This is my story of how I found an online language buddy for a conversation exchange, which took me from feeling terrified of speaking a new language to having real conversations in that language.
My heart was pounding when I received the call.
Would they be offering me a job in the Middle East?
Yes! I’d done it! I danced around my room in excitement. I’d be moving from Spain where I was living at the time to Abu Dhabi in just a few weeks. Time to get packed.
Yet when I arrived, the reality wasn’t as I’d dreamed. The job was good, but I had several colleagues who didn’t speak English.
Honestly, I even felt lonely at times. I wanted to connect with my colleagues and feel like I could fit in.
I wanted to speak Arabic, I really did. I picked up an Arabic phrasebook and tried to learn what I could.
I Was Going Nowhere Fast
After three months I’d learned a few pleasantries from my phrasebook. But I was getting nowhere fast and I knew it.
Most of my colleagues had already studied English at school so they were delighted to practise their English skills with me, never giving a thought to the idea that I would be interested in learning Arabic, even though I told them repeatedly. I think they just didn’t believe me.
A few older colleagues had missed out on ‘English-as-a-second language at school’ and spoke no English at all, so I was very excited thinking I would be able to learn some language from them.
Could I Break the Ice?
I thought that if I could break the ice with them by learning a few basic phrases in Arabic I could show them I was willing to get to know them. They would then be more willing to accept me and this would enable me to have a small window to peek into their culture.
But that brought its own complications…
“Ooh, a Foreigner!”
I can only assume they were a little nervous about me and uncomfortable themselves when I was around, as I was unable to speak or understand a word of what was going on!
I knew how they felt, I really did, because I felt just the same at being around them. The feeling was mutual!
My older colleagues had not travelled abroad much, if at all, and some had not met any foreigners before. This clearly made them a little wary of this new-comer who couldn’t even speak a word in their language.
I Was Terrified…
But it wasn’t just them… It was me!
It didn’t help that I was totally embarrassed to utter the few words I had learned from my phrase book; I hadn’t even used these words or phrases on another human being. I was afraid in case the phrases wouldn’t work.
And so the doubts started queuing up inside my mind, like little dwarves with pick-axes, ready to ‘mine’ my confidence:
- What if the phrases didn’t work and the phrase book was a scam?
- What if they didn’t understand me?
- What if they laughed at me?
And then the worst fear…
What if they said something back to me, thinking I would understand?
Once these fears entered my mind, my confidence took a nosedive and I would be linguistically paralysed for the days at a time.
I was too frightened to open my mouth thinking I would make a fool of myself. Meanwhile my colleagues were scared off me by my inability to even make an effort in Arabic.
I was scared, no… terrified!
“Are You Avoiding Me?”
Looking back now I can see these colleagues just plain avoided me. No matter how hard I tried to sneak up on them in a coffee break or join them at their table for lunch, it was a no-go situation, a perfect vicious circle – the more I wanted to speak with them, the more they avoided me.
There was no doubt that I needed to practise my skills on real people to overcome the fear I had of being laughed at or worse.
But how would I do this?
A Language Buddy
Everything changed through a recommendation from an American couple living in the apartment next-door. They were more internet-savvy than me and the husband, Joe, had been directed to a website by his company to learn Arabic fast through conversation exchange. They were both using this service to talk to real people online.
The people they chatted with online were ‘language buddies’ – or online language partners. This was a free service, matching up those people who ‘swapped’ their native language skills with others; a conversation exchange service.
Those were the days when Skype was just becoming popular and almost the first video calling internet service around.
Oh yes, you were really cool and up-to-date if you had Skype then!
My New Friend Saeed
The whole idea of a ‘language buddy’ was innovative and completely new to me. I signed up that very next day. Well, to be honest, Joe had to lend me a hand and walk me through how to set up a Skype account and register with the programme.
Shortly after, I was paired up, online, with a gentleman from Egypt. And that’s how I met Saeed. He became my language buddy!
Saeed was married with two children, teaching history in a local school and had signed up to the conversation exchange in order to improve his English. We were a perfect linguistic match.
I must apologise to Saeed now, if he’s reading this, (which I doubt very much) because I spoke more Arabic and learned more than he did, only due to the fact he was so kind and gracious helping me out and patiently waiting for me to repeat the phrases he had prepared for me.
I committed to ten sessions with him and by the end of session five I was talking to his children in Arabic, asking their names, how old they were, if they liked school, and so on. Just about my level, right? But that was fine for me!
How cool was that?
I Helped With Saeed’s English Too
After thirty or forty minutes it was Saeed’s turn to practise English. We concentrated on his pronunciation mostly because he knew a lot of conversational English but his strong Arabic accent made him difficult to understand.
This ‘language buddy’ system was a perfect platform for me needing to practise Arabic with a real-life Arabic speaker and then for me to repay the service with conversational English practice.
I went from no-go situation to a win-win situation in a matter of weeks, literally!
The fact that Saeed could understand my simple utterances and that even his kids could too, gave me butterflies in my stomach. It was a wonderful feeling to know I was making a breakthrough and that I was approaching the day I would say something Arabic to my colleagues.
Just the mere fact that I was able to communicate with a native speaker of Arabic and be understood without them bursting into derisory laughter was an amazing achievement for me and I knew it was exactly what I needed.
Don’t get me wrong…the phrase books and the lists had helped, of course they did. I had a basic knowledge of the language, but the books and lists couldn’t really prepare me for the real world and real communication which was what I really needed then.
Did I Get What I Really Wanted?
All I had wanted to do was communicate, on even the most basic level, with my colleagues. I wanted to ask how they were, if they had children, where they lived, if they had any pets, if they enjoyed their job….
I wanted to show that I respected them enough to make efforts and learn their language.
What I hadn’t been able to do was get over the fear of seeming ridiculous in their eyes.
Speaking to Saeed was real and that’s what made the ‘real’ difference to my language learning then.
That’s what a conversation exchange is all about: Real communication, human, face-to-face, in context, for only as long as you both agree to.
With my newfound confidence and a few well-practised phrases under my belt, I was prepared to go into battle…
But the battle gear wasn’t necessary, at all.
Back to Work!
Back at work, it only took a few light-hearted sentences that I had practised with Saeed, before we were all laughing; me included this time, at my simple questions, at my British accent, at not finding the right word or not pronouncing things correctly.
What fun we all had and it was a truly empowering experience for me.
We were communicating, on a very basic level, but it was still communicating between languages, countries… and cultures. We were communicating as intelligent human beings, all with a basic desire to be seen, to be heard, to be respected but most of all, to have fun!
I just love languages!
To think I had been too scared to attempt to say anything when I first arrived at that job.
Had I been too embarrassed and paranoid about my own language ability?
Yes, I certainly had!
But I’d overcome that, and that’s something I’m really proud of.