On being the one to stumble.

We have language exchange for an hour, twice a week. We sit at a picnic table, speaking English for the first half hour and Somali for the second half hour. In English, I wear my “encouraging” face, nodding with eyebrows raised, while she sputters and stumbles around absentee vocabulary. In Somali, I sputter and she encourages, repeating sentences so slowly they cease to connect — just a list of words I struggle to grasp.

I appreciate her, though. We have a sort of mutual understanding, which is surprisingly hard to come by. We both recognise that the other has thoughts and ideas far beyond what is expressible in a foreign tongue. I can see it in her eyes, the way they search and consider and crinkle around the edges when the right word doesn’t come. She can see it in my hands, in how they tense and flatten with frustration when I can’t transform my thought into Somali. We just sit there, looking at each other, trying to guess what the other wants to say. 

It must be something incredible, I think. She is already an incredible speaker in English, even though she’s missing basic words like “stone” and “roof.” To understand her in Somali would be beyond striking, and that has become my motivation. I don’t care about buying things in the market, or answering the phone — no, no. I just want to learn Somali to understand her ideas, the ones that just won’t cooperate in English.

I listen — ii gu celi? — and then listen again. I can tell she’s continuing our conversation about justice, but I lose her in translation. My response is feeble, but I’m glad for the chance to try. Otherwise, our interactions would be defined by English. I would always be fluent, and she would always have to stumble.

Do They Not See The Birds? (Thoughts from Arabic Class, P.1)

I’ve started attending Arabic classes twice a week — one class for standard Arabic, and one class for Qur’an.

In Qur’an class, the student beside me reads the verses out loud with a fluency I have yet to achieve, repeating longer and longer sections of the verse until she can recite the verse in its entirety. Like much in life, there is a method to the learning, and she is an expert in the process. It comes out in breaths, not sentences. Exhale, and there is a verse. Quick inhale, and the recitation resumes.

Standard Arabic class, on the other hand, is stilted for all of us. It’s strange, somehow, like learning a language we already know — me, having already studied it, and the others, having recited in it for their entire lives. We read quickly, beyond thinking about the pronunciation of individual letters. Yet, we still stumble on basic grammar, asking the teacher what the difference between “he” and “she” is.

Yes, of course, we nod vigorously as she re-explains what we knew all along, somewhere inside. This learning is like digging up treasures we buried ourselves and then forgot the locations of.

Pieces of both classes echo in my mind at the end of the week, an alternating chorus.

What is your name? Where are you from?
The knowledge is only with Allah.

What is your nationality?
Do they not see the birds above them with wings spread and folded in?
Her brother is an engineer.
Return your vision to the sky. Do you see any breaks?

Fluency still feels like a distant horizon, but there is some poetry in not fully understanding.