September 4, 2009 | Arabic

Language Phobias and Cultural Hostility

Interest in Arabic may have grown, but some people still wouldn't consider studying it.

Today I decided to give running with Dr. Pimsleur one more try. It went surprisingly well—way better than before. In fact, I did Pimsleur without pause for the whole six-mile loop of Central Park. (Since Dr. Pimsleur is now such a big part of my life, I actually refer to this activity as “pimsling,” but I hesitate to use the verb “pimsle” and its various forms in this blog; such neologisms are generally irritating to others, even when agreeable to their originator.)

The Library Where the Language Stuff Lives

Another thing I did today was go to the Mid-Manhattan Library at 40th and Fifth to pick up additional Pimsleur materials. I recognized the woman who helped me check out; I’ve talked to her before. She is trilingual: English, Italian, and an Eastern European language I can’t remember right now.

She said, “How are you going to learn this? It’s too hard.”

I said that with all her languages, it would be easy for her.

She looked skeptical. “It would be like learning German!”

“No,” I said. “Harder than German.” (I wish Arabic were going to be as easy to learn as German.)

“What would be hard is the script,” she said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “Hard, but possible.” I considered how I myself had absorbed too much of the U.S. attitude that radically different languages are too hard to learn. This really is all doable.

Foreign-Language Stacks, Mid-Manhattan Library

Of course, linguistic fears are not the only obstacle for Arabic in this country; another is social attitudes. Upon arriving back home from the library, I got on the elevator with my Arabic materials. A nattily dressed older man with a straw hat followed. I had heard one of the doormen speaking Spanish to him, so when the elevator door closed, I addressed him.

“¿Habla español?” I asked. (Do you speak Spanish?)

“Sí. ¿Y usted también?” (Yes. And you, too?)

“Más o menos. Me gusta su sombrero.” (More or less. I like your hat.)

Then he looked at my materials and said, “¿Habla árabe?” (Do you speak Arabic?)

“Trato de aprenderlo.” (I am trying to learn it.)

He made a face, the elevator door opened, and he walked out.

This is not the kind of reaction you get in the U.S. when you are studying French or Italian.

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