Sunday, September 13, 2009

What I am learning when I am studying Arabic

I am keeping on with my Arabic tutoring, but am encountering another of my bout with frustration. After a summer mostly spent away from the language (despite the fascinating overlap with Bantu languages like Kiswahili and Tshiluba), I realize in some ways how little I have learned and retained. For what its worth (and I really don’t know), I do plan to keep on with it.

I am reflecting on how many different ways there are to study a language. Traditionally in academia, you study languages—historically ancient languages—for purposes of reading. Graduate students, even when working in modern languages, are examined for their ability to comprehend a scholarly text in the language being tested. There is a large gap, of course, between reading comprehension and conversational ability. From all those years of French study in high school, I could read and understand materials probably better than I could carry on an informal conversation. But then again, is the purpose of high school French to enable me to order a baguette should I ever be a tourist in Paris?

I am really not sure. As Arabic has begun to be promoted in the US, is there a popular commitment to teaching people to read classical Arabic literature or contemporary scholarship? Or is there a shift, driven by politics, to train a cadre of Americans who can communicate with people in the Arab world? This seems to me to be a different skill, driven in part by the vocational potential of language facility. Still, this remains a complicated issue with regard to Arabic, where there is such a radical distinction between written and colloquial forms. And, while I really do not have much sense of what is happening in terms of language instruction in the US, I do see myself facing dilemmas with my Arabic study.

Am I studying to be able to have a conversation with a taxi driver? To be able to understand Palestinian or Lebanese films? To be able to read a newspaper? To be able to read the Qur’an? These are all radically different sets of language skills, and all of them take a very long time. This is part of what I am starting to realize. I am a long way from being able to read an Arabic language newspaper or have an in-depth conversation in the language. I believe, at my current pace, I am probably years away. It is hard not to be frustrated but I am doing my best.

I am having different thoughts about what my goals are. For example, while fluency remains far off, I am learning, for example, something about the differences in varieties of Arabic language. I have learned something about the importance of different types of greetings in Arabic, even when I am deficient at using them correctly. I have also been able to make observations about the secularization of a religious language when I hear a Coptic friend say insha’allah or il-hamdu li-ilaah. Also, I realize that I have learned a lot about communicating in English with people in Cairo. That may not make much sense, but I appreciate the importance of greeting someone before asking a question. I have been fascinated by the fact that I may be learning most effectively a sort of cultural understanding about the role of language here in Cairo. I am probably learning this much better than I am learning to communicate in the language itself. Maybe it is just manners? Not to diminish the importance of manner, but I suspect there is something more.

I am not sure what it is but I will continue to try to find out.

My current Arabic teacher is moving to Dubai after the Eid, so I will be asking the university for a new tutor.

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