Written by Tomas Gordo-Churchill (Northwestern University), Student Correspondent for CET Jordan, Spring 2023
By this point in the study abroad experience, after four weeks in the intensive learning environment of CET, your language ability will have increased more than you ever could imagine in the US. You will actually be speaking Arabic, one of the most difficult languages in the world. Of course, you will also be making mistakes, a lot of them, but that initial cringe eventually fades away and you will get to the point of understanding and being understood by native Jordanians.
You will start feeling a connection to this place, but more important to the people that so kindly share their city with you. For me, this is one of the most gratifying feelings as language learner. You break through the barrier of culture, language, and distance and reach a common understanding with a person from a completely different background, even if it requires them to repeat themselves a few times.
Our Arabic class had the chance to eat and chat with a Jordanian
Nonetheless, despite having some semblance of conversational fluency, you still need to find people to converse with, and meeting new people in any new city is challenge. Afterall, what is the point of learning to speak a language if you don’t have friends to speak with? Yes, there are your peers in CET, your teachers, and your Jordanian neighbors, but how you do you break out of that so called “American bubble” and get to know the people from here. Luckily, from my experience here I discovered three easy, simple ways to make the friends you’ll need to improve your fluency in Jordan.
Join a Group or Team
One of the easiest ways to meet people is by doing something you love to do with others that enjoy the same. This is true in any context, but especially when you’re in a foreign country and grasp of the language is still at its early stages, any way to find a shared passion will bring you so much closer to the people and culture.
Finding a group activity is a shortcut to an instant connection without any conversation, as you’ll automatically have something in common with the others. Whether it be soccer, painting, or going to religious service everyone there will be doing something that they love. That way, you can start the conversation in an environment that’s comfortable, and if you continue going, those conversations lead to a genuine friendship with someone from a different country.
Personally, I found this through boxing. I knew it was a sport I wanted to continue training and practicing regardless of the people I met; however, when I registered for the gym, I signed up for a community as well. Between the coach and the other boxers, those cultural differences I felt as an American dissipated. That “me and them” perspective transformed into just “us” in the gym.
My friend and sparring partner Qeis working on his technique while we train together
On top of that, each day I go, I learn new vocabulary such as when my sparring partner called me a wahash, or beast, our first practice session. After that, we soon became friends that talk even after practice. Which goes to show if you’re already doing something you enjoy, it won’t feel like you’re working to meet people. Instead, your hobby will lead you to new friends.
Travel and Explore
You’re in a Jordan, a novel place that offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so travel is must. Go out and explore thousand-year-old ruins and the hidden treasure troves of history and culture that are nonexistent in the US, but while doing so, every turn you take will bring someone interested in who you are and your story as an American in Jordan.
From the Uber to sitting in the café, there will be Jordanians in every corner that will want to talk to you if you just get out of your apartment, especially if you speak Arabic with them. The desire for cultural exchange, or at least interest in something different, is hardwired into us, so it’s important to be exposed to new environments to take advantage of it.
One of the many selfies we took with Nadal after we arrived at our destination in Um Qeis
For example, in me and my friends’ trip to Irbid, a town 80 kilometers away from Amman, our Uber driver, Nadal, joined our journey to the ruins of Um Qeis. It all started when he let me pick a song, which lead to another, and another until Nadal played Shakira’s “Waka Waka this Time for Africa”. This spontaneous symphony sparked not only showcased our good taste in music it started a friendship even after we arrived at our destination.
Although our trip had ended in the Uber app, he drove us until the very edge of the Jordanian Border, where we took pictures together and spent a half an hour together touring the Sea of Galilee. Afterwards he drove us back to the Irbid bus station, during which he shared photos of his family, and once we arrived, he nearly refused our attempts to pay him for the extra time he spent us with us.
Not only is this an example of the kindness of many Jordanians, it also shows what little it takes if you get out and explore the country instead of staying in your apartment. Every ride you take in a taxi or Uber is an opportunity to make a connection with someone, and at the least, excellent practice for your Arabic. Along with the new phrases and vocabulary you’ll pick up, you’ll build your confidence for the next conversation that comes along, which is more important than any rote memorization if you want to become fully fluent in the language.
Finally, the heart of Arab culture is the family. As foreigners it’s somewhat difficult to enter the somewhat private space of a family’s home. It’s the best glimpse you’ll get into authentic Jordanian life, yet how does one get such an invitation? The best is to take advantage of the connections CET already provides: your language partners and even your teachers. They will want to invite you into their homes, so the best thing to do is just say yes.
In my experience, I had the opportunity through both my language partner and a class field trip to my teacher’s house to visit her family. The first thing I wish I was prepared for was the amount of food they offer. I had to be careful to finish my plate too soon as to not invite another generous portion. Despite the meals’ dangerous quantity that almost made my stomach explode, I enjoyed quality conversation with a wide range of perspectives I wouldn’t normally hear outside the intimacy of someone’s home. Between the jokes we cracked together, I got to hear from multiple generations, from high school to my grandma’s age. Then I got to watch TV and play backgammon with my language partner’s family, and strangely, I felt like part of the family after such a genuine welcome.
You can see my excitement after seeing the Dolma, or stuffed grape leaves, set out for lunch
All of these experiences depended on the people I met, to make them what they were. Of course, I’ve seen ancient Roman ruins and Byzantine mosaics, but the most defining moments of my time here in Jordan have been the conversation. That’s why it crucial to make those steps to start a dialogue because it might lead you to a friend you never would’ve expected and a better appreciation of the people that are hosting you. Although making that first step might be difficult, I hope now you’ll know what direction to take.