We've all experienced it, those of us attempting to express ourselves in new ways. How could it be possible the words coming out of our mouths are not understood by the people around us? Aren't we speaking the same language? And then we realize that maybe who we are has something to do with it.
Indeed it does.
This was the subject of conversation among a classroom community in Amman, Jordan, where I regularly observed the teaching of colloquial Arabic in 2014. Speaking in Jordanian Arabic, Erica, one of the students in the class, shares the frustration of having attempted to speak Arabic with a local.
According to Erica, this has been a consistent experience for her--using Arabic in the ways she knows how, only to be misrecognized as speaking English. Only, she presses on. Confronted with the signs of her counterpart's incomprehension, she responds to them in colloquial Jordanian Arabic, saying شو؟ [shoo?] or what? This way, she successfully avoids the use of English in her attempt to further the interaction. Her Arabic is the substance of her implicit resistance to being identified as a non-Jordanaian, Western woman.
In the next frame, Erica describes how her repeated use of Arabic is met with fledging recognition: "Oh! You speak Arabic!" comes the response.
Duh! That's how Erica feels, how everyone in the class feels. Of course they're speaking Arabic!
Not Just Arabic
Several researchers have explored the experiences of new speakers, particularly Western women, who attempt to speak with locals while abroad. More often than not, these Western women speaking Japanese (e.g., Siegal, 1996) or Swahili (e.g., Higgins, 2011) are not understood, and not expected to be speakers of these languages. In fact, these women explain how they seem to be speaking the unexpected, in proficiently using language within communities where they are viewed as outsiders.
By speaking languages they have acquired in adulthood, languages with close-knit, narrow geographical reach, or associated ideal speakers, these women were not, and could not, be seen as authentic speakers of Japanese or Swahili. For these reasons, these women would approach others using the local language, only to be misunderstood and misheard as speaking English or otherwise. For locals, these women's faces and appearance were not a clear match to voices in Japanese or Swahili.
Why Authenticity is Important
Through my embedded participant observation within the study abroad program in Amman, I realized that projecting authenticity in the new language was of the utmost importance to the program's clients--U.S. American learners of Arabic. These clients' goal, both individual and collective, was to be able to use Arabic fluidly and legitimately among local Jordanians. In many cases, their ability to use Arabic convincingly and with a wide range of colloquial vocabulary gained them entrée into social groups, romantic relationships, and nightlife among young Jordanians. These were the hidden (and not so hidden) benefits of successful intercultural communication in Amman.
Even as the language program (and many do) had the explicit priority of building learners' competence in formal modes of Arabic unusable in everyday activities of shopping, dining, chatting, and taking transport, learners promoted their own priorities. This included seeking opportunities to practice using colloquial Arabic, and developing expanded identities in Arabic. Through my extended research, I found that for these learners, using Arabic in these ways was a large component of their instrumental motivation. It brought immediate results: confirmation and reassurance of their developing language skills, and alternatively, clarification to where and how they locate within the identity politics of urban Amman.
Erica's story reveals that authenticity is not self-appointed. Rather, it is a reward bestowed by empowered speakers unto their counterparts, signaling approval and insider status in communicative competence. Our life's journey often intersects with our desires for authenticity, because this is part of our claim on who we are within any given context, whether we're learning a new language or not.