A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

“With a lot of work”: answering questions about Arabic

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 8, 2007

Last summer I attended a conference in Amman. I love Amman during the summer – the air there is so much fresher than that in Damascus (too hot) or Beirut (too sultry).

While there I had the chance to catch up with a few friends from university, as well as the delightful responsibility of looking after a beloved (but Farsi-speaking) professor. I took them to Abdel Wahab, a beautiful Achrafiyeh restaurant with an outpost at the Meridien in Amman.

The food was delicious as always, and the wait staff charmingly attentive. They adapted to our foursome’s quirkiness with remarkable ease, raising no eyebrows at either my taking charge (despite the presence of said distinguished professor) or my Arabic, which included some rather bossy instructions to please turn down the air conditioning before we turn into ice cubes.

As we rose to leave, satiated and surfeited together, the maitre d’ came quietly up to me. Please, he said, tell me: how did you learn Arabic?

Kif t3alemti al-3arabi – I have heard this question many times over the years, and it is one I always struggle to answer.

What I want to say in response is: with a lot of hard work. But I don’t think this is quite what my questioners are after.

English-speakers most frequently ask me: where did you learn Arabic?

For non-Arabic speakers, the presumption (I believe) is that learning such a difficult language can only take place in situ.

For my fellow 3SL’ers (Arabic as a Second Language), the question is more about placement. The world of 3SL Arabic speakers, particularly in the United States, is very small. There is a ‘circuit’ of overseas language institutes that most of us have traversed. Asking ‘where did you study’ is a way to open a conversation of shared memories and – often – of common friends.

When I answer questions that begin with how rather than where, I try to blend the two responses, saying: I studied here and here and here, and I have studied for a very long time.

My questioners often respond by saying: well, Arabic is a difficult language. I laugh and say: Yes. I think that even when I am a 90 year old woman I will still be studying this language. And I will.


One Response to ““With a lot of work”: answering questions about Arabic”

  1. intlxpatr said

    I know you spent a lot of time in the classroom, but I think the reason you can speak it comfortably and conversationally is that you went waaaaaayyyyy outside the normal comfort zone, forcing yourself to live and study in places where you would be forced to speak Arabic. And – alhamdallah! look at you now! Wooo Hooooo Little Diamond!

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