If you’ve never been in a situation where everyone around you speaks a different language, where the man at the post office is talking at rapid-fire speed and you can’t understand a thing, where you try to speak in basic word clusters but nobody can understand your accent, where “communication” is just one humiliating blunder after another, I’m about to tell you what it’s like.
After living here for four months, I can get by with the Albanian that I know, meaning that I can carry out basic tasks such as introducing myself, ordering at restaurants, and giving directions to a furgon driver. Anything more complicated than that is trouble, especially if it’s a subject I’m not familiar with. As is the case with all languages I’ve learned, my strongest skill is pronunciation, and I’ve picked up most of the non-verbal communication common amongst Albanians (shaking your head while someone is talking to show that you understand, wagging your index finger and making a clicking noise with your tongue to say no, etc). These two simple strengths help my broken, simplistic, grammatical-error-ridden Shqip sound less flagrantly awful. I also have dark, thick, wavy hair, dark eyes, and olive-ish skin, which makes me seem “Shqiptare” as I’ve been told by many people. In fact, I regularly have brief interactions with Albanians during which they don’t pick up on the fact that I’m foreign at all. If and when these interactions become less-than-brief, and the person I’m talking to starts speaking quickly (which is a problem because listening is by far my weakest language skill), I just stand there with a blank expression like this:
At this point in the conversation, people who still think I’m Albanian assume that I’m just an idiot. After I explain that I’m American and I’ve only been here for four months, something clicks and they realize I’m not a native speaker. They can then respond in one of two fashions:
1) Get really annoyed because I can’t understand the first time they say something and give up and/or put me down for not being fluent (which makes me feel like an actual idiot), or
2) Try harder to communicate by slowing their speech, reverting to simpler sentences, and miming words with Charades-like movements to help me.
I’ve noticed that there is a night-and-day difference between not understanding at all and understanding completely depending on which of these tactics Albanian speakers use, and just about every person I’ve spoken with so far falls into either the Type 1 or Type 2 categories. Perfect example: my host parents. My host mom speaks faster than I thought humanly possible. Even other Albanians, including her own children, have a hard time understanding her at first. I had no clue what this woman was saying to me for about 85% of the ten weeks I lived there. She would be yapping away in the kitchen, then glance over to get my response, and when I would timidly reply, “Përsërite, të lutem?” (Repeat, please?) she would roll her eyes, laugh at me, and say, “S’kupton,” (You don’t understand.) then go back to whatever it was she was doing.
My host dad studied abroad in Germany for two years when he was younger. He knows what it’s like to live in an unfamiliar place, to be challenged in every simple conversation, to constantly feel like an idiot. (Not only does he have a strong, clear voice, he knows how to slow the f@%& down!) If I didn’t understand something the first time, he would repeat it, then rephrase it, then stand up and act it out, then get his glasses from the hallway and pull out my Albanian-English dictionary and point to a sequence of words and repeat the question again. This way, we were able to have lengthy, detailed conversations about family, politics, international relations, cultural differences, you name it. All this was possible because he was able to sympathize with my situation, and simply just because he tried a little harder.
Last week some of my neighbors kindly invited me over for coffee. I sat in my neighbor Nijë’s living room with three other ladies who live in my pallati building. We had a round of Turkish coffees with candied dates and cookies that I baked as an extra treat. These women were very affectionate, curious, and (of course) hospitable as they asked me a stream of questions, listening carefully through my Western accent. They smiled as I explained that, though I was grateful for the offer, I was not interested in marrying any of their sons. (Thankfully, they all laughed afterwards and explained that they were joking.) At times the conversation would pick up speed and I would have a harder time following them. My comprehension went something like this:
“……….her brother…Wednesday…….underneath(?)…in Durrës…[something in the ablative case ending]…..Oh, God! Where is…….[indistinguishable sound]…..from the car? Blah blah blah blah…” At this point my brain quits on me because it’s working too hard. Periodically, my downstairs neighbor Yllka would ask me, “Katjë, a kupton?” (Kate, do you understand?) And I would reply, sheepishly, that I did not. Then Yllka would explain slowly, clearly, non-judgmentally, what was going on as the other ladies jabbered.
Nijë’s husband emerged from the bedroom about 1.5 hours into the conversation, obviously awoken from his pufshim nap (kinda like the Albanian version of a siesta). He shook my hand vigorously, then started barking questions at me. His wife gently explained, “She’s American. She doesn’t speak Italian.” So then he switched to Shqip. He might as well have been speaking Italian, though, because I didn’t catch a thing.
Yllka stood and chastised the man, pointing her index finger indignantly: “She is from America! She is a guest in our country. You have to speak slowly or else she won’t understand. It is hard to understand a different language. She needs practice, and you must be patient or else she will not learn.” It goes without saying that the world would be a better place with more Yllkas.
I’m lucky to have a community of ladies in my own home who understand what life is like for me, people who will be patient and try a little harder to help me feel included. But I couldn’t help but think of the way I treated people who did not speak English well in America. I want to say that I was patient, that I was a Type 2, but I can’t say for sure. I complained about the Chinese exchange students who couldn’t pronounce “telephone” when I worked at the front desk in the dormitories during college. I made exasperated faces at co-workers when I had to repeat myself over an over to a Persian student on the phone. I didn’t bother greeting customers at previous jobs because I knew they spoke Spanish instead of English. And come to think of it, I had very few friends in America who did not speak English well because it was just too much effort. Why don’t they speak my language already?! Why didn’t they magically become fluent in English before they came to my country? Are they so lazy that they won’t learn?
I’d like to make a plea to my fellow Americans back home: Don’t be Type 1. Don’t be a jerk. There are 196 countries in the world and almost 7,000 spoken languages. If you come across someone who does not happen to speak the same language as you, maybe think of Poor Little Ol’ Me in Albania and how I feel when the guy at the post office laughs at me when I’m just trying to get my package, which has delicious peanut M & M’s inside. Sure, you are inconvenienced when you can’t communicate. But the other person is too. I can tell you from personal experience: it’s frustrating, it’s intimidating, it’s discouraging. So be kind. Be patient. Just try a little harder.
We’re Americans. We work hard. We can do this.