How When What Why … Did I learn arabic.

How did it began with me and arabic language.

2007 : I had a dream (no, not a joke, I really had a dream, one of those you remember when you wake up in the morning) that I won’t narrate here but which left me with a euphoric feeling – I really felt happy for a long time afterwards – and a mission to accomplish : learning arabic. The dream stayed with me for weeks and I felt that it wouldn’t leave me before I tackled the mission seriously.

Sixth months later, with my meagre governement student funds, while I was preparing to fail a last time in medicine studies, I went to a bookshop – something I tend to do a lot, but for the first time I went there pretty much apprehensive.

I was almost worried but why ? I don’t know exaclty. Feeling stupid to go and buy a book for reasons as surreal as a dream telling me so ? Because the dream in itself was rather funky and more of a thriller or action movie than what you imagine a dream might be, the sweet inoffensive thing … ? Or even the worry of buying an arabic language method because the word in itself, « arabic », was what it still is : very connoted in spite of itself.

Reading newspapers or watching TV news, you never heard of people who suddenly started learning spanish following a radical conversion to an extremist ideology. (It might happen, who knows, extremisms come in a great variety and languages, but you get only one kind on TV, the «islamist» one). But as to arabic language, it was pretty systematic : it went with all the news about the stupid «muslim hijab» affair(s), the poverty-and-crime thing among muslim communities (that’s for french medias) … In short, arabic language was linked to everything that would make any sane person avoid buying an arabic self-teaching method. Because a certain media had done to me what it’s doing to so much people : it made me forget all about what is really the great and old arabic civilisation (I’m not even talking about the «arabo-islamic» one, because there’s been a great many christians and jews and pagans who spoke arabic throughout centuries). This oblivion all to the credit of a bunch of insane guys (and I’m not speaking about the «islamist-terrorist» ones only … As I said, extremism is a sad human tendency, even though the politically correct way of thinking would have us blame it exclusively on the «religious/foreign/marginal/whatever» Other).

Sorry, I digress. I was on my way to the bookshop, with a bit of a worry : I wanted to buy and arabic self-teaching method while at the same time wanting to avoid raising questions concerning my motives, obviously «dark side» style motives. Isn’t it sad to be at that level of craziness ? But so many of us are at that level. I had come to plan out another tactic : buying a hebrew method along the arabic one : I had been wanting to learn hebrew for a long time, and it seemed a good occasion to start, and since the «certain media» managed beforehand to convince me that arabic and hebrew were the antinomic languages par excellence («since you know, in the news they say …»), then buying both would deflect any suspicion. Looking back on that thought, having learned hebrew as well, I laugh a lot. Hebrew and arabic, antinomics ? It’s like french and italian, you almost think they’re both dialects of a same common tongue … And anyway, as if anyone would preoccupy themselves on what a medicine student is buying in a small bookshop.

So. I went into the said bookshop. There was no hebrew method, just the arabic one. I opened it, and saw yet again the marvelous littles squiggly things of the arabic writing, and yet again I wondered why us latin alphabet peoples didn’t pay any attention to the beauty of the written script as did arabs (and chinese, and hindus, and thibetans, etc). It’s a totally subjective judgment I know, but still.

I picked up the book, having made up my mind that if anyone found anything to say about it, it was their problem, not mine. After all at that moment my only wish was to dutifully follow the method instructions (the Assimil method* by the way), to learn the language for my own personnal pleasure and nothing else, to be able to scribble the pretty letters during boring classes, or even, after something like 30 years of hard study, read a novel in arabic … I didn’t think possible to master the language before that, because as you know, «it’s one of the hardest languages in the world». Well, that’s partly a myth as I came to know.

I was far from the idea that one year and a half later I would do something a bit crazy for my holidays : I bought a plane ticket for the middle east, for the thrice-named land (Israel-Palestine-Holy Land), or exactly what, as usual, normal people tend to avoid doing. Or exaclty the contrary to what I said to my mother in the beginning of my arabic learning, when she expressed her worries to the possibility of my going to and visiting problematic lands : «don’t stress mum, I don’t intend going anywhere near an arabic country any day soon !» ( and I really meant it. But in the end we both wanted to go anyway …)

Then I found myself with my «arabic without tears» method, and I studiously set myself to work, 30 minutes everyday (up to 2 hours on days with nothing else to do), during almost 8 months, flipping through the pages, copying down everything at least 7 times (it’s said you remember something after having seen it at least 7 times), to get used to the writing and squeeze out any secret the method contained. Even during the Holidays (such as Christmas, when no-one who doesn’t have to don’t think of working), I took up the method and worked. Well, it was not work, it was my daily session having fun at doing squiggly things with my pen on a piece of paper, a bit like drawing.

