September 7, 2009 | Arabic

Labor Day Language Laments

I labor on Labor Day, and not all goes smoothly.

Labor Day! And I did indeed labor today. And some degree of irritation was involved, I’m afraid.

I woke up and got right to work on that Alif Baa book, which I have to say I am not feeling too keen on. It reeks of a college or high school class. Anyway, I decided to do it anyway, even though I am not grooving on it, and after completing an exercise that I didn’t like at all, realized there is no answer key in this book. How ridiculous is that? I have to buy one separately, but since it is Labor Day, Dahesh bookstore isn’t open. So frustrating. The book and answer key should be sold together; every other text I am using simply has the answers in the back.

I finished the Nicholas Awde alphabet book today, with the exception of a Koran extract at the end, which simultaneously overwhelmed me and put me off. I am used to secular language studies, plus the excerpt is just too hard. Maybe I’ll look at it when I’m more advanced.

Also: regarding other Arabic language-learning products I am trying out: I am blown away to discover how useless accompanying language CDs can be. There is often no meaningful built-in practice for the listener. Like for Unit 1 of the “Teach Yourself” book on Arabic (this is a book I mentioned previously, by Jack Smart and Frances Altorfer), the CD basically just pronounces sentences and phrases from the unit, without giving you any practice, repetition, or explanation before rushing on to the next section.

I tried doing a few of the “Teach Yourself” exercises in Unit 1 without worrying about the CD, but couldn’t understand what they wanted, and in fact couldn’t even read what was in the exercises. Upon reaching exercise 3, I wrote in the margin, “Fuck it. This is impossible.” And stopped.

My grace and patience under pressure are impressive.

It’s strange, because I loved the “Teach Yourself” book I had for Russian. I think it must be very hard to explain Arabic to Westerners, but I also bet fewer people try, because the market probably isn’t there to the degree it is for Russian. Less competition generally means lower-quality products.

It is so hard on my eyes to read some of this Arabic script. I just got to some samples of hamza, which is a letter of the Arabic alphabet, but not in the way English speakers normally think of letters. Rather, it indicates a glottal stop. When it is written alone, it is legible, but it often appears as a diacritical mark on another letter and is then minuscule. It actually hurts me physically to try to make it out on the page. I assume, or at least hope, this gets better with practice.

I tried running with Dr. Pimsleur this afternoon, even though I was nervous about running while feeling so grumpy about my grammar texts. It went surprisingly well. I didn’t feel tired, even though this was my fourth day in a row of running. The weather is getting cooler, which helps. Ninety degrees and Dr. Pimsleur and running are not entirely compatible—but cooler weather, not so bad!

Rosetta Stone Kiosk, Time Warner Center

Dr. Pimsleur also accompanied me to the Time Warner Center to shop for running clothes. While I was there, I stopped by the kiosk for Rosetta Stone, a language-learning company that offers multimedia programs with both audio and visual components. (Pimsleur, by contrast, is just audio.) You use Rosetta Stone on a computer (try out a sample at their website), but I like Pimsleur because I don’t want to be on a computer clicking things and getting repetitive stress injuries when I could be roaming around the city instead.

The reason I wanted to stop by the kiosk is that I had recently heard something about a new oral-only feature of Rosetta Stone. I asked the salesman, who told me it’s the same audio you hear while watching the visual content on the computer, and that the idea is to play it after you’ve already gone through the visual lessons, as a kind of refresher. I found this hard to imagine and said I couldn’t see how a soundtrack designed to accompany visual content could translate well to audio-only. I’m not sure he understood my point. He seemed a little irritated, and tossed out that people had been doing audio-only for 50 years, or maybe he said 60, and that it hadn’t worked well. He said you need the visual, too.

Personally, I like my audio-only Pimsleur approach, and I am perfectly happy to buy supplementary materials in the form of books and other materials.

Some funny/interesting phrases I am learning from Pimsleur: shway is “a little,” while “slowly” is that same sound twice, shway shway. How tender. “My husband is Canadian” is also interesting; it is pronounced more or less like zojh-ti kennedy. You need just two words for that sentence in Arabic, the first one meaning “my husband” and the second meaning “Canadian.”

I keep getting the word for “I” in Arabic, pronounced ana, confused with the Russian for “she,” ona. The littlest words are often the most confusing because they are so lacking in distinctiveness!

Speaking of which, today I picked up one of the three Arabic books I bought several years ago but never used: Your First 100 Words in Arabic. “This looks stupid,” I said to Brandt, then added, “It’s probably good for me.”

And it was. It is a cute little activity book, kind of childish, but gentle on the brain, which is not a bad thing when you are trying to learn how to write Arabic. It is teaching me useful things, like the names of household items such as “chair,” “window,” “table,” etc. I find I am sometimes successful using little memory hooks to help me remember things temporarily until the words finally start sticking in my brain. For example, with the word for “chair,” I looked at the transliteration, kur-see, and associated it with “curtsey,” which I then associated mentally with “seat” and then “chair.” For the word for “table,” transliteration maa-ida, I thought, ida is like “eat,” and then was able to remember table off of that.

One of the things about a language like Arabic is that it is so different from English that sometimes I just need to slow down, I think. This 100 Words book is extremely basic; it got me to just sit still and play around with some words that will be very useful to me, without my getting all stressed out about grammar and getting too advanced before I am ready.

Tonight I realized, to my dismay, that the flashcards I bought do not include diacritical marks indicating vowel sounds. Argh! Isn’t this a context where vowels would have been useful? How am I supposed to know how to pronounce things?

Comments (4)

Kris L. • Posted on Mon, August 19, 2013 - 6:23 pm EST

I, too, have RS for German.  I’ve found that after only 4 lessons with Pimsleur, I feel like I can say more in German.  While RS lets me visualize it, not really being able to have conversations and communicate using RS was a major frustration.

I may go back to it, but only after I go through the full Pimsleur series.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, August 19, 2013 - 6:41 pm EST

I hear you on the Rosetta Stone. After hundreds of hours on RS, I wrote this comparison with Pimsleur (on which I’ve spent thousands of hours): I don.‘t know whether you’ve seen that page yet. I do like aspects of RS for learning basic vocabulary like “boy,” “girl,” numbers, etc., but I don’t think the underlying premise works. I am still looking for someone who has finished the whole RS shebang for a given language and feels he or she can function at even a primitive oral level in the language. In my experience, people abort the RS mission before finishing, whereas I know plenty of people who plow through all of Pimsleur for a given language and get a lot out of it.

Kris L. • Posted on Mon, August 19, 2013 - 8:22 pm EST

As for RS (will look at the link you sent on your RS skepticism), I did it religiously for about a month and then found myself not really being able to say the words I was learning. 

I’m doing the Pimsleur as recommended on one lesson a day.  Sometimes, I will go back a lesson or two, but I won’t do more than one lesson at a time.  Since it is a dream to eventually spend more time in Germany, I want to make sure that I can a strong base (so no 17+ languages for me).

Luckily I have family that speaks German so I can get some verbal practice.


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, August 19, 2013 - 8:38 pm EST

Yes, studying 17 languages is very hard on retention. I am looking forward to retreading previously trodden paths. The forgetting is frustrating.

What can I say? I got carried away in the excitement of the moment! :)

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