Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Learning Arabic: My New Life as a Kindergartener.

Learning Arabic: My New Life as a Kindergartener.

After I stumbled onto the notion of learning Arabic, I found myself telling people, “I already speak Spanish and I am pretty good at learning languages. Arabic can’t be that hard.” I had no idea what I was talking about, learning a new language is really hard. It is clear to me now that I had totally forgotten how much of a bummer it was to learn Spanish. It took me four years of struggling through high school, two years of feeling outclassed in college, and a year abroad in Spain to reach a level of semi-fluency. And now I am in Cairo, cramming my head full of hard to pronounce words and peculiar sentence structures. Arabic is haunting me. All too often I become aware that I have, for the last hour,  been, unconscious, muttering an eclectic blend of miscellaneous words and overheard phrases that I do not understand. This rambling affliction is persistent, but my teachers have made it clear that this is “a normal part of the learning process.” Their reassurances are unnerving and suspicious.
My efforts to learn Arabic have landed me in an interesting situation. I had imagined after the first month I would be thumbing through novels and talking politics over coffee and shisha. This is not the case. During the first two weeks of Arabic class, I was transformed from a twenty-four year old college graduate into a kindergartener. I spent my days learning the ABCs, and writing from right to left. The only difference between elementary Arabic class and kindergarten is sleep deprivation.
The Arabic alphabet has twenty-eight letters, three of which are vowels, and a glottal stop. Many of the letter sounds, especially the vowels, are essentially identical, and, depending on the accent of the speaker, virtually indistinguishable. There are also a couple of sounds that are unique to the Arabic language. Because they do not exist outside of the language, they are very hard for me to accurately reproduce. I have spent a lot of time repeatedly butchering these letter sounds.
Even though the alphabet consists of twenty-eight letters, there are only a handful of letterforms. The number and placement of its corresponding dots make each letter distinguishable. When written hastily or in short hand, all clarity is lost, disaster strikes, and frustration ensues. Thus, reading and writing in Arabic challenging. I still struggle to read out loud in English, and I can’t say it is any easier to do in Arabic. I do, however, find solace knowing that my classmates can’t do it either. At least now I am able to hide my reading deficiencies behind the guise of a foreign language.
The teachers, though very intelligent, do not have the strongest command of the English language. Consequentially, a poorly articulated explanation can plunge the class into mass confusion. This ‘lost in translation’ phenomenon goes both ways, which makes asking a question can be a pretty harrowing endeavor and reliably produces either a confusing tangent or a vaguely condescending answer.  For example, when asking for clarification on how to accurately predict a letter sound, given the multitude of possibilities, “you just have to know,” is the most common response. It appears that this response can be used to explain any of the numerous peculiarities and inconsistencies of Arabic. It is utilized with enough regularity that I just assume it some sort of panacea for complex and linguistic concepts. So even though the majority of the class is taught in English, miscommunication abounds.
Academically, I consider myself to be moderately accomplished. I have completed four years of university and have a degree to show for it. Unfortunately, this means nothing now that I am studying Arabic. Actually, it complicates the whole ordeal. I am finding that if I do not understand what is being taught I become defensive and think to myself, “this is beneath me for I have a degree… in Medieval Spanish history.” Moments later, I sheepishly return my attentions to the lesson, muster up all of my courage, and say, “Sorry…I am completely confused.” The thousand mile stares and mechanical nods of my classmates let me know that I am not the only one. I must admit, nothing reassures me more than knowing everyone else is just as perplexed as I am.

To be continued…


  1. What also happens when learning a third language is that your brain goes into "foreign language" mode when searching for a word or phrase, but picks the old foreign language instead of the new one. Good luck. . .

  2. that sounds rough. keep it up buddy!

  3. This is a great entry and completely accurate. One of my frustrations is that in Jordan my teachers were actually very well spoken in English, so here I sometimes find myself mentally debasing the program because I expected it to be far and away better than mine in Jordan, which helps me not at all.

    I've found that defaulting to a garbled fatha between all of the consonants is a good strategy for pronouncing a word. I know what you mean about being defensive though--at least you own it and address it.

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