Friday, January 22, 2010
On Speaking Arabic
Tomorrow will mark the third anniversary of my arrival here in Fes. And with every passing year I am asked why it is that I don’t speak Arabic.
Well, there are many reasons. First and foremost, it’s very difficult to learn a new language at my age … especially a language which I have, heretofore, only listened to in music. I have an easier time comprehending French, Spanish, Italian and even German than I do Arabic. I guess it’s because I’ve been exposed to those languages throughout my life and it’s easier for me to pick up the cadence of these language. But Arabic eludes me even though I am now able to discern individual words. At first it was all a mish mash of sounds in which I could not distinguish the beginning to one word and the end of another. Today, I have a vocabulary of phrases that include pleasantries, entreaties to Allah, and a cache of haphazard words such as mulberry, mouse, knife, shattered, and retired.
Another reason I don’t speak Arabic is I get along fine without it. By a stroke of luck, there is currently a great interest in learning English among many Moroccans and so there is a willingness to try to communicate with me in my native language. Also, I know a little bit of French and a lot of Moroccans are proficient in this language. So with a mélange of English, French and Arabic, I am able to communicate with many people. And because it is my job to teach English, I am often forgiven for my lack of Arabic because of my so-called expertise in English. Lucky for me.
I did try to learn Arabic and took 3 semesters of instruction. And while my teachers did their best to teach me the alphabet and the corresponding sounds, the complexities of the vowels and the compounded challenges of learning how to write characters from right to left, and create sounds in my throat that had never housed such utterances before, plus structure the words in a way that have never been clearly explained to me have left me relatively mute and more than a little frustrated. Plus I found it incredibly challenging to be a teacher and a student at the same time. I was always scrambling to do my homework assignments in between preparations for my English classes and full-time teaching.
And finally, I have my own translator. Whenever I need help getting a legal document or finding the exact branch of the post office to pick up a package from home, or negotiate the price of laborers, my husband speaks on my behalf and I get the information I need. And while I don’t always understand the nuances of what is being said, I am getting more adept and comprehending the general meaning or intention of the speaker because I can pick up a few phrases and words that I do understand.
And when I don’t fully comprehend what is being said to me at all times, a smile and an appropriate utterance seems to serve me well.
I guess my difficulties learning this language in a country where so many people are multi-lingual has made me humble. At the same time, I am more tolerant of those in my own country that haven’t learned English.
So even though I haven’t learned to speak Arabic, I have learned something valuable.
Posted by Water Dragon at 4:42 AM