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International Center

University of Missouri

When English is forbidden

by Emily N.

You think you know a foreign language until you’re forced to speak it all day. You may have had years of classes, read books or stories in this language, written papers, given presentations — you name it — but when you arrive in a foreign country, you may very well not understand a single word that your taxi driver says to you your first morning. This is exactly what happened to me my first day in Amman, Jordan.

One of the first things I did after arriving in Amman was sign away my rights to speak English and promise to communicate everything in Arabic 24/7 for the duration of the semester. This language pledge, as it’s normally referred to, is the backbone of my advanced Arabic language program with CIEE, but has also grown to be one of the biggest proponents of my Arabic acquisition.

It sounded simple at first. I knew it would be challenging of course, but I didn’t expect the small things to be the hardest things. I found that talking about where I was from and why I wanted to study Arabic and my political opinions was so much simpler than giving a taxi driver directions to my house, asking my host mom for an extra towel, or remembering the correct greeting response. Even asking a question in class was challenging, when forced to explain what I didn’t understand about Arabic grammar, in Arabic. Each little interaction, no matter how mundane, took considerable concentration at first. It was easy to feel like I didn’t know the language at all when simple phrases tripped me up every day.

However, it’s been incredible to see the progress that my classmates and I have made over the semester. Because we’ve chosen to speak to each other all the time in Arabic, we have learned more than just the vocabulary from our textbooks and classes. We’ve developed conversational skills from chatting between classes and getting coffee with our local friends. And we’ve learned everyday vocabulary, phrases, and jokes that you normally wouldn’t use in class. Not only have we learned all this, but it’s now permanently engrained in our brains from continual use.

I definitely wouldn’t wish the language pledge upon everyone. It’s a challenging and energy-draining commitment that can make it hard to build deeper friendships, and operating with a limited vocabulary on limited subjects can be really frustrating some days. But if you’re a serious language learner who’s ready to take their language skills to the next level, someone who wants to stop translating everything and start thinking and dreaming in a foreign language — the language pledge is absolutely essential. The growth that I’ve experienced here in Jordan has been worth each and every one of the challenges that speaking a foreign language has brought.

A few students sit in the back of a truck on a sand plain in rural Jordan.

My classmates and I are riding in the back of trucks through the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan on March 9, 2018. One of the main parts of the Advanced Arabic Language Program is the week-long rural retreat where we visited several areas across the country to learn more about the culture and language outside of the city.

About the blogger

Emily N. is studying abroad on the CIEE: Arabic Language in Amman program in Jordan.

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