat-back television in front of him.

At the end of the flight, I bid Ali farewell and watched him rejoin his noisier siblings a few rows ahead. As I gathered my own belongings, I relished the few words we exchanged together. It made me think back to my numerous school visits in Muthanna, and the many inquisitive children, eager to engage in conversation, I have met on the streets of Samawa and Rumaytha.

Speaking to Ali -- in Arabic -- reminded me of two important things: first, I should clearly study more. And, second, learning another language opens new doors of dialogue that bridge the divide between cultures. The little Arabic I brought with me to Iraq this year has been one of the most important items on my packing list. My understanding and use of the language during my year may not have had a major impact on the trajectory of our policy, but in many smaller ways it was one of my most important tools for breaking the ice, demonstrating respect, and affirming my interest in Iraq and Iraqis.

In the years to come, no matter where I am in the Arab world, when someone asks me how I am, I will always look forward to responding, as my seat-mate Ali did, “Zain.”

Read more about Aaron Snipe's work with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Muthanna, Iraq.

Comments

Comments

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
July 11, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Hey Aaron, next time think "Kindergarden Cop"- the movie.

If one is to be subject to the "cacophonous" anyway, might as well do a little show and tell.

And the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" isn't exactly getting political with a nine year old...(chuckle).

Dipping sheep, now this....does the Foreign Service Institute prepare you for such challenges?

Or is that, "On the job training."?

LOL!

Toss a comic book into your toolkit as well, Spiderman is pretty well read globally.

I actually have a real problem with languages, so thanks for sharing a tip on picking one up.

Best,

EJ

Gwynne
|
District Of Columbia, USA
July 11, 2009

Gwynne in Washington, DC writes:

I am so happy to see this post. I was with my son, registering for school today. I asked him about language (he studied French in high school) and he said "meh." I was surprised that he wasn't more intellectually interested in language and structure.

He said it's too hard to make yourself understood in your own language, so how much more frustrating in another tongue.

I will send this to him to ask him to keep trying. Thanks for a great post.

rex
|
Michigan, USA
July 11, 2009

Rex in Michigan writes:

nicely written, mr. snipe. thanks for posting.

palgye
|
South Korea
July 11, 2009

Palgye in South Korea writes:

Hi,,,,

i`m very glad the State Department home page normalizes again (Here blow will be wrong and the minutes when takes charge of will think does not know how about).

The oasis meets the desert again and is the same thing.

- i have a question... north-Korea?

John
|
Greece
July 12, 2009

John in Greece writes:

@ Mr. Aaron Snipe -- Extremely good, migratory (traveling) and inspiring writing Sir! As I got your point -- Think global, but always act local!

You are absolutely clear and right, if I am not wrong, concerning your deeper meaning: when we have to offer pure, humanitarian help to a place on earth that needs our help, we must understand the way locals think in order to maximize the value of this helps acceptance. The only way to do this is to understand them and become "one of themz'. A real part of their society.

Anyway, great post Sir!

By the way, as always, Dipnote staff chose a "1000" words photo. Great photo editing! (maybe you should rethink my suggestion for a photo exhibition around the country based on Dipnote photos you have already used).

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
July 12, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ John in Greece, How are you? long time no see. Missed your posts.

John
|
Greece
July 12, 2009

John in Greece writes:

@ Eric in New Mexico -- I'm doing great Bro (Sir!). Thank you very very much for your concern. I read all of your posts (Great as always!). Some temporary, personal problems have made me unable to write enough.

However, no "stall", don't worry.

I read all of your posts you guys and I still believe that we have the most wonderful DipNote in the world!

I'm always here. You know how much I love this "place".

I honestly appreciate your interest Eric and I wish you the BEST!

eric
|
New Mexico, USA
July 13, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Here's the latest in high-tech John, maybe they'll put a diplomat in space one of these days, 'bout 50 years from now.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/07/090709-space-internet.html

Everyone's kids are in for an interesting ride I think.

Snead
|
Colorado, USA
July 13, 2009

Micah S. in Colorado writes:

Good stuff, thanks for sharing. Keep up the great work and best of luck for the future.

Johnson
July 13, 2009

Johnson writes:

Listening skill is very imp.............

John
|
Greece
July 13, 2009

John in Greece writes:

@ Eric in New Mexico -- Extremely interesting news and link! And I got the new millennium DipNote's name "mutation":

Let's call it "SpaceNote"! (CHUCKLE)
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/07/090709-space-internet.html

This is exactly what I love in America. U.S.A. always create!

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
July 13, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

If we ever have an international Mars expedition, a diplomat might come in handy, that's a 4-5 year round trip.

Susan
|
Florida, USA
July 13, 2009

Susan in Florida writes:

@ Aaron Snipe -- A wonderful and touching post, Aaron. Out of the mouths of babes.... I have worked with children since I was 19 yrs. old. The things they have said to me have made me laugh, have made me cry, have touched me with their wisdom and kindness. I learned early on to "listen" with my heart, as well as, my ears. Each person has something to "say", even if they are only 3 yrs. old, or 8 or 9! I loved teaching because of the children . My own children, and the children I taught over the years, taught me more than I taught them. I hope you are still "zain". Let us know how things are going. Your posts are great.

catalina
|
Mexico
July 14, 2009

Catalina in Mexico writes:

very common to encounter others who speak different than you --very easy to spark conversation with smile =ZAIN= spanish -BIEN. English -FINE.

Arun J.
|
Nepal
July 21, 2009

Arun in Nepal writes:

After going through all and reading those comments I wonder where i am why i came into this earth. Beause I am never been on aeroplane, train, boat, and have n't crossed more then 250KMs from where i am. I watch NGC, Discovery and i feel like joker on earth. like now.

Anna
|
District Of Columbia, USA
July 21, 2009

Anna in Washington DC writes:

@ Arun in Nepal --

I saw your comment on the blog and was disheartened. You should never feel as if you are nothing. You came into this earth for a purpose. We all did. Whether you travel around the world, or only 250KMs from where you are now, you, as an individual, have value. You are valuable, and you can make a difference right where you are. Hope to read more comments from you.

@ Aaron Snipe --

I missed this posting earlier and am glad I read it. Thank you for sharing your experiences in Iraq with all of us. You come across as genuine, and it is refreshing for us, the American people, to see government officials and employees in such light.

Ameda
|
Massachusetts, USA
August 15, 2009

Ameda in Massachusetts writes:

Lovely post Aaron.Thanks for sharing. Keep up the great work.

Leslie
September 16, 2009

Leslie writes:

This is a very nice experience you should treasure. Actually i would agree that learning a foreign language will bridge other cultures and no matter what the age difference or point of view if you have learned some specific foreign languge it cannot only bridge gaps but it can also build friendship. Nice article you have here.

.

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