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.)
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.
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.