Arabic: the Thrill and the Struggle

Arabic is one of the hardest languages in the world. It doesn’t hit me every time I sit down to study. Rather, it comes at random times. The times when I realize how great the discrepancy between 3ammiye and fus7a is. The times when I listen to a Moroccan song and notice that I can understand many of the words as I read them, but am unable to understand the spoken accent. These instances remind me, time and again, that I am indeed learning one of the most difficult languages in the world. Throughout my past month and a half of summer vacation, I’ve launched myself in an Arabic self-study “bootcamp,” and my learning has left me with some important takeaways. 

1) I speak Arabic, and yet I don’t. Had fus7a been a completely different language, one that I was starting from scratch, I feel that I would be more forgiving with myself. I don’t  feel embarrassed when I trip over words or struggle to form sentences in Turkish, for example. It’s fine– I’m a beginner. With Arabic, however, I’m frustrated when I open my mouth and only shaami conjugations come out, or when I negate a verb the Jordanian-Palestinian way, or pronounce “qahwe” (coffee) as “‘ahwe” as done in the Levant. Granted, fus7a is a completely different register, but it still is Arabic, a language that I have been learning for two years! When I speak in fus7a, I find myself mentally proofreading each sentence, or attempting to translate the shaami words that come to mind into fus7a as I speak. I find it difficult to convey real emotions or express myself in fus7a because I sound like a textbook (or at least I try to). 

2) Sometimes you know more than you think, and sometimes you don’t know much at all. One of my most consistent methods of self study has been to read a BBC Arabic or Al Jazeera article each week, and learn the meanings of all the words I don’t know. I’ve learnt all sorts of vocabulary, from “nuclear weapons” or “the Deal of the Century,” to “Hindu nationalism” and “horseback riding.” I compile the words of each article into a long Quizlet list, which I attempt to memorize. Sometimes there are successes, like when I can read several phrases or sentences without needing to translate. Other times, however, I come up with a list of 150+ unknown words in a short news article. 

Some pages of the vocab notes I took about the Iran Nuclear Agreement article!

3) There are so many “Arabics” to choose from. It’s common for language learners to spread themselves thin, constantly wanting to try new languages out of fascination and curiosity. At times, I find myself doing the same thing, but with “Arabics.” At this moment, I note the red squiggly line that appears as I write “Arabics,” but honestly, I think Arabic deserves a plural. There are so many fascinating dialects and accents and variations that when someone tells me that she/he speaks or studies Arabic, my immediate mental response is “which one?” Just yesterday, as I spent an afternoon in the foreign language section of the Austin Public Library, I marveled over the variety of Arabic books: Egyptian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian, and Moroccan. I felt slightly guilty as I picked up the Iraqi Arabic book instead of the Moroccan one, but at the same time, it’s still Arabic, right?? Yes, but I know inside that no matter how much I try to justify myself, knowing Iraqi grammar won’t really help me survive in Morocco. It’s still Arabic, but it’s the wrong Arabic. 

So many “Arabics” to choose from!


WhatsApp call with Madison and Colleen!

4) It helps to struggle alongside others. One of the highlights of my Arabic studies has been my regular calls with other students in the same position. Last week, I did a group call with Colleen, an amazing Jordan alumna who will be on program with me <3, and Madison, a Morocco alumna with whom I’ll be going to college <3. Both are helpful resources, and it’s so nice to learn from such knowledgeable Arabic students (true fus7a queens!), who also share the excitement and fears of immersing themselves in Arabic for a year, and have the same obsession for the language!

5) We are going abroad to LEARN Arabic. This seems obvious, but honestly it’s hard to keep in perspective. A lot of the members of my cohort are really experienced in Arabic, and I find that I put pressure on myself to learn as much as I can before I go to Morocco. I often feel that I need a strong grasp of fus7a as well as strong conversational skills in the local dialect before I leave. But honestly, that’s not how it should be. I’m going to Morocco in order to learn and study– I don’t need to be advanced before the program starts! 

With that in mind, I’m trying to be deliberate about my relationship with Arabic, because I don’t want to approach a point this summer when I’m studying Arabic because I need to, rather than want to. This is something that I love, and even though the upcoming year will have academically stressful elements, I want to make this summer as stress-free as possible, and part of that means knowing when to take breaks from studying, in order for some much needed chill time! Despite all the challenges of my Arabic studies, I definitely feel that I’m learning a lot, and I’m excited to see how I grow in the coming weeks!

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