How do you say, “How do you say?”

“With languages, you are at home anywhere.” – Edmund De Waal

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This past weekend, Rocket and I attended a friends and family PIK NIK at the Westin Hotel in Dubai Marina. As I glanced around the picnic table hearing a mother talk to her youngest daughter in Slovenian (or maybe it was French?) then seamlessly turn to us to finish our conversation in English, I realized I was the only one in our group that didn’t speak at least 2 languages… typical American (or Brit, or Australian). Even Rocket can conversationally speak 5 languages (English, Mandarin, Amharic, Arabic, and Spanish). It’s at times like this that I really wish I had put more effort in speaking Spanish during my academic years instead of just working for a grade.

Given that this is a common occurrence in Dubai, as part of my living abroad experience, I’m determined to be conversational in at least 2 additional languages (Spanish and Mandarin or Hindi) Why? Yes, I’m fortunate to have been born in a country whose primary language is spoken all over the world. So, no I don’t needto learn another language. However, the more I travel, the more I realize how powerful it is to connect with people in their own language. While on our honeymoon in Bali, Rocket and I made the effort to learn Bahasa Indonesia which enabled us to learn and experience much more of the local culture than we would have otherwise.

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Rocket practicing his Arabic with an Omani taxi driver in Muscat.

According to Rocket, learning a language isn’t as hard as you think (but mastering it probably is). Below are his keys to learning a language.

  • Don’t be embarrassed – The only way you can get better is through consistent practice. You might sound funny, but keep trying. As children learn to speak, they are rarely embarrassed due to mispronunciation! So act like a child!
  • How do you say…?The first phrase Rocket tries to learn is:  “How do you say?” It can be a confusing question to ask (in Bali, Rocket asked at least 20 times before he got the right answer – see below), but this one phrase it will open the door to learning new vocabulary and phrases.

Rocket: How do you say, “How do you say?” in Bahasa Indonesia?

Taxi driver: How do you say what?

Rocket: How… do… you… say?”

Taxi driver: What do you want to say?

Rocket: Let me try again. How do I ask the question, “How do you say?”

Taxi driver: *silence*

In case I forgot to mention it, persistence is also important.

  • Learn as you go – Instead of learning vocabulary and verb conjugation (Spanish class all over…), use Google translate to help you learn new phrases on the go. For example, we have friends who speak French. Instead of speaking in English when he calls, Rocket will sometimes look up the phrases and questions he plans to ask in French then practice while he is on the phone.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: It’s much easier to learn a language when you are immersed in it, forced to translate street signs and talk with non-English speakers. It becomes more difficult the more you are able to speak your native language. It’s important to seek opportunities to practice. Ethiopian restaurants, Chinese shops, and many helpful friends provide great free language practice for Rocket (and me) in Dubai! 

Next week, is Christmas, my favorite holiday! Instead of my usual Monday post, I will update you on Christmas Eve. Stay tuned!

  1. That was a fine read. I enjoyed the tie in of speaking many languages culturally as well as languages of the heart. I’m thinking how wonderful it would be to take the practice practice practice advice to the heart of relationships..

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