September 14, 2009 | Arabic

Arab American Association of New York

I visit an English class for Arabic speakers in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Today I visited the Arab American Association of New York in Bay Ridge and sat in on an English class for women, taught by two dedicated recent college graduates. I have been trying to find a non-profit where I could volunteer while also picking up some Arabic, and I think I have now succeeded!

The Sign Out Front

There were about 15 students in the class, and every woman wore a hijab, or head scarf. They came from Yemen, Egypt, and I don’t know where else, and ranged in age from 17 to maybe 60.

The English class was interactive, covering grammar and vocabulary and the kinds of things you’d expect from an English as a Foreign Language class. The women answered questions about what they had done over the weekend and really seemed to enjoy themselves. A few of them are clearly more advanced than the others, and the plan is that I will teach those students in a separate class once a week.

Towards the end of today’s session, a few of the women kindly indulged my efforts to try out my Arabic skills, such as they are. I ran through some of the things I had learned and found, to my delight, that they understood everything I said, including:

  • yom - day
  • ukht - sister
  • Behki arabi shway. - I speak a little Arabic.
  • Ana amerkiye. - I am American.
  • Ma baarif. - I don’t understand.
  • Ismi Ellen. - My name is Ellen.

Fine, I get it, I’m not yet a scintillating conversationalist in Arabic. It was enjoyable nonetheless.

Islamic Society of Bay Ridge

A number of students told me I was learning the wrong dialect, and that I should learn Egyptian Arabic instead. The people who said that were mostly or entirely Egyptian, of course. I would actually have liked to learn Egyptian Arabic, but Pimsleur didn’t have much to offer in that dialect. (This discussion made me uneasy, so I called Rosetta Stone when I got home, and apparently they teach modern standard Arabic in their products. My impression is that I am better off with Pimsleur’s Eastern Arabic, a dialect spoken in multiple countries—Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, I believe—rather than modern standard, which is the language of the media in the Arabic-speaking world, but is not in fact the spoken language of any country.)

Following this dialect advisory session, there was an animated discussion about the best way to pronounce “coffee” in Arabic. There were about four different versions, with people on opposite sides of the room arguing, good-naturedly, about which was correct.

Hookah Lounge, Bay Ridge

After I left the association, I continued with my studies throughout the afternoon and evening. Pronunciation in Arabic continues to be a challenge for me. Unfortunately, I find I have a lot of trouble heeding advice on tongue placement. When I am trying to pronounce things, I don’t like to think about where my tongue should go; I find that boring. As an example, I was just told by the Alif Baa that with the letter daal, my surrounding vowel sounds “should be frontal in quality (remember a in ‘bad’ and e in ‘bet’).” Now, I’ve probably been told what “frontal” means a few hundred times at least, but I do not think that way. I just try to imitate sounds; it’s more fun.

The earnest calligrapher on my Alif Baa DVD seems very nice. I don’t understand what he says, but he says it with a smile, and I like his handwriting. I would like to put his picture in the blog. His name is Professor Sayyid El-Shinnawi, but I can’t find him online. Where are you, professor?

“No” is la in Arabic. Unfortunately, la really does not sound like “no” to me, so it is hard to remember. Plus there are a lot of verbs that don’t sound like what they mean, and verb forms that sound similar, and I get confused between the different verb forms for “she” versus “you” feminine, and “he” versus “you” masculine. It’s a big mess.

I redid lesson 15 (Level I) of Pimsleur late at night and was still getting a lot of it wrong. Below is an example of some of the stuff covered in this lesson (all transliterations, obviously), which may help illustrate why I am still getting so much of the lesson wrong:

  • zamil - male colleague
  • zamili - my male colleague
  • zamilti - my female colleague
  • zamilo - his male colleague
  • zamilto - his female colleague
  • zamila - her male colleague
  • zamilta - her female colleague
  • zamilak - your male colleague (to a man)
  • zamiltak - your female colleague (to a man)
  • zamileik - your male colleague (to a woman)
  • zamilteik - your female colleague (to a woman)

And then check out the verb situation:

  • bifham - I understand
  • abtifham - you understand (to a man)
  • abtifhami - you understand (to a woman)
  • abyefham - he understands
  • abtifham - she understands (is there no difference at all between this and “you understand” spoken to a man?)

Today in my Easy Arabic Grammar (every time I see that title now, I laugh), I saw my first complete sentence in Arabic. The periods go to the left of the text! I love putting periods on the left. I also wrote my own first Arabic sentence. Correctly! And placed the period at the end, on the left. So much fun! The sentence was: “You are Ahmed’s father.”

That sounds like a whole story in itself.

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