Language is to Connect . . .

. . . and to connect, you have to practice!

I grew up in Iraq, and my first language is Arabic. It is mandatory for students in Iraq to study English in primary school and up to the end of high school, and then our studies in college are in English as well. Aside from that, I always had a passion for English language, it is probable because I spend a little part of my childhood in England, but my passion was very intense during my teenage years in particular. I constantly watched Hollywood TV and listened to my favorite and only channel transmitted in English language in Baghdad, the Voice of Youth channel. This passion had strengthened my language skills, and I was always on top of my class without even returning to my books to study. I mastered English.

Or so I thought I did . . . ?

After the recent war that broke out in 2003, I had to leave Baghdad, and reside in Jordan for safety issues with a refugee status supported by the United Nations. Then, due to the increasing number of Iraqi population and some other various reasons, the United Nations started to offer resettlement choices for Iraqis to live in a western country. Since my father was not employed in Jordan, and since my sisters and I could not attend schools there, this was the best deal for us, so we accepted it and we were to resettle to the United States. Anyway, as part of the resettlement process, we had to go through background checks and interviews. Since I was over 21, I got to be checked and interviewed separately, and man, was that exciting to hear! For me, to be interviewed by the jury committee meant to finally use my English! They provided us with translators, but confident-me asked the translator to please not translate because “I got this.” And man, was I wrong? I was so so wrong! Till this day I am so embarrassed of this moment when I did not know how to conjugate the verb ‘threat.’ I was stopping to think after every single word. I could not reply some of the questions. I asked the translator to translate, and I realized that I have not mastered English. Not at all. It was . . .  a disappointment.

I moved to the United States, I already knew that I am not a proficient English speaker. I do not know if it helped me in getting a less of a cultural shock, because I certainly experience a pretty bad one. Maybe there are two shocks then, the “language shock” and a “cultural shock,”? And I got hit by the former before even coming to the United States? Maybe. It sounds better put this way. But anyhow, I decided that that’s it, I am here, I know the language, it has to be hanging out somewhere in the back of my head, hiding, I just need to throw myself out there and I will get it to seep somehow to my tongue. I started to go out, got a small job and then finally I started college. It was very hard. Very very hard to see the 23-year-old-me looking like a fool for lack of some words and inability to retain others. For a whole year in college I could not make friends, and I so badly avoided presentations. I could not make jokes which is something I fairly enjoyed with my Iraqi friends (literal translation of jokes? Bad idea, do not try that)

In the end, after a whole year of embarrassments, awkward situations, misunderstandings and miscommunications, I finally can say that I have mastered English. This time it is for real. However, from that I discovered a big lesson, and that is, to learn something you have to live it and experience it. Even for a language, you cannot say that you have mastered it until you go out and practice it, with all your senses: hear it with your ears, observe the gestures associated with it with your eyes, reverberate it with your mouth, imitate those associated gestures with your hands and facial expressions, and feel it, really feel it in your heart. After that practice, then and only then you can say that you have mastered the langue. And then and only then, you can say that you have stepped over a barrier and opened a door for a new world, in which you can connect with new people and with a culture that is completely foreign and different than yours.

-Reem S.

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  • Andrew

    Yours is a truly inspirational story, Reem! There is a real gap between “the rules” of speaking another language and actually “knowing” how to speak it. Language is itself an art, and you have developed a skill in English that surpasses many native speakers I know of, so you are a reminder to all of us that we can learn another language not only to fluency, but indeed to a level of eloquence.

    Some years ago, I made a friend who had come here from China five years before. Despite having studied English in school, and having lived here for some time, she was unwilling to participate in much conversation with me and was happy to listen to others talk while contributing as little as possible. For those people who need to practice in their new language but fear being overwhelmed in a face to face conversation, the web offers many immersion opportunities in the form of “language exchange” websites. Rosetta Stone has just such a community which is called I’ve also used “” as a way to find language participation groups nearby!

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