Monday, October 4, 2010

What Learning Arabic Is Like

Learning Arabic is like playing football. I am not naturally cut out for either. When you make a pass, take a shot, or construct a sentence in a conversation, there is no time to reflect. You have to be aware of multiple things at once, and remember multiple things at once. Is this in the right tense? Is it conjugated towards the right person? Am I pronouncing all the letters correctly? Do I need a direct object suffix or an indirect object suffix?

All of that is for one word, the sentence’s verb. When I come to the noun, if it’s plural, there three different ways to say it, depending on if it’s a pair, a set of 3-10 objects, or more than 10 objects. Did I mention that the regular plural forms are almost never used? Almost every noun has a unique plural form. Also, make sure you pick the right prefix for the preposition you have in mind. These prepositions do not line up with English prepositions. When the noun’s done, onto the adjective. Make sure you match the gender and number of the adjective to the gender and adjective of the noun.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim is quickly losing interest in what I’m trying to tell him. “Use English!” he says.

The ball comes towards me. Should I head it, or try to move back for a kick? Who should I pass it to? Do I have time to stop the ball on the ground and aim, or do I just have to pound it? Oh crap, I might not get to it in time. It’s going out! Wait – who touched the ball last? Maybe it’ll be out on the other side? Get out of the way! Too late.

But when you get it right – in football or in Arabic – there’s nothing sweeter. I get a big smile, and a “Bravo, Joel!” from the priest or the students.

And if you’re wondering – yes, they make me play football. Twice a week. It’s anyone’s guess as to how long it’ll take them to get sick of my fecklessness.

Learning Arabic is like listening to a really crappy radio. Most of the time, all I hear is static. Every once in a while, a word I know pops up, and I get excited. But by the time I’ve translated it in my head, Brother Sarkiz has moved on to something completely different.

On especially staticky days, I catch maybe every 10th word. On clear days, I catch every 2nd word. On brilliant blue-sky days, I can occasionally catch an entire conversation, then wow my students by interjecting a comment. I wonder how much they think I understand. That kind of ambiguity could be useful…

Learning Arabic is like being in second grade again. When reading, you take it letter by letter, until you remember that you already had this word five times in class today. “Kh…kha…kharo…wait a second, I know this word! Kharouf! Sheep!”

Favorite phrases so far:
“Qatar il-mot”: Literally, “train of death.” It means roller coaster.
“3ala 3ayni”: Literally, “on my eyes.” It means, “You’re welcome.” (The 3 stands for a letter not found in English. To pronounce it, trying saying “Ah” like you’re being strangled.)
“Hammam”: Bathroom.
“Hamam”: Pigeon. (Be careful there.)
“Ya Lateef!”: “Oh, kind one!” (meaning, God).

Four words that sound exactly the same to my Western ears: Flip-flops (shahata), martyrs (shuhada), the Muslim declaration of faith (shahada), university degree (shahada).


  1. What a great post. I appreciate your linguistic insights. I will be watching your journey with interest, my friend.

  2. I miss the beauty of learning new languages.
    What a wonderful language you are learning, Joel. I'm proud. I want to get on it some day..