Friday, January 29, 2010

Why Arabic is So Difficult

I've spent a good deal of winter break brushing up on my Arabic. I spend maybe 2-3 hours a day reviewing, plus an hour talking on Skype with a guy named Ahmed (I teach him English, he teaches me Arabic. It's a good deal). But even after a month of this, I still don't feel prepared at all. I came across this article written by another person trying to learn Arabic that helps explain why:
The first challenge, the script, is a tough one. But it is by no means the biggest. Arabic has an alphabet, so it's easier than, say, Chinese, which has a set of thousands of characters. There are just 28 letters, and it does not take long to get used to writing and reading right-to-left. (Though it still feels odd to open my book from what seems like the back.) Most of the letters have four different forms, depending on whether they stand alone or come at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Even then, so far so good. But in Arabic, as in Hebrew, people don't include most vowels when writing. Maktab, or "office," is just written mktb. Vowels are included as little marks above and below in beginning textbooks, but you soon have to get used to doing without them. Whn y knw th lngg wll ths s nt tht hrd. But when you're struggling with comprehension to begin with, it's pretty formidable.

Then there are the sounds those letters represent. I do not recommend chewing gum in Arabic class, because a host of noises articulated in the back of the throat makes it likely that the gum will end up in your lungs. Arabic has one "h" akin to ours, and another that has been described as the sound you would make trying to blow out a candle with air from your throat. That's not to be confused with another sound, the fricative kh familiar to German-speakers as the sound in "Bach." There's also 'ayn, a "voiced pharyngeal fricative," which is like the first sound in the hip-hop "a'ight." Unwritten in Roman-alphabet transliterations, it's actually a consonant that begins many common words and names, including "Arab," "Iraq," and "Arafat."

The sounds are tough, but the words are tougher. An English-speaking student learning a European language will run across many familiar-looking words, but English-speaking Arabic students are not so lucky. Merav, an Israeli classmate, should have a leg up on us: Arabic and Hebrew both use a nifty, three-letter root system for word building. The three-letter root represents a general area of meaning, and different prefixes, vowel additions, and suffixes can make it into a person engaged in that activity, the place where it goes on, the general concept, and so on. Most famous is slm, which generally means "peace." Salaam is the noun for "peace," Islam is "surrender," and a Muslim is "one who surrenders." (In Hebrew, this can be seen in shalom.) Ktb functions similarly for writing: Kitaab is "book," kaatib is "writer," maktaba is "library."

Merav is fine with this, though the rest of us are struggling. But the ferociously unfamiliar grammar sets us all adrift. Arabic is a VSO language, which means the verb usually comes before the subject and object. It has a dual number, so nouns and verbs must be learned in singular, dual, and plural. A present-tense verb has 13 forms. There are three noun cases and two genders. Some European languages have just as many forms to keep track of, but in Arabic the idiosyncrasies can be mind-boggling. [. . .]

The State Department reckons that it takes 80 to 88 weeks (roughly a year in the classroom full-time and a year in-country) to get to a level 3 on a 5-point scale in Modern Standard Arabic, the language I am learning. But there's a twist. MSA has about the same role in the Arab world that Latin had in medieval Europe: It's the language of writing, religion, and formal speeches, but it is no one's native spoken language any more. Arabic has long since become a series of "dialects," which are actually more like separate languages, as many varieties are mutually incomprehensible. Arabic spoken in Morocco is as different from Arabic spoken in Egypt and from Modern Standard as French is from Spanish and Latin. When Arabs from different regions talk to each other, they improvise a mix of Egyptian Arabic (which is understood widely because of Egypt's movie industry), Modern Standard, and a bit of their own dialects.

So, if I go to Egypt or Lebanon in a year, having managed to get some near grip on my classroom language, I will be walking down the street asking people for a bite to eat in something that will sound almost as conversationally inappropriate to them as Shakespearean English would to us. Most literate Arabs know the Modern Standard from schooling, newspapers, television, sermons, and the like, though, so hopefully they will not laugh too hard as they help me out and respond in something I can almost understand. And that is if I work my tail off for the next year. Insha'allah.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On being a tourist

I grew up in Bar Harbor, Maine, a town where an inordinate number of cars and trucks have bumper stickers like this one:

Tourists can be a pain. Just one tourist can often be enough to get on your nerves, especially if they do annoying touristy things like drive slow, ask stupid questions ("Does the lobster stew have lobster in it?"), or fail to understand the concept of a 15% tip. When 2.2 million of them flood the island during the summer months, it's hard for locals to maintain their sanity. Sure, almost all of our businesses depend on the tourists who come to town and spend money, and because of this locals are usually more than willing to welcome visitors with genuine pleasure. But if you act like an idiot or an asshole, then I guarantee you will be mocked and ridiculed--if not directly to your face, then definitely after you've spent your money.

