Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Adventures in learning Arabic
OK, mostly about Arabic. I cannot resist an aside here about which is the harder language, Arabic or Japanese. In my personal experience, Japanese is the easier language, grammatically speaking (please, really, do not get me started on Japanese orthography because then it blows Arabic to bits). Where you run into trouble when trying to carry on a conversation is in the semantics, with all the in- and out-grouping and vague personal pronouns and unintuitive constructions. But still, you can beat your way through the language and you may offend people left and right but at least you can communicate.
With Arabic, the grammar is an absolute beast. Once you master it, then Arabic is really quite smashing and brilliant and you can gallivant around saying whatever you want. It's the mastering part referred to above that is so insanely difficult. SO INSANELY DIFFICULT, people.
Then, there's the fact that the least funny joke in the world is that Arabic is not even one language. There's Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, or FusHa), which is the language of television and newspapers and other formal situations (and can be compared to Shakespearean English), and then there's the spoken dialect of whatever country or region you happen to be in. Moroccan Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Syrian Arabic, Jordanian/Palestinian Arabic, Gulf Arabic, etc. That's the language that people actually speak on a daily basis. Lovely.
My point is that I picked up Syrian (Levantine) Arabic way back when, and improved it greatly during the summer of 2007 when we lived in Amman. We had an elderly neighbor across the hall and Miriam's best little friends upstairs from our apartment so I got a lot of practice. But I have never (until recently, as I'll tell you) studied the MSA stuff. My motto was, "FusHa Not Spoken Here." (That made our summer at Middlebury really interesting, by the way.)
Until we came here and I took advantage of the free MSA classes offered to university employees and dependents, I was my own personal Arabic freak show: I could converse in Arabic, as long as it was Syrian or close to Syrian (Egypt was mostly close enough even if it is a hideous dialect). I could read a newspaper out loud if you really wanted me to, but I wouldn't really be able to put together what it said because I didn't understand MSA.
Now I'm finally learning MSA and it is the weirdest experience. First of all, because I'm in a class with people from all over the world. Everyone brings the prejudices of their native language to the table. The poor teacher is always being bombarded with questions like, "Is it like in French, where...?" "Oh, so it's like the German..." "In Turkish, you can't say it that way..." etc.
But secondly, it's weird because I feel like I already know this stuff. The teacher says something in MSA and my brain trips over every other word as I struggle to connect it to the dialect I already know. Some things are able to break through the fog but others just cloud the picture even further. Meanwhile, the section of my brain labeled "Arabic" keeps trying to let in only one version of the language, not two. So I worry that as I learn this ridiculous "Lam yakun ladaykum imtihaan ams?" stuff, the more natural and spunkier Syrian "Ma kan fi imtihaan imbareh?" (said with appropriate sing-song intonation) will get pushed out.
And now I can't have "FusHa Not Spoken Here" as my motto after all. Sigh.