Living In a Foreign Language

Cairo, Egypt

I had completely forgotten how exhausting it is to live in another language!

Way back when I was a ROTEX helping to host an Inbound weekend for Rotary Youth Exchange Scholars, two French girls took me aside in a very nervous, confidential manner. “We’re very worried,” they said. “Back in France, we get up at 6am, go to school, go out with our friends after dinner for beers, go clubbing, come back at 3am, and do it all again the next day. We get less than 4 hours of sleep a night, and we’re not tired. Here in America, we go to bed at 8pm, sleep through the night, and are still exhausted all the time! We’re worried that there’s something seriously wrong with us!” So I explained to them that this is not unusual when you live in a country that speaks a different language than you do. Even if you think you’re not doing much, your brain is working in overtime to process what you hear, and it’s exhausting.

I can hardly believe that was ten years ago. How many immersion programs have I been in since that time? But I had completely forgotten what it was like, perhaps because I’ve been living an Arab country (Jordan) for two years without living in the Arabic language. In Amman, I worked as an English teacher, lived with English-speaking roommates, and spending my time with friends who, even though many of them are Arabs, preferred to speak in English.

Here in Egypt, though, as much as I am addressed in English in the streets, I spend hours and hours every day sitting in Arabic classes, particularly Modern Standard Arabic classes, a level of immersion I’m totally unaccustomed to, and I’m sleeping longer hours and still being more tired each day! It’s just as well that our classes are only 4 days a week, because I think more would likely burn me out!

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