A Lesson In Language - Sarah Soliman

With every language a person gains, often one loses a level of sophistication. It is natural and normal especially in the early phases of learning a language. When one first starts out with a new language, they learn the basics and slowly work their way into more complicated sentences, colloquial phrases and comfort with the way the words sound in their voice. This is all fine until that lack of sophistication is understood to mean that the person is less intelligent due to their basic language skills, even if it’s their second or third language. Over time this can grow tiresome, especially if one is constantly spoken to as if they were less intelligent.

This was something I saw all too frequently due to language barriers. However I was lucky. My first language is Arabic, the same language for many refugees on the island of Samos and for beneficiaries of Samos Volunteers. But it is a language that not too many volunteers have had the opportunity to master. What I did not realize at first was that I offered an outlet for people to regain their power over their language. To express how they feel and what they think in the most organic way possible; to speak in the way that felt most natural to them. The connection with people was instant and profound.


You see, when people are unbothered by the questions of grammatical correctness they speak fluidly and quickly. This is a rare privilege in a space where your language can disadvantage you. Often times I found myself silent and in awe because I didn’t really have to say much. I would just listen to the lyrical stories about family, professional careers, hardships, successes, dreams, and aspirations. I established trust by asking them to repeat themselves if I didn’t catch something, and with this my storyteller could always tell I was captivated. Our conversations would get cut short only because I would get caught being late to my next shift. Once conversations started, they flowed like waterfalls and time would stop.

I felt this in particular when people made jokes. By sharing a common language, and thus cultural background, I noticed there are jokes that are untranslatable. Jokes that made us laugh so hard the ground shook beneath us. The way people shined when they cracked a joke that only we understood… it struck a whole different chord.

For one to be funny in multiple languages is a skill that is severely under appreciated, it demonstrates an elevated understanding of culture, language, and society. But how is it that in Alpha we are always laughing despite so many different spoken languages? There is one common language that we all know very well (and, no, I’m not talking about English). It is the language of love and respect. We all love what we do, and we respect all of our differences. If something is only funny in Arabic, then we will teach you the Arabic way of telling that joke. Now it’s a joke for all of us and we can laugh about it together. If something is only funny in French, then I will learn the French way of telling that joke. Might I butcher the pronunciation? In the beginning, I absolutely will. But offering empowerment through language is exciting and crucial in our daily work.

Love and respect know no borders. They know no nationality. They can be translated into any language and adapted into any culture. Though I came into Alpha knowing Arabic, I leave knowing that even if myself and someone else have not a single word in common, I can still communicate that I care and that I’m here to help in any way that I can. I just have to get a little creative in my way of showing it.

Samos Volunteers