September 13, 2009 | Arabic

Some Whining

I love studying this stuff, but I complain anyway.

My various Arabic books keep screaming at me, “Don’t lift your pen in the middle of a word! Don’t lift your pen!” It is both alarming and intimidating. However, the calligrapher shown on the Alif Baa DVD sometimes lifts his pen mid-word, and I don’t mean just when it is one of those isolated letters that don’t connect to the letters around them. It is a relief to see him do that, because it didn’t seem to me that it should be such a big deal if my pen mistakenly came off the page mid-word.

One major annoyance, in the Alif Baa book as well as another I’ve been using: for certain letters they tell you the handwritten versions are different from the versions you’d see in print, but then when they actually give you handwriting exercises involving those letters, they provide the answers in print form, i.e., what you would see in a published book. The letters haa, jim, and kaa, for example, all look radically different depending on where they fall in a word and whether they are in print or handwritten form—so why can’t they offer the answers in handwritten form instead of giving me the print version? It’s impossible for a neophyte like me to check my work! Arrrrrgh!

Another gripe: I find it hard to use this Alif Baa book/DVD/answer key combination ergonomically. I am running the DVD off a laptop, which I have on my lap, and am holding the workbook in front of the laptop, and am keeping the answer key to the right. Holding the workbook mid-air makes my writing sloppy, because I don’t have a firm surface. Even if I did this on my desk, it wouldn’t be comfortable, because my desktop computer’s keyboard would be in front of the workbook. This is a big reason I don’t like multimedia language learning.

Strange—first I hated the Alif Baa book. Then, three days ago, I loved this book. Now I am mostly ambivalent, though I do still love the dictation exercises on the DVD. They remind me of dictation quizzes back in the day at Carlthorp Elementary School in Santa Monica, California. Correctly rendering in writing what I heard spoken was inherently pleasurable to me as a kid, and remains so.

I ate liver for lunch. A quick, cheap meal to fuel my brain cells.

I have learned something new from about the word “vocalize,” the use of which was totally confusing me in Alif Baa. It turns out that “vocalize” can mean not only “to make vocal” or “utter,” but also, in reference to Arabic, Hebrew, and other writing systems that do not generally indicate vowels, “to furnish with vowels or vowel points.” Interesting!

I got some useful advice from the Alif Baa book on the lack of vowels: “To read an unvocalized word correctly, you need to know it, or make an educated guess based on knowledge of Arabic word patterns (this will become clear later on). Learn to associate the pronunciation of each new vocabulary item with its consonant frame, the same way you associate certain pronunciations in English with certain spellings (think of neighbor and weigh, taught and caught). In your native language, you read by word, not by syllable, and it is important to develop this same skill in Arabic.”

Nonetheless, I continue to face various learning challenges with Arabic. First, my different textbooks use different systems of transliteration, so the Arabic words and sentences as rendered in the Latin (i.e., Roman) alphabet look different from one book to the next. In addition, my Pimsleur CDs and my VocabuLearn CDs use two different versions of Arabic, the former a dialect and the latter probably Modern Standard Arabic, so the words don’t sound the same.

In addition, unlike with Russian, I am finding that Arabic words seriously do not stay in my brain. There is nothing to hang most of them on—nothing familiar, nothing similar, and not enough sounds to conjure up an associated image or word in my English-speaking brain. So the Arabic words go completely, totally out of my head. I mean, there is not a single trace left of some of them. It’s a little sad to have them ask in a Pimsleur lesson, “Do you remember…” and I have to shake my head and say, “No.” Again. I actually do that, as though there is someone on the other end listening who cares.

Speaking of Pimsleur, I did a ton of Pimsleur on a six-mile walk in Central Park. So many verb conjugations and tenses were thrown at me, and I couldn’t follow the patterns, so that it seemed like a joke after a while.* It felt something like this.

  1. Here’s a verb totally unlike any other word you have so far learned in Arabic. This is the form for “I [insert verb].” What’s the form for you [verb]? For she [verb]? For he [verb]?
  2. Here’s another verb, totally different. This is the form for “I [insert new verb].” What are the other forms? No relationship whatsoever to what you already know ha ha ha, but try to get them right anyway!
  3. Here’s the past tense. How do you make the future? The present progressive? The future progressive? Ha ha ha ha ha. Good luck with it.
  4. Can’t pronounce the two consecutive consonants at the beginning of the word, and the aspirated h at the end? Do it anyway! Ten times fast! While doing (men’s) pushups!

Seriously, though, it was kind of like, here’s a verb form such as, let’s say, blech. If you’re addressing a woman, add something to the beginning and the end, like btlechti. If you’re talking in the third person about a man, add a y near but not at the beginning. And if you’re talking about a woman, change the y that is near but not at the beginning, and then add a different ending. If it’s future, add ha to the beginning. If it’s past, add na and change the letters after that based on the conjugation. If it’s present progressive or future progressive, here’s yet another pattern. Don’t expect to understand or remember it, but here it is.

Holy crap! I held on through to the end of the Pimsleur lessons and was still able to learn something, but not what I was supposed to. Russian is easier in certain ways, though not in others. There is a simplicity about Arabic, but the patterns, which affect all parts of a word root—beginning, middle, and end—do not really register for me yet. It’s not the way I picture language working, based on past experience.

Also, it feels as though they’re building all these words with only a few sounds, which is partly because I really can’t hear some of the sounds that are being uttered. When there are two consonants in a row, like b and t, I often hear only the t. When there’s an h at the end, I often don’t hear it at all. And the difference between a soft and emphatic consonant, or a long and short vowel, is not always perceptible to me. So I feel as though I am working with a relatively small pool of sounds, and I keep wondering, how can anyone possibly understand me without more sounds?

* I learned not too long after this that I was using an old, defunct version of Pimsleur that should not still have been in circulation; the new version was fine.

Comments (1)

Berkeley Blatz • Posted on Tue, May 26, 2015 - 11:42 am EST

What a coincidence!  Just a few days ago I was passing Carlthorp School on my daily “language walk” through Santa Monica, reviewing Polish and Portuguese vocabulary flashcards at that very moment.  I grew up and still live just a few blocks away on Alta Avenue.  I just retired after teaching English for 41 years at Santa Monica High School. My formal languages were Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Old English.  As a retirement hobby, I’m juggling five new languages.  I just discovered your channel and thoroughly enjoy your daily ups and downs, as well as your great sense of humor.  Hope to keep in touch!

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