Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Learning Arabic and Teaching English

Since we don't have a car here, we walk everywhere and we take the Metro several days a week.  What I love about this (aside from getting more fit and reducing our carbon footprint), is that I speak and greet and learn from every day Egyptian people with each block I walk and Metro ride I take.  Today was no exception.  When I walk  back and forth to my Arabic class, I greet people on the street (A Salam A Licum--- phonetically since I can't write in Arabic...yet).  I look at license plates to practice my letters and numbers.  Here are some photos so you can see what I mean:

I get out of Arabic class at the same time as some school children get out down the street so I often pass them clustered around the entrance to their school.  The little girls wear long sleeved pink blouses with wine colored jumpers over them.  They are bright-eyed and eager to practice their English on me.  Several practice their "hello's" from afar, but one bold one comes up to walk with me and says, "How are you?"  I answer slowly, knowing I can't understand basic introductions in Arabic unless they are spoken slowly.  "I'm fine... How are you.... " followed by exchanging names.  The girl, and her friends who admire her bold initiative, are delighted that they are effectively communicating with me in English.  They laugh and then all wave good bye to me as I cross the street.  (I wish I had a picture of that little group of 7 girls in jumpers, but the best photos are ones I wouldn't really want to take.)  

Coincidentally, I saw that girl with her mother (who was completely covered with only eyes showing) on the metro about 15 minutes later as I was on my way to my International Law class.  The girl recognized me and we started to practice English more.  I asked her how old she was, then she asked me.  Unfortunately she didn't get my joke when I said I was "Very, Very Old!"  Anyway, we had a very nice conversation and her mother, even though I could only see her eyes, looked very proud of her daughter for being able to talk to me in English.  The girl reached out and shook my hand when she and her mother got off at their stop.

An interesting contrast to this was a group of young boys I met walking back from dropping Cameron off at school.  They said hello, and I said hello back.  Then one of them, maybe about 9 years old, said, "I love you."  I was going to ignore him, and then realized he's just kid and doesn't know any better.  So I decided to tell him, "No, that's not polite."  and show him how he could talk to me.   I said, "How are you?"  He answered appropriately.  We exchanged names, I said nice to meet you, then we said goodbye.  Hopefully he wiill know better next time how to start up a conversation with a stranger.  

Meanwhile, people continue to help me with my Arabic whenever I make the effort to try to communicate.  One day we had to go somewhere that was too far to walk and the metro didn't go there, so we took a taxi.  I was trying to tell the driver to go straight ahead, but could only remember the expression meaning 'straight ahead' had the word "tour" in it.  I signaled with my hand straight ahead and said, "tour, tour".  He laughed and corrected me, "a la tour".  One one metro ride, when I was practicing arabic with a man sitting next to me (and had exhausted my vocabulary of 5 introductory sentences), a young man came up to help me translate.  He ended up chatting with Jeff and me for the rest of the metro ride and shared a taxi with us on the other end to help us get to our destination.  He insisted on paying for the taxi for us.  This is a very generous culture so this kind of hospitality to a stranger is not that unusual.   We swapped numbers at the end and he invited us to join him and his family for dinner.  We have plans to go there tomorrow night.  I better work more on my Arabic introductions before I go!

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