September 19, 2009 | Arabic

I Don’t Like When Things Are Hard

I need to be more mature.

“Arabic is extremely hard,” I just announced to Brandt, without grace and with plenty of irritation.

My problem (one of them) is that throughout my life, when I haven’t understood something, I have tended to develop an underlying irritation at whatever the thing is that I don’t understand. It’s totally immature and absurd. There is no excuse for it. And yet, the recurring theme in my head as I struggle with this stuff is, “Arabic is stupid. This language makes no sense.” I have done the same thing with a million different subjects. I used to cry in my grade-school Spanish classes on the rare occasion that something would come up that I couldn’t understand instantly. My frustration would overwhelm me.

I have grown up a little, but not enough.

Still, I keep grappling, rather grumpily, with the significant lack of consistency among the available self-study materials (i.e., with respect to dialect, vocabulary, transliteration systems, etc.), which is making the learning task way more challenging. I can see why people stick to French and Spanish, or even Russian!

Another challenge: I have no idea how to use the dictionary I bought, called The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. It lists words not alphabetically, but based around word roots, three-letter combinations of consonants that are associated with a particular general meaning. For example, the combination of k-t-b relates to writing. By inserting additional letters before, between and after these three consonants, you end up with a variety of words relating to writing, such as “book,” “library,” “author,” etc. The dictionary displays thematically related words by root rather than splitting up the words and listing them alphabetically. I find this system basically impossible.

Here’s a source of relief for me, though: some words that would be verbs in English are—Pimsleur has explained to me—more like adjectives in Arabic. An example is the word for “travel”: msaffir for a man, msaffri for a woman, and I believe msafreen for all plurals. These pseudo-verbs are a great relief to me because there are only three forms to memorize. If they were genuine, full-fledged Arabic verbs, there would be way more forms to worry about.

A writer friend of mine has started signing his e-mails to me “salami for now.” (Maa-salami being “good-bye” in Arabic.) I find it hilarious.

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