Six of us were seated around the table, in the thick of a good German board game (about which, more in a coming blog post). We were playing and joking and speaking in casual, conversational English. Then it hit me that everyone but me spoke at least three languages. This was no foreign language teachers' convention. No. This was just a group of expat and local friends in Saudi Arabia.
Having the privilege to socialize with Saudis here is not one that everyone enjoys. I am fortunate that my husband and I live and work on a very international compound, so we have friends from all over the world. Still, the Saudis, while typically very friendly and welcoming to their expat work colleagues, often do not have much of a social life with us. Why would they? Family life is all-important in this culture, and their families are right here, not a 14-hour flight away, like mine is.
Therefore, I am grateful to be making friends with people who are of this culture and understand it in a way that I never will.
But I digress. We're talking about languages!
It's very common for Europeans to speak at least two languages, and I'm finding the same to be true--and then some--for the Middle Eastern people I've met. They speak their mother tongue (Arabic), and they speak English (because it's the language of business in the Middle East), and they also often speak a third language, depending on where they are from or where they went for their higher education. At our game table the other night, the group collectively spoke English, Arabic, Italian, German, Spanish, Hungarian, and Urdu.
Growing up Anglo in the United States, sheltered and far removed from the cacophony of world languages, it was always my impression that being bilingual is exotic. It's a fancy skill, like playing the piano. (Never mind the fact that a 2010 Census Bureau survey found that 37 million people in the U.S. use Spanish as their primary language.)
I am struggling to catch up, and can finally speak and read some Spanish. But it wasn't until I moved to an Arab-speaking country that I realized how common and how important it is to speak multiple languages--pick one, or several!--once you leave the isolation of the United States.