Learning Arabic Here and There

It has been five months since I started learning Arabic! Although the actual time I have put in studying is around three months. I took a break in between the Beirut Urban Arabic class that happened in July, and the college Formal Arabic 1 class, which lasted from September till this week. I treated it like a daily vocation in July. The task kept me floating and motivated to leave the house. Beirutis were eager to communicate with me since 1) I was such a novelty to most, so they wanted to ask why I am here; and 2) we often had business to communicate, e.g., the bus driver would have to communicate me if I wanted to go somewhere. Even though people say Beirut is not the best place to learn Arabic, it was still an inviting environment. I also had the wonderful classmate, Morgana, who would practice with me in the bus or in the hostel room. Even though one time I was suffering from altitude sickness, learning with a friend was doable.

Ahmad and Morgana in our Urban Arabic class

My teacher in Beirut, Ahmad Orfaly, was also very patient and kind in the Urban Arabic class. He was also humble and said he would not be able to teach the formal Arabic course. The textbook was very well-designed and did not have many family-oriented questions.

In contrast, the Alif Baa and Al Kitaab textbooks we used in the American college classroom have quite a lot of dialogues involving family, which I dislike. I would freeze up every time I was expected to talk about my family. I think my teacher knew, and الحمدلله, she didn't ask about my family during the oral exam.

In class, we are also careful to avoid any racy or controversial topics. In contrast, in Beirut, we were aware of the country's painful past, such as when we learned the word rafiq, (رفيق) one asked if it is the same as the name of the former PM, Rafic Hariri. (It is.) Then we got into a short discussion on his assassination. Students would travel outside of Beirut almost every weekend, so sometimes we would also discuss the ongoing news, such as the Lebanese military action in Beqaa Valley. I could also combine the information I learned from the street environments for my homework, such as "al-Hamra." In contrast, we are much more removed from such contexts in the American classroom, so a lot of brain power is put into use to make something up or look up how to write "Boston" #بوسطن. I exclaimed once to my Saudi friend Abdullah how amazing it is that American places can also be written in Arabic. It is just that I am so English/Chinese/Indo-centric that I never expected Arabic-speaking people would write Boston in their own alphabet. My friend Ahmad told me when I was in Beirut that Arabic has been less susceptible to new English loan words since there are many roots that can make new Arabic words. So even new things like airplane has its non-English phonetic word.

I learned the word "street" this semester, even though I already "saw" it in Beirut.

I also felt awkward bringing up current events, since I did not know if my teacher would like to discuss it or not and whether or not the other students would be interested. I know that it shouldn't be the responsibility of those suffering to discuss matters such as the Muslim Ban, and yet it is the Elephant in the Room. She did once light-heartedly bring up Donald Trump and used photos from his family in a powerpoint for us to practice Arabic; but the politeness reigned. Once she used the Arabic BBC website for examples; hopefully next semester it would become more integrated. We also had video materials recorded by the textbook producers. Our language department also organized a couple of Arabic events, and I attended one film screening.

Exposure to the Egyptian dialect was a useful component from Alif Baa and Al Kitaab. I was much more acquainted with the Levantine dialect before. Other than the most common greeting words, the knowledge for accents were not required; it was just used as an aid for context. The Arabic teacher, Ustaadha Batool, is also very sweet and kind. She sometimes shares her life from Egypt with us in the class. She has a PhD in theatre and also incorporates theatre skits in her teaching. Writing those skits also improved my general sense of the Formal spoken pattern.

The class in Beirut and the class in the U.S. were equally challenging; perhaps because the U.S. course is modeled off of the Middlebury program, which is the country's best. Ustaadha also used to teach there, as well as the editors of the textbooks. She had a good eye for spotting any missing diacritics, which I did not have to know in Beirut. I was mostly cruising along the first few weeks of this semester, since I knew the alphabet and basic grammar. Later on the course was still intense and introduced a lot of new material. I got an A from the Beirut class and will probably pass this class as well; but if I took it for ABCD grades, I would probably not get an A this time around.
Ustaadha told us that the college Spanish 1 course doesn't even teach as much as what we did, and the Spanish-learning students already know most of the alphabet!

This semester, I relied my friend, Ahmad for practicing oral dialogues or grammatical questions. I am becoming more familiar with the available English-Arabic online resources, such as dictionaries and Youtube songs / Quran recitations. Google translate now also has a new function function--when typing in latin, Arabic can show up in the text box directly. I also watch Snapchatters from the Gulf talk about their lives in Khaleeji accents, and it has been a great source of motivation. Their consistency seems to remind me that even if I flunk the course altogether they will still be there speaking Arabic.

A snapshot I took from a snapchat post by Arizonan / Qatari snapchatter Aziz

Sometimes stress makes one feel like everyone else will also stop because your "world" has "ended." I felt more angst and stress due to other factors while taking the college course. I had 5 days of Thanksgiving break in which I did not study Arabic at all, as well as the two days this week, after turning in all the papers. As I become more and more acquainted with my brain's relationship with language, the time spent Not-Studying is often as useful as Studying. There is a good Anonymous piece from The Guardian on how language learning helps combat depression.
...the hardest part of the process is being kind to myself. The voice of depression always chides me for not doing more. It is true that learning a language can often feel like an immense task, but breaking it down into steps – one more podcast, one more Duolingo lesson, one more chapter in my textbook – can remind me I am progressing. I can check the number of words studied, the videos watched. This helps me talk back to the voice of depression that says I can’t do it.

 Prof. Brinkley Messick talking about his new book Shari'a Scripts
I also study Arabic not only for knowledge purposes but also to switch gears from reading scholarly papers and thinking immensely large sociopolitical questions. I also have to remind myself that I am learning for myself, rather than to prove to someone else that I am a hardcore language-learner or Arabophile. I will still take it next semester with Ustaadha Batool, if other conditions allow.

Lastly, I wanted to share that I had the chance to listen to a lot of great scholars of Islam last weekend at the Shi'i studies conference at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ. It was very exciting to see Arabic skills used for reading primary historical sources.

I might write more about my experience after my exam on Monday. "Allah maaek" to myself lol!