First, you will learn “hello” and “thank you.” For weeks, you will marvel at just how far you can get with those two bits of speech, how people smile at you for attempting their native tongue.
You will learn the word for “foreigner,” hearing it constantly from young children and old ladies as you pass them on the street.
You will learn how to say “how are you?” You will learn “good” and, later, “tired.” It will be months before you learn any other possible answers to that question. It will be half a year before you learn that here, they don’t do the “how are you? Fine thank you” small talk of your home country.
You will buy a textbook, phrasebook, and/or dictionary. You will camp out in coffeeshops on afternoons off, learning materials in hand, hoping someone will approach you and offer some conversation practice.
On the bus, you will eavesdrop on bickering couples, giggling schoolgirls, businessmen on the phone with their wives. You will rake over each sentence in your mind, cheering on the inside when you recognize a word. Those words will be the simplest nouns, “house” or “friend” or “food.”
You will learn to ask “how much is this?” long before you learn the numbers necessary to explain a price. Most salespeople and waiters have calculators on hand anyway, to punch out the number and show you.
You will learn three different ways of saying “okay,” but still, “okay” will be the first word out of your mouth when you’re agreeing with someone.
You will learn how to order food, order beer, buy chocolate bars from the corner shop.
You will learn how to say “I like _________,” and spend days milking this milestone, rattling off lists to cab drivers and market vendors. “I like Michael Jackson.” “I like Santa Claus.” “I like beer.”
You will not learn the days of the week or months of the year. You will not learn to tell time. You will not learn any numbers past 10. You will not be able to translate “head, shoulders, knees and toes.” Not for months and months.
If you’re an ESL teacher, you will learn “sit down” and “be quiet.” You will learn “textbook,” “pencil,” and “eraser.” When the students all chirp a word proudly, waving worksheets in the air, you will deduce that it means “finished.”
Your peers will keenly teach you swear words. Before you can count to ten, you will know how to say f**k, sh*t, f**k off, and at least one nasty line about someone’s mother.
You will learn “I don’t want” after being approached by aggressive vendors in the market, or children selling roses on the street. You will learn that there’s no point trying to say it politely.
You will learn “delicious,” and say it happily after every meal.
You will learn “I love you,” and smile every time you hear a voice whisper this to another in an unassuming crowd.