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Earlier this week, I took some Iraqi friends to a public health clinic. This is the family I mentioned in an earlier post, the ones who don’t speak English.

Only the parents had appointments, but they brought the 2 year old as a matter of course. The 6 year old sat in the apartment and cried big silent tears because her mother was leaving. “She can come,” I told them, “but she’ll have to sit with me in the waiting room.”

And so, as I sat flipping through an old New Yorker (but new to me! And who knew that public health had better reading material than most doctor’s offices?) while the adults were in the back with a translator, I kept an eye on the two girls. They were playing with those toys they have at doctor’s offices, the kind where you push the wooden beads on wires shaped into corkscrews and loops and squirls. I don’t know what they’re called but I’m sure you’ll enlighten me.

I realized that the 6 year old was teaching her sister English. “Ready set go!” she said. Actually, it was more “rad, sit, goo” and it took me a moment to recognize what she was saying. “Ready, set, go!” I repeated for her, reinforcing her pronunciation because of the whole once-a-teacher-always-a-teacher thing, and she rewarded me with a brilliant smile. Later, she ran in a circle around the small table and hit her sister on the head. “Duck, duck, goose!” she shouted. I attempted to stop her hitting her sister on the head—what must they think of these violent American games?—but I soon relaxed, as the toddler laughed and laughed and obviously wasn’t hurt.

This, too, is how my kids learned language—first on the playground, then in the classroom.  There was probably some head-bashing involved too, considering that I have 2 boys close in age. When we first lived in Mauritania, they’d come home and play cache-cache loup (hide ‘n seek) or sing silly little songs. It took them a while to catch up in the classroom, in spite of what everyone said about how quickly kids learn new languages. My experience is: they do, yes, but at the same time, it takes them a while to get thoroughly comfortable and truly fluent. They lag behind their peers, because they are double-learning in the classroom—learning French vocab AND science or math or whatever the subject is.  Even now, I would say my kids have gaps in their French, caused simply because they don’t hear the adult version, since Donn and I speak English in the house.

Language is a funny thing. All the nuances of communication can be lost even between two native speakers—how much more where one or more is communicating as one swims for the first time in deep water, floundering, getting much but missing more, unable to relax. Small words change meaning completely.  When I speak with this family, we communicate (I should put this in quotes) in a funny mish-mash of Arabic, English, and gesture. Mostly gesture.

For example, arranging this appointment. I spoke with the receptionist at the clinic on the phone, and she told me how happy she was that I was there for her to talk with. We arranged a time, and then I was able to tell them, in Arabic, “Tuesday at 4:30.” I repeated this about 14 times, because such is the level of our communication.

“Mauritanians don’t speak Arabic,” the father tells us as we stumble around with our limited Hassiniya, which is the Arabic dialect spoken in Mauritania. We try out a proverb that we know in both Hassiniya and Dareja, the Moroccan dialect, but they don’t understand either, so we give up and go back to discussing days of the week and numbers, which are the same in all 3 dialects.

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