September 16, 2009 | Arabic

My First English Class, Arab American Association

I teach English in Brooklyn and learn some Arabic, too.

I’ve been noticing something cool about Arabic. Americans claim fluency very easily in other languages—Spanish or French, for example—when they really aren’t fluent. In Arabic, however, no one I’ve encountered so far, other than native speakers, claims fluency. People will say, “I studied it for four years,” or something like that. But they don’t claim to speak it. This is more evidence of its difficulty, which forces refreshing honesty on people.

It’s funny how with some words, you just get a major mental block. Day after day, I cannot remember the Arabic word for “male colleague” (which is different from the word for “female colleague”). Each time I think, is it zalmi? And each time I know that’s wrong; it is in fact zamil. I’ve done the same Pimsleur lesson four times now, over four days, and the word comes up every time, and I still can’t conjure it from my brain. Argh.

I have been continuing with the old, out-of-date, bad Pimsleur that Kelly at Simon & Schuster urged me to replace. That’s because I don’t want to pay for the updated replacement. Unfortunately, I just am not retaining this stuff. The verbs aren’t sticking at all, and I’m not really getting the grammatical patterns. The timing is definitely way off on this old Pimsleur. Too much information, too quickly, with too little reinforcement. He did warn me, though…

Today I taught my first class at the Arab American Association in Bay Ridge. It consisted of four of the more advanced students from the class I sat in on the other day.

Arab American Association of New York

Their Reception Area

One was a grandmother who had never gone to school in her home country; I don’t remember which that was—maybe Egypt or Yemen. I don’t think she has been here all that long. She said she had been taking care of her grandson, but when he went to school, she began looking everywhere for English classes for herself. Despite her lack of formal education, she was often better at guessing the pronunciation of challenging words in English than the other three, much younger students in the room, all of whom had gone to school. For example, “taught” versus “through” versus “thorough” versus “tough.” I was blown away. With an education, she could have done incredibly well. She is gentle and tender. She made me smile by repeatedly saying, “Excuse me, teacher,” except that she tended to drop the er so that it sounded like, “Excuse me, teach.” She really moved me.

Another woman is 21, from Egypt. She has a big smile and lively eyes, and usually attends these classes with her younger sister, though the sister was out sick today.

Then there was a middle-aged woman who also comes to classes with her sister. She said she was a lawyer in Egypt and has been in the U.S. for years, while her sister has been here for only a short time. The sister stayed in the other, more basic class.

Bay Ridge Street

The fourth student is from Yemen. Her listening and reading comprehension is not great, but she has been picking things up very quickly. She has an electronic translator, which she operates with great dedication and determination. I really liked her.

I brought a New York Times article to the class, not all that fascinating, and probably too difficult, it turned out, about a proposed smoking ban in New York City parks and beaches. We worked on pronunciation, reading, some writing, and vocabulary. As we went through the article, they kept translating into Arabic, so I told them they had to speak in English, even though I would have preferred for my own interests that they speak only Arabic.

One thing I found interesting was that all four students consistently read contractions as though they were not contractions. For instance, even if it said isn’t or I’d, they would read is not or I would. It’s little details like that that often reveal a non-native speaker, so I had them do some extra practice reading those aloud.

At one point during the class I wrote a word they said in Arabic, ﻧﻬﺭ (pronounced nahr and meaning “river” ), and they proclaimed it perfect. One student said, “Soon you can teach us Arabic.” I laughed.

Today I learned that question marks are backwards in Arabic. They look so cool. I also saw my first upside-down and backwards comma!

After class, as I was crossing Bay Ridge’s Fifth Avenue (very different from the Fifth Avenue in Manhattan!), I saw the first burka-wearing woman I have ever seen in New York, or probably anywhere. The burka was black, and she was jaywalking. Somewhat incongruously, I thought, she had on what looked like decorated ballet flats, of a creamish color. The only thing I could see of her was maybe the tops of her feet and a sliver of skin around her eyes. She didn’t have that perforated veil I’ve seen, and her burka didn’t seem as heavy as some others, but I find this clothing disturbing.

Esaefan Jewelry, Bay Ridge

On my way home, I stopped off for an appointment with another non-profit catering to the Arabic community. They require a commitment longer than I can make, unfortunately, so it looks as though I won’t be working with them. During my interview, we discussed two girls (clients of the organization) whom I could perhaps have taught but who can’t meet in the afternoon, mostly because their fathers are so concerned about keeping tabs on them. The dads had to be “worked on” forever before the girls could even be taken on a trip to Central Park.

After the interview, I got back on the subway to go home and promptly crossed paths with a scary homeless man, older but strangely aggressive. He reminded me of my early years in New York, when I used to teach a lot in not-so-great neighborhoods. No one in the subway car would pay attention to him, and he was not beyond threats. “I’m homeless, and I’m out of work,” he said, “and that’s a bad combination.” Then he offered candy. “Twenty-five cents is a small price to pay to feed another human being. I’m not psycho—not yet.” Then he reassured us that the candy was good and said, creepily, “Don’t be afraid.”

On all my subway rides around Brooklyn and Manhattan today I studied grammar, and I did additional Pimsleur work in the evening at home, but I would say the main focus of the day was on roaming the city and learning more about this world of mine that has become too small, and I fear too spoiled, in recent years.

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