Sometimes I forget how embarrassing it can be to learn a language—other than a first language, that is. Rachel doesn’t seem to ever get embarrassed and so far everything she knows is somewhat embarrassing.
She knows several animal noises. Snakes say “Ssss!” while dogs, owls, and monkeys say a variation of “Oo! Oo!” Lions, tigers, bears, and anything that looks like it could eat a person say “Arrrwwwrr!”
She can say the first sound of book and ball. I often confuse what she wants that way.
“Book? Do you want to read a story?”
Temper tantrum ensues. “Buh! Buh! Buh!”
“Alright then…ball? Do you want throw some balls?”
Temper tantrum ceases. “Buh, buh, *sniff, nod* buh!”
Most of what she says are 1 syllable of whatever it is she wants to say, often with hand gestures thrown in.
“Dada!” said while pounding on the door and screaming means “Why did Dada go outside without me? Come back, Dada!”
“Dada!” said while clapping hands and running to the door means “Did I just hear the key in the door? I think Dada is home. Maybe he will take me outside!”
“Dada!” said while shrugging her shoulders and putting her hands up in the air means “Where is Dada, anyway?”
She’ll act out anything she understands, too. Poke, jump, yawn, head, eye, ear, nose, etc. Sometimes we use these words on purpose just to see, for example, how many times she’ll poke herself in the eye or how long she can keep jumping. Other times we spell words to avoid having her pull out her h-a-i-r.
Aside from those little breaks in our strictly non-communicative relationship, Rachel’s main method of communicating involves screaming (sometimes with hand gestures). This is the embarrassing part.
“Ahhhhh!” while clutching at her diaper means “You’d better put me on the potty, and now!” That, or, “Ooops! I just went!”
“Ahhhhh!” while pulling my shirt up or down means “I’m starving here!”
“Ahhhh!” while rolling around on the floor and banging her head can mean just about anything, but it’s still just as embarrassing as the two previously mentioned situations, if not more.
Recently she’s started repeating things that I say. Usually she’ll catch either the beginning or the end of a word or sentence and she’ll repeat it. Most often it’s when we’re having a “learning moment” and I say something like,
“It’s not okay to scream when you want to _________. You need to use your words, ok?”
She’ll nod and repeat, “Ok!”
I think she does that because she knows that if she does I’ll let her go. I wonder if she knows that I take her word as a binding contract.
Alas, when I’m learning a new language screaming and rolling around on the ground simply is not an option. I have to plow on through sticky situations and pretend that I understand things when I don’t. Like finding my way through Zamalek.
Me: How do I get to Um Kalthum?
Arab (with hand gestures): Gibberish globbity gibberish. Mashi!
Translation: Something I totally didn’t understand. Keep going!
Me (repeating directional hand gestures): Okay, thanks!
My favorite part about being me right now is that I’ve reached the stage where I’ve started hearing words, remembering them, and repeating them (to myself and aloud). I did it while learning Russian and would walk around the library muttering “двоюроднaя сестра” or “четыре” to myself. Rachel is in that same stage right now. She walks around muttering "good" and "ok" and things like that. I walk around muttering things all the time and then I will ask Andrew about them over dinner.
“You said a word today,” I will say to Andrew.
“I said lots of words,” he will respond.
“Yeah, but you said this one several times today and so did the guy you were talking to and I don’t know what it means.”
“What word was it?” he will ask.
The problem is that by the time I get a chance to ask him what a certain word means I’ve repeated it to myself so many times that it mutates. Yes, I play the telephone game with myself.
Today’s word was مرة ثانية. Andrew said it so many times in the taxi and I just couldn’t figure out what was going on. The conversation moved from Rachel to where we’re from to why we’re here to if we like President Bush to if we’re Muslim or Christian to a sight-seeing tour of Cairo where the taxi cab driver pointed out several synagogues to us.
Through all of these subjects, Andrew mentioned Mauritania several times.
I’m in the backseat chanting to myself, “Mauritania, Mauritania, Mauritania…” hoping that I will remember it long enough to ask Andrew what the deal is with Mauritania and what Mauritania has to do with Bush, our family, and synagogues.
By the time we got home, had dinner, and put a screaming Rachel to bed, I had forgotten the word. But I knew it started with an em. Now I really sounded like a lunatic. I have a series of questions that I ask Andrew when I think I remember a word. It goes like this:
“What does _________ mean?”
“That’s not a word.”
“Okay, then is ______ a word?”
“Well, does it sound like any words?”
He’ll then try to list whatever word it is I’m trying to think of. Sometimes we’ll find the right word. Sometimes we won’t. Tonight we didn’t.
“You said a word and it started with em and you used it when you were talking about Bush. What was it?”
“Mushkilgi?” he offered, “Problem-maker?”
“No, I basically understood that one. It was a different word.”
Enter Nancy the monkey (if Rachel was saying this she’d say “Ooo! Oo!”).
“Ma… Ma… Mu… Moo… Mo… Mau… Mauritania!”
“Oh, Mauritania,” said Andrew knowingly.
“Yeah, it’s all over the place. It’s on TV all the time. On the news…and even in cartoons, which doesn’t make sense. And everyone talks about it all the time. Either, either Mauritania is really important (which it isn’t) or it means something I don’t know…”
“Mara taniya,” corrected Andrew, “Mara means time and taniya means…”
“Right. Time two… It means again or repeat that or…”
“Can it also mean ‘Later’ or ‘not now?’ ‘Cuz I think I’ve heard it used that way, too…”
Awesome. So it turns out this is a common problem among Arabic students. The best part, however, is when Andrew said,
“So, have you been confused about this since Jordan?”
“No. I don’t think I even knew Mauritania was a country when we lived in Jordan.” That proves that I’m geologically challenged. I seriously had no clue where or what Mauritania was before Andrew came home from school and said that he had a job offer in Mauritania. We seriously considered moving there instead of here.
“But come to think of it, I think I remember hearing mara taniya before,” I continued.
“So basically,” he concluded, “You knew mara taniya meant again, but when you learned that Mauritania was a country you completely replaced mara taniya with Mauritania and have now just learned mara taniya again.”
That pretty much sums it up. I have a memory glitch. Maybe one day Mauritania will hold its own on the news but until then, Mauritania, mara taniya!