Before I became an expat, I never understood how foreigners living in the Netherlands could not speak Dutch after a few months. How could they get by without being able to ask for directions in Dutch or do their shopping without being able to read the labels on the products? Why didn't they put in some more effort?

Our first posting took us to Australia and although I had learned to speak and read English at school it was sometimes hard to understand the Aussie accent and typical Australian words. "Sorry?" must have been the word I used most in the first weeks, especially on the phone. We managed to get the hang of it after a while, but my attempts to speak Australian-English lead to many funny misunderstandings.

Our English took a whole other turn when we moved to Nigeria. Here we needed "pigeon". One morning my doorbell rang and the man at the door asked me if he could tap my light. Again "Sorry?" from my side every time he repeated his question. Then he decided to show this ignorant Oyibo what he wanted: he needed electricity for his drill to fix the door of our car port.

Now we live in Libya and I am ashamed to admit that my Arabic is appalling. I have had Arabic lessons for a few months when we arrived and learned to read and speak on a very basic level. Due to circumstances I had to stop with the lessons and never started again.

The "problem" is that it is possible to get by in Tripoli without speaking Arabic, because most people speak at least a little bit of English, Italian or French. I know my way around town, so I don't need to read the road signs and the labels on the products in the stores are mostly at least bi-lingual. Pointing at something and saying "Hada" is something I have mastered, besides Shukran, Afwan, greeting someone and asking how they are.

But it doesn't feel right. So I have taken up Arabic lessons again. Once a week I meet up with a friend and she teaches me Libyan Arabic. I am a slow learner (getting too old I am afraid), but I am trying, for I feel that if I expect people to learn Dutch when they live in my country, I should learn to speak Arabic now that I live in Libya.



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By Fokkelien Spaander

Sunday 23rd May 2010

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