by Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen
I’ve been studying Arabic on and off for several years now. It all started with the French language, which first got me into language learning. I had studied it on my own for about four years until one day I found myself living and studying in Paris.
It was an exciting realization to have; what had once been pure gibberish had after years of sometimes tedious work turned into a comprehensive language.
Learning a new language opened doors to new opportunities and windows to a culture and another way of thinking, and the feeling of satisfaction and success from finally reaching my goal now felt more potent than any drug. Now I knew that it was possible. I could teach myself a foreign language.
So what now?
I challenged myself to learn Arabic.
It was quite a spontaneous decision, like French had been before. This time I wanted a real challenge, and since these were the days of the so-called “Arab Spring”, I got the idea of studying this mysterious language.
I went out one day and bought myself a beginners course in Arabic – Assimil Arabic with ease, or
l’Arabe sans peine, to be exact – I might as well study it in French, I thought. It was a strange sensation of first opening it up and staring at those strange letters. The first lesson consisted of only one word – “كتب” – pronounced ”kataba” – but when looking at the facing page and the translation, I realized that this was a whole sentence: “He has written” it said, and there was an illustration of a young girl with red cheeks opening a letter.
I learned that day that the verb “to be” didn’t exist in Arabic. At least not in a way that had anything to do with the three European languages I already learned. I was quite exited while looking at this one word, and I had a feeling that the Arabic language would be quite a mouthful.
My Anki nightmare
I continued to study every morning, and I revised everything that I’d studied the previously day, because nothing seemed to stick. Where my first meeting with French had been like meeting an estranged relative, Arabic was something completely different. There were absolutely zero cognates, and nothing felt familiar, or even slightly related to my three languages; Danish, English and French.
In order to learn the new alphabet, I copied out my daily lessons by writing them by hand. I filled several notebooks that way. I had discovered the flashcard app Anki while learning French, and I began to use it daily to revise my Arabic sentences. Somehow I ended up learning almost my whole Assimil course by heart, and I could recite the sentences in the same, quite exaggerated, tone of voice, that the narrators used on the audio CDs.
Every time Anki showed me a sentence in French, I could write out the exact equivalent in Arabic by hand. But for some reason my brain didn’t seem to make a connection. I worked harder and harder, and at a certain point I spent around three hours a day only reviewing Anki flashcards.
I kept thinking that at some point I’d reach a breakthrough, but a moment came when I had to realize that my responses were automatic and robotic.
I had become a parrot. An Arabic speaking parrot.
One day it was as if the over-inflated balloon of Arabic sentences that my head had become just had to explode. I deleted Anki from my smartphone and I didn’t study Arabic for almost a year.
Parallel reading, and getting back on the horse
One day when browsing a bookstore in a country far away, I found myself with a title in my hands that caught my eye: The Pelican Brief by John Grisham – a bilingual edition, strongly abridged, in English and Arabic.
I hesitated for a little while before buying the book, and started reading. At first it was very difficult to decipher the Arabic letters and turn them into sound in my head, let alone recognize any words, but I kept reading. First a sentence in English and then Arabic. A reading technique that has since become an important part of my study routine.
Back and forth. I realized that I was slowly consuming this book, following the plot and I was actually not even tempted to put it down. Within a few days, I had finished it, and although I couldn’t say for sure if any of the Arabic had stuck, I had noticed that my eyes had begun moving a little quicker down the pages, and that the words were beginning to sound out, almost automatically, in my inner ear.
Had some of the words and melodies of the language stuck from those Anki-days?
I got home from my vacation and ordered 4-5 bilingual books from the internet. Alice in Wonderland, The Old Man and the Sea, Animal Farm and a few other titles. I read for hours each day until I had finished them all. Something seemed to have changed during that year that I had neglected my Arabic studies.
Perhaps the massive Anki-attack had taken some kind of roots and transformed itself into something useful in my head. One thing was certain: I had regained my motivation to learn Arabic.
Tons of reading and meeting Arab speakers
I kept reading, but slowly began to shift my focus to digital texts that I could study with the language learning app LingQ. With LingQ, I was able to measure my progress quite literally with their word-counter, a tool that counts the number of words that you know. Even though it’s quite an arbitrary number without a real use, there was something strangely satisfying in seeing the number climb.
LingQ also helped me analyze the different texts that I imported into the system, so I could class them by their different percentages of unknown words, in order to better select study materials. Reading and listening all day only takes you so far, though. I felt like I was ready to start to approach people in Arabic.