When I travel, I'll be experiencing the other side of this dynamic for the first time. I'll be that guy trying to absorb unfamiliar places and things. Hopefully I won't do anything that warrants open mockery, but at some point I definitely will be that guy who asks stupid questions and gawks at every street corner.

I'll be a tourist. But at least I'll tip well.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Express Lane: America, in 10 Items or Less

T-minus 3 weeks til departure.

Apparently it's traditional to present host families with a few small gifts from America--small tokens of gratitude for opening their home to me for four months. Right now I'm trying to pick out gifts that I can talk about in Arabic, which is pretty limiting. But the whole process got me thinking: the gifts I offer will reflect substantially on me, my family, and my home country. Whatever I pick should be something memorable, positive, and uniquely American.

So without further ado, I created the following top ten list of gifts that represent America in a nutshell. Obviously I won't be able to bring these gifts with me to Jordan because of financial, practical, or cultural concerns, but it's fun to think about anyway:

10) A Double-Double with fries.

Fast food is the quintessential American dining experience. It's nearly-instant culinary gratification loaded up with fat, sodium, and cholesterol. You can get it without even having to leave your car. But if you do choose to go inside the restaurant, you can see the mini-assembly line that is a fast-food kitchen in all of its hyper-efficient beauty. The hamburger itself was invented in New York state by German immigrants, and today it remains the backbone behind corporate giants like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and the White Castle so beloved by Harold and Kumar. Any one of these upwardly mobile burgers has a little bit of America in every bite. But if I had to pick one chain burger to represent the USA, it would be In-N-Out's succulent Double-Double (obviously, with onions and secret sauce).

9) A replica of the US Constitution.

Because republican government is the best gift anyone could receive.

8) A pair of Air Jordans.

Air Jordans bring three things to the table: first, they're built for the uniquely North American sport of basketball (sure, the NBA is expanding, but the rest of the world still lives for soccer). Second, they're historical--one of the first products designed for, named after, and endorsed by a big-name celebrity. Finally, Jordans are an outstanding example of how consumerism makes us equal--thanks to Nike, every pickup league player can wear the same shoes as MJ, if they want to shell out $80.

7) Barbie dolls/GI Joes.

I played with Legos growing up, but these two toys are icons of pop culture. Apparently they also promote ridiculous standards of beauty and a new American militarism, but I don't see it.

6) A Gibson Les Paul guitar.

Quite simply, if rock music is a house, this guitar is its foundation.

5) A set of poker chips and playing cards.

Maybe it's because I just read Cowboys Full, but I think poker and gambling is part of the American spirit. From the author:

"From the kitchen-table games of ordinary citizens to its influence on generals and diplomats, poker has gone hand in hand with our national experience. Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama have deployed poker and its strategies to explain policy, to relax with friends, to negotiate treaties and crises, and as a political networking tool. The ways we all do battle and business are echoed by poker tactics: cheating and thwarting cheaters, leveraging uncertainty, bluffing and sussing out bluffers, managing risk and reward." --James McManus

4) The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I figured I should include a book on here. It was hard to choose, but I think Gatsby is the most American thing I've read (besides the immortal works of Glenn Beck).

3) A 1970 Ford Gran Torino.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed." The Gran Torino is probably what she was talking about. Not only was the Gran Torino a prototype NASCAR stock car, it's a shamelessly muscular, gas-guzzling beast, made in Detroit and made immortal by Clint Eastwood.

2) Designer denim.

When the Cold War was at its height, Russians weren't jealous of us because we were free or because we could vote for our leaders (well, they were jealous of that, too). They just wanted our Levi's. American icons from cowboys to Brett Favre to half-naked Abercrombie models have made jeans famous, and no list would be complete without including some form of denim.

1) Rocky IV on DVD.

Speaking of the Cold War, this movie single-handedly won it. It's well-documented that the first cracks in the Berlin Wall appeared when Sly Stallone finally stood up to Drago and uttered the immortal words, "If I can change, you can change." On a serious note though, the fact that this movie got made (and that it was the highest-grossing of the Rocky films) says quite a bit about the bottomless well of American pride. In high school, when we had to say goodbye to our Chilean exchange student Andy (a good guy and a great central midfielder), we got him a copy of this movie in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. I'm seriously considering taking a copy abroad, since there's very little that's objectionable (no sex scenes, since Adrian's not really involved in this one; and no modern political messages). I'll keep you posted.