Language Learning Tip #22

Problem

“I don’t have much to talk about with local Arabs.”

First let me say, I certainly understand this problem.  I once sat in a conversation with some men who talked for 45 minutes straight about cell phones. And this was in the era before smart phones – all these phones could do was place calls! Cell phones are a very normal conversation topic for men in the Gulf, but it may not interest you or me.  Sticking to familiar and unthreatening topics of conversation is normal human behavior in every society.  Fortunately, you, as a foreigner, are not a normal human.  Therefore, you may be expected to behave somewhat abnormally and to introduce strange topics of conversation.  This is the value of a foreigner in any society.

Here is what I suggest.  Before you go visiting, make a list of topics you want to talk about.  I suggest that you usually focus on things that every local person would know something about, but that you as a foreigner do not.  You don’t want to embarrass people by asking about current events, geography, or anything that will show that you are the educated one!

These include:

Personal stories of the people.  (Here are a few examples about schooling.  I’m sure that If you sit and write, you can think of many more questions.)

  • What was school like for you as a child?
  • What games did you play?
  • What was your favorite teacher like?
  • What about the worst teacher?
  • How did you prepare for tests?
  • What was the most difficult subject?  Why?

Local history

  • How has life here changed in your lifetime?
  • How has this area developed in the last 5 (10, 20, 50) years?
  • What are some positive things that have changed?
  • What negative changes have come?
  • What were some of the most exciting events that have happened in this town? 
  • Is your family originally from here?  What was your home village known for?  
  • Why are there so many people here from ___?  What do people think of them? 

 – Local culture

  • How do young men here find a wife?
  • How would an older man find one?
  • How did your father and mother meet?
  • What is important to teach children?  Why?
  • How many children do you want to have?
  • How do you think boys and girls should be raised differently?

– Local stories

  • Who are some of the local leaders that people here have looked up to?  Why?
  • Are there any sad stories that you have heard lately?  Any happy local news?
  • Have you heard of any crimes that have happened here recently?  Long ago?
  • Do you know your neighbors?
  • What were some stories your father/grandfather told you?
  • Are there any stories you have heard recently that you just can’t believe?
  • Are there any stories that you heard and then found out later that it wasn’t true?

– Local wisdom

  • What’s the best place to buy ___?
  • How can I prevent being cheated?  Being robbed?  Being exploited?
  • Are there some kinds of favors that people usually ask for that I should do?  That I shouldn’t do?
  • What do people here usually think about people from my country?
  • When should I be generous or not generous?
  • What are some polite ways to refuse someone?
  • What should I do about people who come to my door asking for money?

These are only a few examples.  You should be able to think of many more.  To use questions effectively, you will need to:

  1. Write down the ones you want to use.
  2. Figure out how to ask them in Arabic.
  3. Take the questions with you when you visit.

I also recommend that you:

  1. Exchange your best questions with other learners who are doing the same thing.
  2. Ask the same questions repeatedly with different people of different ages, situations, etc.
  3. Keep your question notebook with you so that when good questions occur to you, you can write them down.
  4. When you listen to the answers, get in the habit of repeating the answers back to the speaker.  Summarize and check your comprehension.  This “active listening” is very fruitful for learning how to express things and getting them to restate things in ways you can understand.
  5. Keep most of your visits to under half an hour. You, as an “abnormal” visitor can bring interest into their lives, but talking to foreigners can also be tiresome if it goes on too long.

For your convenience, I have compiled a booklet of these types of questions that you can ask almost anyone. Inquire at GAP to get your copy.

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