I had a lot of time on my hands, and I learned that there was a refugee center in my town, so I decided to try and contact them and see if they could use me for some volunteer work. Perhaps I could meet some Arab-speaking people.
It turned out to be a great idea. I ended up helping in the refugee center’s ”bicycle workshop” – a place where the asylum seekers could go to repair old bicycles that they then could bring home for themselves and their families to better get around town.
I don’t know that much about bicycles, and neither did anybody else, but we got to discuss a lot, and I got the opportunity to activate a lot of that passive vocabulary that I’d gradually built up in my mind. I even got to speak some French with an extremely great guy from The Congo. Even though I’d studied for a long time, it remained quite difficult to communicate in Arabic. I just didn’t have the necessary vocabulary, and many of the bike-shop attendees spoke dialects of Arabic like Syrian and Iraqi that I wasn’t familiar with.
I quickly figured out the basic small-talk though, and I felt great socializing and drinking coffee with these people.
The fact about refugees centers, though, is that everyone is there temporarily, so I lost touch with most of the people I’d met in the bicycle shop. I did, however, make friends with Arabs outside of the refugee center, and have continued to have conversations with them in Arabic, and in turn helped them to learn Danish, my native language.
Making friends through Arabic has been a touching experience, and the people I have known because of my interest for their language and my willingness to speak to them has deeply affected me.
This isn’t something you think about when you first set out studying a language.
I’ve also had quite a few laughs, like the time, when I went to a newly opened butcher’s shop, run by Arabs, to ask if they had the spice “راز الحنوت” Raz el Hanout or literally “the head of the shop.”
Now, this is a spice mix common in the North African regions, and the shopkeeper was Middle Eastern. He looked at me, happy to hear me speak Arabic, and quickly replied ”راز الخروف؟ نعم” Raz el Kharouf? Naâm! ”Sheep’s head? Of course!”, and he promptly showed me the head of a sheep that had been slaughtered the previous morning.
Spreading out the focus to the Algerian dialect, Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’ve still got a long way to go before I’ll be an advanced speaker of Arabic, but you can only stay on track for so long before the temptations of other languages begin to overtake you. In my case, I try to keep my focus, if only partly, in the realm of the Arabic language and its dialects.
Along with my daily reading regimen of literary Arabic, I also dabble with German, Spanish and Algerian Arabic. The latter is perhaps the one that stands out the most.
When you study literary Arabic, you have to accept the fact that the language is only really used in political debate, news, written texts, children’s cartoons and religious sermons. Everything else is expressed through dialect, so unless you want to remind people of Mickey Mouse or the neighborhood Imam, you’d better speak in the correct dialect.
My choice fell on Algerian Arabic, or Derdja, for a number of reasons. One of them is that it’s one of the dialects that differs most from the literary standard Arabic, which I find quite interesting. Derdja has been influenced historically by a lot of different languages. Among them are Turkish, Berber, Spanish and probably most of all: French.
Depending on where they’re from, hearing an Algerian speak will be a wonderful mix of many tongues. Even though they call it Arabic, it’s an Arabic that most of other Arabs don’t understand. It’s not uncommon to start speaking in Derdja and end the phrase in perfectly pronounced Parisian French, and the dialect has a beautiful and very expressive melody to it. It somehow leaves out most of the vowels, which gives a quite interesting flavor to the language.
Learning Derdja has its obstacles though, especially for someone like me who uses reading as the primary means of studying languages.
Derdja is a highly oral language, and it is hardly ever written, and even when it is put down on paper, nobody can agree exactly on the right grammar, spelling and what vocabulary should be used, or even whether it should be written with the Latin, Arabic or even a third system.
At this point in my Algerian studies, I’m still at a point where I’m trying to gather useful material. Among other things, I’ve found an old Algerian Arabic phrasebook from the 19th century, that to my great surprise, uses language that is fairly close to the Derdja spoken today.
I’m also trying to find Algerians that would be willing to help translate and record some simple beginner lessons in Derdja, that I count on making available on my blog. I’m hoping it’ll eventually bear fruit.
Where will it all end?
Learning French changed my life. I ended up going to Paris to live for a while, and even today I speak French in my everyday life, perhaps even more than I speak my native language. It’s impossible to guess where Arabic might eventually take me, but I now know from experience that acquiring a language will seriously challenge your way of thinking.
It also has its way of uncovering opportunities that would otherwise had been out of the question. I could easily see myself working with translation or something similar in the future. Or perhaps the often unruly and ever-changing Arabic world will cast off something on its route wherever it may be going.