Arabic Language Blog

My First Embarrassing Encounter with Arabic Native Speakers at the Airport Posted by on Jul 18, 2013 in Arabic Language, Culture

Marhaba! You cannot imagine how many times I practiced speaking Arabic with my parents in the United States before my first trip to Beirut to meet family and close relatives. Even when I was just a child I made it a point to always speak Arabic with my parents. What kind of Arabic was I speaking? Well let’s just say I knew basic expressions (عبارات) and introductions (مقدّمات). Regardless of my limited speaking (تكلم), writing (كتابة) and reading (قراءة) abilities, I thought that all this practice would allow me to converse with my family in Lebanon without any hassle. I especially wanted to impress my grandparents and show them that speaking Arabic fluently was possible even though we were living the U.S. and had minimal interaction with an Arabic speaking community. My goal was not to only speak Arabic, but also to speak it following the Lebanese dialect (اللّهجة اللّبنانية).After hours and hours of flying across the Atlantic (الأطلسي) and over Europe, our plane finally landed. I felt that I spent centuries preparing for this moment. What are the first words that will come out of my mouth? Will they be ‘Marhaba’ (مرحبا)? ‘Sabah el Kheir (صباح الخير)?’ All different kinds of Arabic expression phrases were at the tip of my tongue. My only problem was that I memorized them according to a certain sequence. For example, if I were to say ‘Marhaba’ it will have to follow automatically with ‘keefak?’ (كيفك؟) and then with ‘alhamdulillah’ (الحمدللّله). Even if the person was having a bad day, I could expect that he/she would say ‘alhamdulillah.’ I also asked my mom to teach me phrases like ‘we’ve missed you…’ (اشتقنا لكم) and ‘why don’t you visit us in the US?’ (لماذا لا تزورونا في الولايات المتحدة؟) In my mind and heart I wanted to impress my grandparents and I felt that I can easily communicate in Arabic by starting off with ‘Marhaba’ to ‘why don’t you visit us in the US’ without any interruption. Boy, I was devastatingly wrong and mistaken…! I was not prepared to steer in another direction if someone was to reply in a different sequence or was to reply something different than what I expected. When I look back I can only laugh and laugh that this limitation was my first embarrassing encounter in learning Arabic and one that I will always remember.


After we got off the plane to get our luggage, we then had to head to customs (الجمارك) as the last security checkpoint before meeting the family for the first time and what I perceived as my awaiting audience. I felt that everyone was waiting to meet and greet me in person and then as the center of attention I will have my chance to utter my sequence of phrases and sentences. My innocent mind pushed me to take the initiative to converse with a customs officer. What better way to improve your language skills than by practice? So all of my sudden I approach the customs officer (شرطي الجمارك) and utter my sequence of Arabic phrases and words. Well I did say ‘Marhaba’ to the officer and ‘keefak?’ and ‘hope all is well’ which were all perfectly fine when meeting anyone. The funny part and embarrassing encounter was when I continued to express to the officer that ‘I missed him…’ and then by questioning why he doesn’t come visit us in the US. Obviously the officer burst in laughter and everyone around followed in the same path. I stood there traumatized not knowing what to say. My mom said that when I say ‘why don’t you visit us in the US,’ the answer would be something else but not laughter.


What this experience taught me was that the fear of making a mistake in front of family forced me to memorize a certain sequence of words and phrases which did not make sense and was not appropriate to everyone. I did not want anyone laughing at me or making fun of the way I pronounce words so I felt that if I were to speak a lot then I would impress and relieve myself from any scrutiny. What this first embarrassing encounter taught me was part of learning a new language is taking an obvious risk, that mistakes are prone to happen and are unavoidable, and that we should not worry about people making fun or laughing at the way we say things. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, it’s part of the learning process. The way of learning a new language is similar to walking for the first time. We fall down a couple of times as we learn to walk and with practice we begin to run, jump and play sports. Just like learning to walk or practicing any sport, there are always occasions to make mistakes but with practice we limit the recurrence of such blunders.

This is my embarrassing encounter in learning Arabic. What’s yours?

Stay tuned for upcoming posts.

Have a nice day!

نهاركم سعيد

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About the Author: jesa

Salam everyone! Born as an American to two originally Arab parents, I have been raised and have spent most of my life in Beirut, Lebanon. I have lived my good times and my bad times in Beirut. I was but a young child when I had to learn to share my toys and food with others as we hid from bombs and fighting during the Lebanese Civil War. I feel my connection to Arabic as both a language and culture is severing and so it is with you, my readers and fellow Arabic lovers, and through you that I wish to reestablish this connection by creating one for you.