My 3rd Languange – Arabic!
I’ve been trying to write this article for weeks now about learning Arabic, and I don’t know why but I’m finding it hard to get started or even decide what point I want to make.
If you wonder what my second language is, it’s Spanish. I started learning bits and pieces of Spanish from childhood like many Americans do, but one day during the 1990s I watched the Puerto Rican Day Parade and I suppose the purpose of the event was fulfilled within me. I became extremely interested in their culture, language, and music. I pursued Spanish with full interest and within about 3 years managed to become fluent, still living in the US, never having traveled. I regretted never having gone to Rio Piedras in San Juan with my cousins on their annual trip to Puerto Rico to visit our great-grandmother that had migrated there during the 1960s, with a fear of flying that held me back. Still, at about 15 years old, I’d become bilingual. To this day, I am grateful for having learned Spanish and recognize the difference being to be able to communicate in another language has made in my life
I had been looking for a 3rd language to learn for a long time before deciding on Arabic. I’ve dabbled in Italian and Hindi, which are both beautiful languages. I practiced Italian for a short while as a young adult and became more frustrated than my level of interest would allow me to continue. The similarities in words with different meanings, and pronunciations that seemed to be a strange mix of English and Spanish together confused me. Without the internet around like it is today, I realized finding anyone to explain, clarify, or even practice the language with me would be near impossible, which in turn made me understand that Italian wasn’t a terribly important language internationally, except to read food menus at some restaurants.
As far as Hindi went, I managed to memorize a couple of Bollywood songs and their meanings, an had even started to learn Devanagari, the script Hindi is written in. But when it came time to practice, I wasn’t overwhelmed by native speakers of Hindi that could understand my interest in the language, and in fact I think they found it odd. It didn’t take me long to figure out that India has an English face for the outside world and beyond their media, the culture isn’t easily penetrable without a full immersion experience. I didn’t feel compelled enough by Hindi to pursue this, as I didn’t feel it would, as a language, help me learn about more the entire world instead of just one more country.
Now, on the current list of the world’s most spoken languages, Hindi is # 4 while Arabic comes in at # 5 with 237 million speakers, but Hindi is the official language of a small number of countries in the single digits, while Arabic is the official language of over 27 countries. When exposed to Arabic I was impressed by the history and beauty of the language, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out by observing major present day events that it’s also a critical language. As I recognized that I’d soon need to change my career and further my skills in terms of work, I knew Arabic was it for me.
Arabic isn’t necessarily an easy language to learn. You have to learn an alphabet which is like nothing you’ve ever tried to comprehend, read from left to right, learn sounds you’ve never made before and at times, feel you’ll never be able to. I used a free Google app to learn the alphabet on my own within a matter of weeks, but quickly realized I’d need a human to practice speaking, as Arabic comes in a written language that is not spoken in daily life at all and then many varied dialects, one of which every Arabic learner must pick and will need to communicate verbally with Arabic and not be laughed at. Otherwise, they’ll walk around speaking like its 1000 AD. Can you imagine what that would be like in English? Not cool at all. I started learning Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), and was shocked when I found someone committing to helping me practice online, and found that I had to learn different terms for even simple words like “yes”, “no”, “milk”, and “house”. And the list goes on and on.
Tutorial video of Egyptian dialect pronunciation of Arabic alphabet, notably different from MSA.
Permission was granted by Zay Arabic Academy to use this video, you can learn more about lessons at their center on StudyArabicEgypt.com
What I did find was native speakers of Arabic willing to teach you Arabic for free are abundant. I made lots of online friends on a site called My Language Exchange that helped me with children’s stories, pronunciation. Through our practices I’ve laughed tons, and I’ve learned a lot.
It’s been over 2 years since I became dedicated to learning Arabic as my third language, and despite living in Egypt for over a year I’m not fluent yet. I’m able do quite a bit in Arabic, though, and this feeling in itself is pretty rewarding. Where else will my language learning take me? I don’t quite know yet, but I feel confident that within another year’s time, I’ll be able to say I’m tri-lingual. My understanding seems to increase at a pace that’s quickening daily, and I have started to think and dream in Arabic. As I’ve gone through this experience before in Spanish, I know these are key indicators that fluency is on the horizon.
Last night I took a long walk with my mother in law, and I was able to understand about 85% and answer back in short sentences, albeit with a heavy foreign accent and juvenile level speaking speed. My sense of humor and being very close to no longer caring about impressing others, which are must-haves for trying to speak in a language you don’t fully know yet, get me through these pain points. She was explaining to me how to make an Egyptian dish that, translated to English, is called “Vegetables”. For about five minutes of our conversation I was confused and asked her in Arabic, “Aren’t ‘vegetables’ things like tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and salad?” She answered me a little flustered, “Rachel, don’t you remember that the dish I made during Ramadan? Did you forget Arabic already?” We laughed and I thought about the fact that in order to have forgotten Arabic I would have had to have known it well in the first place. But I didn’t try not make the joke out loud in Arabic since maybe culturally, and will my limited skill level, it might not translate well.
My mother in law has insisted that I memorize everything she tells me in Arabic since the day I met her, repeating words for me with extreme patience and never apologizing for her not knowing English, but insisting that I explain to her what she’s said as confirmation of my understanding.
No value can be put on the price I’ve paid to learn my third language in terms of time and experiences combined although my direct, out of pocket expense for Arabic learning materials has probably not exceeded thirty dollars. It’s taken effort, it’s taken endurance, and as far as teachers go, well, my mother in law has probably been my best teacher yet.