Sabine is from Austin, TX and an alumna of the Arabic 2020 Virtual Summer Intensive program.

Before beginning Arabic with NSLI-Y, I started volunteering as an English tutor for Raneem, a Palestinian refugee living in Jordan. I was excited to meet someone in Jordan (where I would have travelled if we weren't amidst a pandemic) and do what I could to help her practice her English.

There was a catch though: I was a total beginner in Arabic. I knew a total of 6 words: chicken, good morning, and thank you. During our first lesson we tried to introduce ourselves, but Google Translate inevitably left both parties slightly confused. Raneem repeatedly told me where she was from, switching from Palestine to Jordan and back again. After some deliberation and struggle, she simply moved on.

The next few weeks were full of miscommunications like those, where we learned to smile, laugh, and continue on.

Midway through the summer I started learning Arabic with NSLI-Y. Suddenly I was the student, confused by the idaafa and infamous plurals, but excited nonetheless. I found that I loved Arabic, and studied as much as I could. However, when I logged onto my Zoom sessions with my language partners I prepared myself for the frustration of not being able to express myself in the way I wanted to.

Almost every week we circled around to the same question “Where is your family from?”

In theory, this is an appropriate question for a beginner in Arabic, requiring very limited vocabulary.

And yet I always froze. My dad is a born and raised Texan, but my mom was born in Chicago and grew up in both Florida and Colombia. Each of these experiences are important to her, and identifying as “Colombian-American” doesn’t cut it. I tried to piece together an explanation using words on the periphery of my vocabulary, like childhood and birthplace, but eventually would just say “America.”

I always chuckled after my answers, half-embarrassed and half-amused by my lackluster response. I usually will talk with anyone, about anything. If we have something in common, I’ll find it. I love learning about other people and it pained me to sit in silence while the details I left out swirled around me.

But the discomfort I experienced describing my heritage was probably minuscule to what Raneem felt. I couldn’t even imagine what she’d experienced the day of our first lesson, struggling to explain to me the nuances of where she’s from and where she now lives. My own identity crisis was nothing compared to that of a refugee.

While I was often uncomfortable in these conversations in my Arabic classes, they pushed me to re-evaluate why Arabic was important to me. I tackled each assignment, each cooking class, and each calligraphy lesson with a newfound goal: better communication with Raneem.

And I feel somewhat successful. We can now hold short conversations together in a mixture of English and Arabic, and slowly but surely we're learning more about each other. We can’t say much, but there’s still a mutual understanding between language learners. Even if the words of our relationship are limited, we both know there’s more to each other's stories.

I know it will be a long time before I go anywhere, let alone travel to Jordan like I would have this summer. And yet, I still feel like I’ve gained the same values on a virtual exchange as I would have in person: a greater appreciation for language as a mode for communication, both spoken and unspoken.