thoughts on studying Arabic

I have been meaning to write about the thing that currently consumes most of my time here in Amman: studying Arabic. However, every time I place my fingers upon the keyboard, I find that my thoughts are too muddled to type a coherent story.

Where do I begin?

Should I just tell you about the class I am taking now? What about all the classes that led up to it? Shouldn’t I share why I bother studying this absurdly difficult language that I will probably never master? Do I need to first explain why Arabic is so hard to all the non-Arabic language learners and speakers?

I began formally studying Arabic five years ago, as an eager freshman in college. Bright-eyed, al-kitaab textbook in hand, focused and ready.

Wait; let’s take a step back. Or ten steps back. My name is Andrea Haidar, and I am Lebanese-American. But I did not grow up speaking Arabic at home.

Though both my parents are of Lebanese heritage, neither of them was born in Lebanon, and neither speaks Arabic. It was too difficult for their parents and grandparents to pass the language on to them. They were very busy making lives for their families in Venezuela and the United States. So, I grew up speaking Spanish and English in my suburban home in southeast Michigan.

Sometime toward the end of high school, I felt like I was missing a deep link to my heritage. I grew up near the most concentrated Arab community in America, and ate plenty of Lebanese food, and went to weddings and funerals organized by Islamic tradition, and watched my grandmother intently as she knelt to pray several times a day, and had relatives with names like Leila and Samir and Maryam and Nadia and Jihad…

And yet, I felt somewhat estranged from my Lebanese heritage because I did not know the language.

So, before my arrival to the University of Chicago, I promised myself I would use my foreign language course requirement as an opportunity to learn Arabic. Little did I know that I was beginning a life-long journey.

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Arabic is an extremely challenging language to learn. There are about a million different ways to speak it. Most foreigners study “Modern Standard Arabic” (MSA), which is the formal Arabic that is the official language of over twenty countries. MSA is helpful because it allows you to read materials such as newspapers, magazines, novels, government documents, and other official texts. It also helps you understand political speeches, formal lectures, and the news. However, it does not help you much with communicating with real-life people at home or on the streets. Speaking MSA to your Arab family and friends is about as weird as chatting casually with your pals in Shakespearean English.

So what do Arabs speak if not Arabic? They speak many different dialects of Arabic, depending on their region and country of origin. And most linguists argue that dialect is a misnomer in the case of Arabic, because each dialect is nearly a different language in and of itself.

Thankfully, my excellent first year Arabic professor also taught a Levantine dialect class, so I was able to learn some colloquial Arabic alongside my formal Arabic studies. (Thank you, ustaadh Osama!) And once I had some basic Arabic to work with, I started making an effort to chat with the people in my life that spoke Lebanese Arabic. My grandmother. My stepmother, my step-grandmother. A handful of other relatives that had always spoken to me in English or Spanish, suddenly chatting with me in Arabic.

I felt like I had unlocked a whole new world, one that somehow had always been inside of me. I just needed to find the key that my family had lost after years of disuse.

I fell in love with the language. I listened to Arabic music while running, while studying, while getting ready for the day. I scrawled my name and doodled expressions in Arabic all over my school notebooks and diaries. I watched Lebanese movies with English subtitles. I practiced pronouncing new words out loud while walking to class. The swirling shapes of the letters were engraved in my mind, the varied textures of sound were always on the tip of my tongue.

I took a second year of Arabic with another amazing instructor, ustaadha Kay, and she supported me in my efforts to secure a language fellowship abroad. I spent the summer in Morocco studying Arabic, my first time in an Arab country. The summer afterward I spent another four weeks studying in Oman. I sought opportunities to speak Arabic in the US through internships working with immigrants and refugees in Chicago and Dearborn. I found Arabic language partners and joined conversation circles.

What has come from all of this studying and intentional language exposure? On the one hand, I can express myself clearly in Arabic in most circumstances: I have the proficiency to form deep friendships, to work in professional settings, to get around town comfortably. On the other hand, my accent is still marked by that of a foreigner, and I often have a hard time understanding people when they speak too quickly in their dialects of origin. I still read stories and write articles with a dictionary nearby. I continue to be humbled everyday by how much I have to learn.

As with many things in life, the process of learning Arabic has been even more rewarding than the final result. I am not yet fluent in Arabic, and I am not sure I ever will be. But I do know that I have learned so much about the world and myself through my Arabic studies. I have learned to practice patience with myself; that in order to achieve something as big as advanced Arabic proficiency, I must struggle slowly and celebrate the little everyday successes. My studies have also allowed me to form friendships with people in places that I never would have imagined visiting as a young girl. And perhaps most importantly, I have gained a deeper sense of belonging: to myself and to my heritage.

I am eternally grateful for the privilege of space, time, and support to study this beautiful and wonderfully complicated language.

So, now that we have sorted through some of these jumbled thoughts… maybe next time I can tell you about how my Arabic classes are going in Amman.

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[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, November 2016]

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