My Journey through Arabic 101

The Art of the Qur’an — Freer and Sackler Galleries — Smithsonian

The best moment for starting learning a language is when you have no choice but to succeed in it. Yet, success is a state of mind and unjustified fears can block a person from achieving it. I started leaning Arabic when it became clear that I am interested in the history of science. But I wish I did not bear the weight of stereotypes about language acquisition in general, and learning Arabic in particular. Growing up, the adults around me held the following attitudes towards language learning:

- You need to start learning a language early or it will be too late. There was no consensus on what age is the limit, but it felt like 20 is already too old.
- Arabic is super-hard, don’t even bother trying. This was supported by examples of acquaintances quitting Arabic despite grandiose plans of working for the UN.

These are stereotypes. Like all stereotypes, they might hold somewhat true in some cases, but they most certainly are too simplistic to reflect the actual situation and hence are unhelpful to most people. 
The first has been debunked for me with two examples:

a) That despite having studied German since I was 12, including a month-long stay in Berlin, I still cannot speak it freely because I just haven’t lived in a German-speaking country long enough. This is not a matter of practice, as I never practice French but maintain fluency. To be fair, I know German well enough to entertain a friendly conversation about beer production in the U.S.

b) That having started Latin only at the age of 25, I progressed fast, much faster than for any other language, for the sole reason of being mature and hence smarter and better focused.

Still, the second stereotype had a paralyzing hold of me — despite a lingering desire to try to take Arabic — until the year when it was either take Arabic or forget about trying to incorporate Islamic material into my analysis of visuality in the Western history of science. Perhaps it was the necessity which helped me keep afloat through this year.

The first month was hardcore. In fact, let’s be honest: the entire year was hardcore. But the first month in particular. The obvious difficulty of the first month was in learning the alphabet. We had an excellent teacher, Luke Leafgren, and a wonderful book, ‘Alif Baa’ (ISBN 978–1–58901–506–7), to help us through the process. I also used coca-cola for its sugar rush to force myself to get through the assignments each night, because otherwise I just could not focus well enough to do it. Never before had I needed such measures to study. As a result, I gained a few pounds, but shed them eventually. The effort was totally worth it: what at first seemed like a sea of largely similar shapes is now easy to disassemble. Now, I must say, a month is not enough. The year is not enough. You need practice with a diverse array of scripts to be able to fully apprehend the alphabet. But after a month, things do get a lot clearer. It’s a fabulous feeling.

The rest of the year required a steady effort of learning the vocab. In the first couple of months, when the alphabet was still largely unfamiliar to me, I had to reinvent the way I learn the words. Usually, I would make lists by grammatical type (noun/verb/everything else), and occasionally by topic, but because the shapes of the letters required an extra effort on my part, I couldn’t commit to memory anything from such lists. Eventually, by the end of the first semester, I went back to using lists. But for a while, I had to make flashcards with phonetic transcriptions, and I hate flashcards, because making them takes too much time.

Grammar did not consume that much energy because of my previous experience with languages. In comparison to, say, Latin or German or Russian, Arabic grammar is simple and logical. Heck, English has a really twisted set of verb tenses! But if you’re new to language learning, it can be hard, but same goes for any other language. So grammar feeling weird is not Arabic-exclusive. The vocab though can be difficult to acquire for a non-heritage speaker because Arabic belongs to a completely different language group than English et al. I guess if you’ve taken Hebrew you’ll be better off.

The major source of difficulty in my case was the overwhelming presence of heritage speakers in the class. Yes, some struggled with the grammar, but when it came to listening/speaking, the level of mastery in the class was very uneven. It is my strong opinion that for everyone’s sake, as much for heritage speakers’ as for true beginners’, these two groups should be separated.

Now, if you compare how much we’ve accomplished in comparison to my friends in the Spanish beginner course, you realize that Arabic is tough. In November, I seriously was under the impression that we were making tremendous progress, but when we here were barely able to construct sentences about how our week-end went, in the Spanish course they were writing essays on how to cook a specialty dish. Not that I need either to work on manuscripts eh. But I guess it’s important to learn if you want to go work for the UN, as most people in my class seemed to desire.

So yes, I confirm: Arabic is super-hard. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother trying.