Since then, reactions have been what you might expect. When the people hear of my favourite activity, they go three ways :

  • The first one, the main one, is the Negative way : anything between «arabic ?! But why ? It’s no even beautiful !», «what, the terrorists’ language ? You’re one crazy person, you are …», «what, you want to go there (the word meaning : the-lands-where-you-the-naive-western-girl-all-alone-want-to-go-when-it’s-common-knowledge-that-it’s-the-worst-place-to-go-for-a-woman), or «arabic ? Humpf, don’t need to buy methods of go far away, just stroll in any surburbs» (n.b. : in France the surburbs are the poor part of the towns usually full of migrants, where the center is the posh one full of whites), or even «oh really, is it that interesting?» (meaning that if it were, I’d know that already, and since I don’t, arabic is uninteresting).
  • The second one is the Curious way : «arabic ? Cool ! Looks awefully hard though, but certainly looks interesting … How did you get that idea ?»
  • And then the last and smallest, the Enthusiast way : «That rocks ! I always dreamed of learning that language ! So, where did you go, what did ou see, what did you do ???»

And the more I studied arabic, the more I loved it. I spent hours laughing at myself trying to reproduce the sounds of the language, so weird and foreign. I didn’t have the CDs or Mp3 that went with the method (too expensive), but the explanations inside the book were sufficient enough, clear and precise. So much so that I actually managed to impress my arabic teachers went I took up courses for a proper graduation in Arabic Studies at the university the following year, they couldn’t believe I had self-taught myslef the writing, reading and pronunciation «that well» – I’m not self-congratulating, it’s just that I was at the same level that all the other students who had already spent one full study year at uni in arabic – I was accepted in the second year straight away when I applied**.

As for the sounds, I remember in particular the «‘ayn», which the method described as «the sound you make when you’re about to throw up». It actually worked with me, though there is many more academic and serious descriptions of the sound.

So about one year later, I was into a lot of thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life (I had meanwhile failed yet again in medicine … the french system is pretty horrendous : you spend one full academic year at uni working like a madman/woman to set exams at the end of the year that are higly selective. But they don’t select you on your motivations as an aspiring doctor, they only select you on your capacity of remembering stuff. So I wasted two academic years, with what it intails of living expenses, just to see people who were only interested in making «big money» as doctors passing the exams, for the only reason they had a better and faster memory than me with chemical formulas. Setting an exam in the beginning of the year, after highschool, like in every other country, seems not to have hit any one in France as something much more logical and less wasteful for thousands of students every year).

Sorry, again I digress. I spent hours on the internet, with the only motivation of «let’s move to another city with a bigger university», and I found something I never heard about before, Social Anthropology, but the «If you like reading, traveling and learning languages, this course is for you» totally convinced me. An after a first year both wonderful and disorienting, I found myself wanting more work (I was used to the crazy medicine rythm) so I took up a second course, the Arabic Civilisation and Language Licence, after I realized they actually had one in my new university.

Now that I got both diplomas, they’re only one thing I can say : don’t stop at what your teachers and professors give you for homework … Do a lot more, at least twice more. I spent hours trying things by myself, like reading whole books, or trying to decipher movies and songs. And you have to become in love with your new best friend : the bilingual dictionnary. Take a really big one, that go both ways (arabic to your language and your language to arabic), the kind that usually cost a lot, but lasts years. I bought lots of books in arabic, with their french translations (well, in France you can be lucky, in the biggest cities, to find books in arabic even in public libraries), and I read very slowly : one paragraph in arabic, then the corresponding one in french, and then again the arabic one to see if I understood more (which was the case 9 times out of 10), and I looked up every word I couldn’t translate in the dictionnary. It was very long, it might not fit everyone as a method (I know people who got really good at arabic withou reading more than a book every year), but the main things is to spend more than the 15-20 uni hours a week with the language if you want to improve.

And of course you shouldn’t panick if even after several efforts the meaning of a sentence or a paragraph eludes you. Go and do something else. Our professors had a saying they periodically reminded us of : «it takes 10 years to become a good arabist» (they meant by that to be an academic-level arabist, without having a chance to live in the middle-east for long periods … If you just want to be a normal-level arbist, 5 or 6 years are way enough. And if you have the chance to live in the middle east and get a good method of learning that suits yourself, then 3 years or less …)

But I’m a slow learner, and I’m terribly timid in public, so talking is not helping when I go for short periods of time in the Middle East, but the other main idea is that : you have to be patient, and not think of the goal (mastering the language) as much as think of the way to it (learning it) and enjoy this way. And of course, to enjoy it you have to make it enjoyable for yourself :

  • If you love novels, then get a novel which story makes you want read it  (and not the novel that people told you «it’s a classic you should read it» even though the story obviously looks boring to you), only take the stories you’d enjoy reading if they were written in your mother tongue. I started with Harry Potter in arabic, and it really worked !
  • A historic movie (they’re usually in classical arabic, which is a good complement to the TV series and modern movies that are in dialects – very important to learn both classical arabic and a dialect or more, they’re both sides of the same coin).
  • TV series and movies
  • Songs (in France it is widely noticed that good-looking american or british singers makes teenagers learn english very efficiently, and happily for the arabic learner, the arab world is full of good looking singers, both male and female), which are usually sung in dialects (egyptian gets the lion’s share).
  • And so on … Everything you like doing in your own mother tongue, do it in your target language. AJATT’s great website explains it way better than I do (see on the side bar).

