I’m basically illiterate

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This is my name written in Arabic.  You read it from right to left.  I took an Arabic class during the months of October, November, and December.  I learned to write the entire Arabic alphabet and could read short words.  Seven months after this class, this is the only word I can still write.

About 4 years ago while living in North Carolina, I taught a little Vietnamese boy named Benny.  Benny’s parents had recently moved to the USA.  Benny’s father came to me with some of the papers I sent home explaining classroom procedures at the beginning of the year.  He said he couldn’t read English.  He needed me to tell them what the papers said.    I remember feeling sympathy for this poor man who moved his family to the USA without a basic ability to read.  I made the mistake of misjudging him as a poor, uneducated man. In time, I learned that Benny’s father was an educated professional back in his country and he spoke at least 3 languages in addition to English.  He simply did not READ English.  He and his wife felt the benefits of a life in America made overcoming the obstacle of basic literacy worthwhile.

This is a welcome sign at Changi Airport in Singapore. English is an international language of aviation.  Most airports have signs in both the local languages and English.

Looking back, I’ve come to admire this particular parent and the many others like him whom I have encountered over the years.  They showed up to support their children in spite of language barriers and cultural differences.  I really appreciate their examples now, because I have become like them.  I have chosen to take on life in new places with no ability to read or speak the local language.  It’s lead me to be more openminded about this subject as a whole.

the grocery store name is written here with Arabic on top and English below


How does one navigate another land without being able to read local signs?  I was born with one huge advantage.  English is my first language.  It only takes a bit of travel in cities with major tourism to understand why this is an advantage.  English has become a very international language. I haven’t traveled to many places where I couldn’t find anyone who could communicate with me in simple English terms.

I lived in Kuwait for 2 years.  Many want to know if I can now speak Arabic and the answer is NO.  I never really had to.   Many of the Arab people that I knew spoke English. Foreigners living in Kuwait outnumber the native Kuwaitis 3:1.   With people living in the country in mass numbers from all over the world, the language that was most commonly spoken was English.  I did learn basic words and phrases while living there.  I even continue to sprinkle some of them in my daily conversations.  However, when reading highway signs, names of stores at the mall, and restaurant signs, Arabic was usually paired with English.

This bilingual system makes me a bit more understanding of native Spanish speakers living in the USA.  In my past, I wondered why immigrants didn’t learn English after living in America for years. If you consider areas like my former home in Raleigh, North Carolina, Spanish is widely spoken and it isn’t really necessary to master fluent English. Additionally, language acquisition, though not impossible,  is very difficult for adults. I find myself envying my young students who seem to be able to learn 2nd and 3rd languages with ease.

street signs in Thailand
a menu in Dutch with just enough English to confuse me

I believe it is really important to try to learn basic greetings and important words when visiting a new country.  I try to do this before traveling to a new place.  However, I must admit that sometimes my English is a big, reliable crutch.  After I’ve exhausted my knowledge of the few words that I have learned in a local language, I revert right back to the familiar and find that many times locals can help me in my first language.  I would probably learn a bit more of other languages if I needed them for daily survival.

Sometimes it’s really scary to not be able to read or speak a local language.  I feel like it is important to say this.  There was an incident in Egypt when my friend and I agreed to share a taxi with another tourist who was heading in the same direction.  The other tourist, who happened to speak Arabic like the taxi driver, began arguing with driver about the price.  He and the driver got into a yelling match outside of the car.  My friend and I just wanted to grab our luggage and find another taxi before the men’s fighting escalated.   I can also recall a time in Thailand when I realized that my hotel did not accept credit cards and I didn’t have enough cash to pay them.  The front desk worker told me in a mix of Thai and a few English words that I was to get in a truck with a man.  It turns out that the man took me to an ATM machine to withdraw the cash for the hotel.  He was even kind enough to take me to my destination for the day.  However, the fact that neither of us could speak more than a few phrases in the other’s language made this situation pretty unnerving.

A Coke can in Greece.  Greek letters look nothing like English.  The trademark Coca Cola symbol is recognized around the world.

Here is what I appreciate about language barriers….They can be overcome.  Sometimes I have to depend on my poor second language abilities.  Sometimes I use a combination of signals and pointing to make purchases.  Sometimes I reach out to others in English and experience the kindness that they show me when figuring out a subway train system or directions overseas.  But overall, there hasn’t been any incident so terrifying that I just wanted to race back home to America forever.

Whatever they were selling at this night market in Phuket cost 15 baht


This sign in Thailand was translated into 4 languages.

I’m moving to Istanbul soon.  I hear that English is widely spoken in the tourist areas, but not used very much outside of those areas.  I guess I need to get serious about learning Turkish.  Wish me luck!

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