I’ve been studying Arabic very “lightly” for quite some time. Over the past two years, whenever we were stationed at home and I was bored in the evenings, I’d sit and write Arabic letters over and over. Occasionally, I’d read a little bit of Arabic or learn a new word. Bit by bit, in small, insignificant steps over the course of these two years, I’ve learned the Arabic alphabet and acquired a respectable vocabulary of about 20 words.
It takes me about one minute to read a word between four to seven letters long and after I’m through I feel pretty proud of myself for it. Being able to read words at all in Arabic is an exceptional achievement for me. I don’t know what the words mean after I’ve read them, but still, I feel I’m making slow and steady progress…
Since we arrived in Tunisia about a week ago, Lydi and I have had just a few limited opportunities to practice Arabic. (John is learning French.) We’ve been to the Carrefour three times and a small grocery store down the street twice. We’ve taken taxis back and forth from here to there. We’ve gone jogging along the banks of du Lac. Interactions with locals have been sparse, cold, and pragmatic.
Lydian and I have spent several hours with an online Arabic instructor, named Mona who is trying to help us make lesser fools of ourselves as we communicate with others about the most basic things like where we live and how much our groceries cost. Mostly here in Tunisia, we’ve encountered people who speak too fast or too “French”; people who are too busy or uninterested during our short encounters to wait for us to slowly and awkwardly say, “How are you?”. Often, in desperate attempts to communicate quickly Lydian and I resort to a hybrid of French and Arabic that we call “Fr-arabic”. And sometimes, when things get really out of control, we just start using words that don’t mean anything at all.
The process of acquiring a new language is filled with experiences of being loved and accepted, hated and rejected. As children, we’re praised for using the right words, saying them properly, saying them at the right time. We’re scolded for saying “bad” words, interrupting conversations or for broaching topics that are considered taboo. Our cultural beliefs and social norms are embedded within our language. Language, after all, only happens within a social context.
For me, learning the words in a foreign language is easy. Suffering the rejection that goes along with saying the words improperly or in the wrong order over and over again is hard. In English, I’m outspoken, but in places where I have to speak Spanish, Nepali, French, Arabic, or whatever I’m shy, if not downright reclusive at times. It’s embarrassing to be mute, but even more embarrassing to say the wrong thing in the wrong way.
I have outstanding moments when I speak in a foreign language and someone understands me. I congratulate myself. Sometimes Lydi and John will congratulate me too (and vice versa, of course). And then suddenly, milli-moments later, I’m humiliated and people are laughing at me. They’re laughing “at” me because most of the time I don’t have any idea what I said that was funny or wrong. In fact, in the early stages of learning, I don’t even have the words to ask about it. I can seem super-intelligent to myself in one moment, and a little delayed and maybe even a hopeless cause the next.
Yesterday, I felt good at the end of the day because I said “hello” to someone in Arabic for the first time (as-salaamu-ay-like-um). I uttered the words fluently and spontaneously in response to a man who said “hello” and walked by John and me as we were returning to the apartment from a jog. I’d been avoiding saying “hello” because I wasn’t sure if the Arabic hello that I knew was the ‘right’ one. I’d used it in Morocco with good results, but I knew it meant something about peace, with subtle implications about Islam and possibly God and I didn’t want to seem presumptuous in saying it. I wondered if I would offend certain people, non-Muslims perhaps, by saying it? Should I instead say, “ahlan”, a little word that just means ‘hi’ (I think), but for all I know screams ‘atheist’ in this culture? Words in every language are so full of underlying meanings. I’ve been walking around Tunisia saying “as-seef” whenever I needed to get past someone or say, “excuse me” only to learn later from Mona that I should be saying “as-seef-a”…because I’m a girl. I don’t fully understand the implications of my saying “as-seef” when I should say “as-seef-a” but I did notice that men especially looked at me funny whenever I said it. In my American mind, saying “as-seef” would be roughly equivalent to making a small protest for women’s rights, but I have no way of knowing how Arabic-speaking people really feel about masculine and feminine words. I can’t talk to them about it in Arabic, that’s for sure. All I can do at this stage is try to memorize the rules and stop making an ass out of myself.
Most of the people on the street here in Tunisia seem to be speaking French or maybe they’re just speaking French to me. I can’t tell. But I got my virgin “hello” out of the way and now I can move on to other, more complicated niceties perhaps like “how are you?”