So yes I love reading, so I did mainly that, but it makes me lacking in other areas : since I don’t like talking, the dialect I started to learn is slow in becoming a reflex, and for the very classical arabic (the coranic one, and old medieval books) I still need the dictionnary very often. The arabic language is like english : sooooo many words for almost the same thing. But since it’s not exaclty the same, then you obviously need another word !

But I can reasonably think that if I work as hard for the next 5 years, I’ll fulfill the 10-years saying. I could stop right now and be happy with what I can do : I can read novels without dictionnaries, and if I go and live again in the middle east and force myself out of my asocial self, then I could quickly get a decent normal-level dialect capacity. But I want the top thing, the academic level. Both read the Quran with no translation whatsoever to understand it and getting every single joke of the TV series straight-away. And write a PhD on medieval middle eastern history.

And in the dark moments when I’m depressed about my learning slowness – how is it possible to be so slow when people are usually faster ? Or worse, when people actually have another job or another life besides learning the language, and still manage to learn it … In those moments I remember the dream. Or rather the dreams : the actual one that put me on the track towards arabic, and the dream-goal : one day I’ll master it, whatever happens, however slow I am. And the more you work on it, the easier it is to remember the dream, since you do it everyday.

But most of the time it’s the nice moments you get : you’re reading a book in arabic, forgetfull of the thing in itself, you’re deep in the story, and you unconsciously raise your eyes from the book and see the doubtfull looks people give you, people who are wondering what the heck is the book about. Things written in foreign languages tend to unsettle people seeing them, but arabic has this pecularity given by the TV news, as I said earlier, that it is not only foreign, but also scary. I did a little experience : on a bus, a tramway or a train or whatever public transport, reading something in english (foreign language for me) or in arabic is clearly not the same thing. I also admit that most of the time it doesn’t make a difference because people really don’t care about what the person right next to them might be doing. And I also admit that, beside the frightful looks, I also had some positive reactions, with a simple book being a discussion starter between complete strangers. But I recently bought a arabic novel, and the cover designer found nothing more exciting than to draw a knife with blood on it as the sole illustration on the cover, aside the title (in arabic) – a book I won’t read on a bus or a plane (unless I want some fun!)

But I hope that more and more people will realize that arabic is not potentially harder than any other language – in fact it’s your first foreign language that is harder to learn, when your brain has to pick up the trick of learning and using it. And that more and more people will change their mind about it : it’s not a foreign language relevant only to people working in security services or intelligence … And it’s not a «rare» language, it’s one of the 6 official ones in the U.N., and it’s pretty common around the world, at least as much as chinese or german.

It’s been five years now since I went to the library to buy the Assimil method. Has arabic become boring to me, now tat I have been living with it every day for the last 5 years ? On the contrary. I was fascinated buy the little squiggly things, and that hasn’t changed. It’s even better, because now I understand what they mean. And when I come across a beautiful calligraphy, I’m even more marvelled at the letters’ capacity to transform itself in gracious ways to form about anything you want. And to be able to read 15 century-old texts with no help other than the comments on the margins to clarify some point of vocabulary (the modern man/woman is not as versed as before in the intricacies of medieval or bedouin life).

I am as fascinated by the language in itself as by what it allows me to understand : all these words that sound so different, that give a different feeling according to the context. You see things very differently when you give back the words their original meaning and context and history, especially the ones that are given an almost exclusive other and negative context when translated, like the infamous «jihad», «harem» or «martyr» (for example a better to understand «martyr» in arabic would be to translate it properly for what it means, «witness», with a bit of an explanation as to why we also use it for dead guys).

To this day, I only see upsides to learning this language. The only downside to it is the one common to all bookworms of this world : a pitiful-looking bank account when you’re in a city full of bookshops. And for that, Paris is merciless.

  • Assimil method : it’s french, but it’s being adapted into other languages including english, though the french versions one offers still the widest range of languages (more than 90 including the dialects and the really small «travel» methods). Years later, now that I tried a great many methods, it’s still my favourite one, the best I think for an introduction to any foreign language : afterwards you can tackle any method in a lighthearted manner and not even afraid of any grammar rules or pronunciation or anything.

** At the time, graduation in hebrew, arabic, chinese and all these «hard» languages in the french universities was done in 4 years instead of 3 like all other graduations in any subject : the licence which is the first grade in university according to the European LMD system – Licence (3 years), Master (2 years), Doctorate/PhD (3 years). The hard languages get 1 extra year of study, the «O year» as a full time introduction to the language (15 hours a week). So I went straight-away in the second year, or the «real» first year of a Licence. Now I think it’s changing, depending on the universities. But the ones keeping this 4 year system are giving a better chance at being good with the language after getting the diploma, from what I experienced and then heard on the occasional 3 year system.



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