Integration and immigrants. Two words that are strongly associable just like chocolate and women or Muslim parents naming their firstborn boy “Mohamed”. Integration is defined as “the act of blending a racial or religious group with an existing community” and it can be subdivided in several categories. The most important factor of integration is speaking the native tongue. In this article, I will mainly write about some of my struggles to learn the Flemish language when I first arrived in Belgium, where I am still living.
One of the first Flemish words I heard was “negenhonderdnegenennegentig” (the number nine hundred and ninety-nine). I was a young kid (9 years old) and my first impression was: “Is this person having some issues with his throat?” So you can imagine how funny/strange the Flemish language sounds to foreigners. So, I was thrown into the lion cage and I started learning Flemish. They put me in ‘language classes’ for one year and afterwards decided to place me in the third grade, primary school, instead of fourth so I could keep up with the rest. I remember watching television and repeating the words those people were saying to improve my articulation skills. I always had a small dictionary (Flemish to English) to help me understand the meaning of the words. Furthermore, I used to start a conversation with strangers even though I was mostly ridiculed. But, it did not stop me of educating myself. Why? Because I did not want to be left out of the group. I wanted to communicate and to tell my stories without using hand signs like Italians.
Even though I have now acquired enough knowledge to speak the Flemish language, I still try to observe my surroundings and learn new words, grammatical rules and pronunciations. You know, I just figured out that “The window” is translated in Flemish as “Het raam” and not “De raam”. I am just joking. But seriously, is there anything worse than figuring out which article you have to use for certain words?
The difficulties of learning a new language, demonstrates the heavy burden of overcoming the first obstacle of integration. That is why I admire the people who try their best to learn a new language. I have been through the same struggle too. Nevertheless, learning the native language is highly recommended. You cannot live in a country and not be able to communicate verbally. Our beloved prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) has urged us to search for knowledge and learning the language is a valuable asset to achieve that. So no one should have an excuse to not learn the language. BUT, you always have exceptions. Some people have experienced so much traumas in their lives that as a result, they lack the same enthusiasm and determination I had to learn a new language. Furthermore, seniors tend to have more difficulties to learn a new language. My uncle once said: “You cannot rerecord on an old cassette”. Yes, if you remember what cassettes look like, then it is time for you to marry.
Beside the language difficulties, I also had to “learn” the European/Belgian/Flemish culture. And no, I am not talking about eating pork and drinking beer, because -you know- it is not allowed. I am referring to simple values such as etiquettes. For example, in my motherland, Somalia for those wondering, it is costumed to eat with the right hand. So you can visualize the priceless expression of my first teacher when he saw me eating rice with my right hand instead of using a spoon.
And as a grand finale, I inherited the “sky is the limit” ego by continuously underlining the greatness of my home town, the diamond city or better known as Antwerp: Antwerp is THE one true city in Belgium and the rest is just a parking spot.