Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Jordan Challenge 5: 0.0 Learning Arabic (the Baby Step Way)

So, when I posted my List of Challenges for my year in Jordan, I had a multiple-part goal of learning some Arabic.  While I can report some progress in my process -- I have a very patient tutor, Ghada, who teaches me four hours per week and I have produced sheets and sheets of awkwardly- handwritten Arabic alphabets in my big green notebook bought for the purpose -- I am still an emphatic failure when it comes to the product, as in actual ability to speak, write words, or comprehend what people are saying.

For anyone who has not ever undertaken the study of Arabic as a second language, I feel the need to point out a few things, all of them in defense of my main point, which is that Arabic is really, really hard to learn.  Here are a few of the reasons why:
1.  The alphabet is completely different than the Roman alphabet.  So when you start studying Spanish or French or Kiswahili, you are using letters you already know (albeit with a few additions or subtractractions).  Not so Arabic.  Here, for example, is the way that the word "Arabic" looks transliterated into Arabic: أرابيك
The letters are (from right to left -- another complicating factor): alif/raa/alif/ba/yaa/kaaf
2.  In Arabic some of the vowels get dropped out. If a word has "short" vowels in it, the short vowels are little dashes and symbols above or below letters that they follow, but in everything except children's books and the Holy Koran they get dropped out. It's kind of like the shorthand people use when texting, except it's universal. Supposedly, once you learn enough vocabulary and have some actually reading chops, you are able to figure out contextually what the word is without those little dashes to help.
3.  Here in Jordan, there are two Arabics: Modern Standard Arabic and Jordanian Arabic.  It makes sense to learn Modern Standard Arabic because that is the way most things are written across the Arab world, but if that is all you learn, you won't be able to understand people here in everyday conversation. 
4.  There are about ten letters that have no equivalent sound in English. Lots of them are made in the back of the throat and I am a long, long way from accomplishing most of them.
5.  Most of the letters have four forms: how they look standing alone, at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word and as the last letter of a word.  So, when you are memorizing the alphabet you have to memorize all four forms just  to recognize the letter.

I know there are many other ways in which Arabic is distinctly hard, but I don't know what they are yet, because in Arabic-learning terms I'd say I'm about in preschool.  I know the alphabet and the numbers to ten (which also look different than Roman numbers) and can read a few words here and there like the stop signs that are ignored by all  the drivers, and, in fact, everyone but me (and I believe this also makes me the only person to appreciate the literary value of the common stop sign). And at the gym where I run on a treadmill with a TV screen that allows me to watch bad American programs, I can sometimes pick out pronouns in the Arabic subtitles below.

Oh, and I can write my name. And thus, it seems appropriate to close with a little visual.  Here are my official Fulbrighter business cards for the year.  One side is in English, the other in Arabic.  I circled my name on the Arabic one (although the transliteration is actually closer to D. (as in Dr.) Batreesia Sibleen, since there is no P in Arabic).

My one source of hope is that I am surrounded by dozens of extremely bright Fulbright students, all of whom hit the ground here already knowing some Arabic, and they are now studying in earnest while conducting  their research or teaching assistant assignments.  If they can do it, I have hope that I may progress from preschool to somewhere solidly in the elementary school range by the time I leave.  I will definitely report in on what I hope will be progress.


  1. You just need me there Trish, that's all! :)
    You are taking on a huge task, so be patient with yourself. I am sure you're making progress everyday! Can't wait to see you (longer note coming soon) miss you tons!

  2. TT-
    I love your discussion of learning Arabic--though interesting enough, it is not unlike learning Hebrew. Your discussion of both the alphabet and tonal sounds is much like Hebrew as well--since I believe both modern Arabic and modern Hebrew derive from the same sources. Keep plugging away--Eli and Sophia are learning Hebrew at the moment as well, and Ed and I continue to try to improve our Hebrew. It isn't easy but it is interesting.

  3. My tutor had me listen to Koranic verse on youtube with a copy of the Koran. It really helps you with the sounds. I promise it does get a little easier with time.