October 1, 2009 | Arabic

Russian and Arabic: Showdown in My Brain

A conversation in Russian temporarily makes me forget Arabic.

I have to watch Arabic TV. I just assumed, stupidly, that I wouldn’t be able to understand anything, but I had it on this morning, and I could definitely pick out words, more or less as I could at this point with Russian. It’s interesting and gives me another oral source besides Pimsleur. Arabic is actually quite a pretty language.

The Arabic Channel

Today I went up to White Plains to do some teaching. I did Pimsleur all the way up on Metro-North and was so engrossed in it I almost missed my stop. Because I was a little early for my session, I sat on an indoor bench by the train tracks to wait a few minutes and, as it turned out, found myself next to a woman who was speaking Russian into her phone.

I could understand quite a bit of it—it’s amazing how many of the same words humans use over and over—and sat there happily eavesdropping. I can’t exaggerate, though: while I understood quite a few individual words and phrases, large chunks of the overall meaning eluded me.

When she got off the phone, I said to her (these are my own inadequate transliterations), “Veu gevariti pa-russki.” (You speak Russian.) Yeah, I know, not a brilliant opener, but my conversational skills and capacity for wit are limited in Russian.

She responded yes, in Russian, and looked happy. I said, “Ya paprobuyu uchit pa-russki. Dva mesits.” (I hope that meant, “I am trying to learn Russian. Two months.” I wasn’t up to past tense and am unsure about my ultimate choice of verb form.) Our conversation continued in Russian. She said that I was doing very well. I said I didn’t understand very much, and she said that I had to practice a little every day.

“Ya punimayo,” I said. (I understand.) Then I said, “Do svidaniya” (which is the “good-bye” phrase I had mental paralysis about at my hairstylist Liz’s two days ago) and left. Anyway, the experience was a cheering one after that Liz debacle!

In the conversation, and during my eavesdropping, Russian words came back to me from the brink of forgottenness. I was glad.

I headed off down the street for my appointment, doing Pimsleur as I walked. I guess because I had just been speaking, or trying to speak, in Russian, I promptly began mixing up Russian and Arabic phrases. Regarding this Russian-Arabic confusion and like problems, though: I feel I can extricate myself from them after a few minutes. At first the languages blur together, but then the words of one language kind of glue tighter together and I can leave words from the other language behind.

The thing is, I don’t have leisure time mid-conversation to sort things out in this way.

Grand Central: Where Metro-North Journeys Begin and End

A few hours later, teaching finished, I headed back to Manhattan.

I really, really, really did not want to go running when I got home (I had hardly eaten or drunk anything), but I hydrated and ran anyway, six miles. And did Pimsleur the whole way. I did not do well. But I have to do two lessons per day for the next 30 days or I will not finish all the Pimsleur lessons for Arabic. I think I’ll be okay, but I am a little nervous. I really want to finish.

I find it so interesting the way Arabic adjectives become comparatives. Kabeer (large) becomes akbar (larger). So the three consonants in both, k-b-r, which indicate bigness across a variety of different words, stay the same, but vowels all over the place, including the beginning, change in a pattern that indicates you have switched from plain old adjective (e.g., “large”) to comparative adjective (e.g., “larger”). I told Brandt about this phenomenon, and he was amazed. As am I.

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