October 4, 2009 | Arabic

A Five-Language Day

I did a lot of talking today.

Today I spoke French, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian. Oh, and English. Not well, mind you, except possibly for the English. But still—it was a five-language day!

72nd Street Subway StationThere were two French incidents. The first came this morning as I was making my way to a running race in Van Cortlandt Park. On the subway platform at 72nd and Broadway, I struck up a conversation in French with a 60ish-year-old couple from Italy (I have no Italian, yet, unfortunately, and French was the only other language they both spoke). I learned that the wife teaches Latin and ancient Greek, and that they were on their way to a Harlem church to listen to gospel singing. My French sounded appalling, and I was embarrassed, but I persisted until my train arrived.

Speaking of French, one mistake I make constantly in Arabic is translating “or” as ou, which is what it is in French. Unfortunately, that’s how you pronounce “and” in Levantine (i.e., Eastern) Arabic, so it is just wrong.

As I headed north on the subway, I encountered a Central Park Track Club runner who was also going to the race. He is from Spain, and we ended up speaking in Spanish, though I had trouble understanding his accent and had to ask him to repeat himself a lot. He grew up very close to Portugal and told me that they used to speak the same language as their Portuguese neighbors, but that many centuries ago the two languages divided into Spanish and Portuguese. He is also fluent in Portuguese.

On the subway on the way back from the race, I studied Arabic. When I got home, I showered, ate, and decided to do a six-mile Central Park Pimsleur walk. As I headed up Circle Drive on the West Side, I saw people looking at a map near the tennis courts. My new thing is to ask everyone looking at a map if they need help, even if they don’t really look as though they need it. People usually say yes, and I usually get more practice in another language. This turned out to be my second French-speaking opportunity of the day, and it went much better than the earlier one. My accent sounded better, and the vocabulary came more quickly.

As I continued walking, cheered by my French success, I did Arabic Pimsleur lessons, but before long I ran out of lessons (I sometimes forget to load up enough new ones), so I instead decided to do old Russian ones. I went back to Level II, lesson 1, and was promptly overcome with horror and shock at how little I could remember.

Crap. How would this work if I couldn’t remember anything at all one month out? I needed to go back and review, I decided…and then I would need to keep working at it…and then how would I move ahead in Arabic? Anxiety shadowed me. And then…things started coming back into my head, and I did better and better as I went along. Not a stellar performance, and yet definitely not like learning Russian for the first time.

It is so strange what I remember and what I forget. I seem to be very connected to the Russian phrase “It’s hard to say” (trudna skazat). That came into my head immediately. And yet, I forgot (at first) many incredibly basic words: “he,” “we,” “you,” “not,” “but,” “yes,” “one,” “hour,” “evening.” I mean, the word for “one” (adeen) didn’t even really sound familiar anymore. These are all things I practiced a gazillion times, but the first piece of the list at least consists of what my brain regards as bland words, and they do not tend to stick. They are too short and generic, and it is very, very easy for them to get knocked out of my brain.

Besides, I am now learning many of the same words and sentences through Arabic Pimsleur that I learned with Russian, and my new vocabulary is replacing the old. I’m glad I did these Russian lessons today, before too much else disappeared. I think I salvaged some Russian stuff that was right on the verge of drowning in Arabic.

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