As you might know, this is not my first time at bat with Arabic. I first joined the tens of thousands of other Americans learning Arabic my sophomore year of college. I felt like I “fell in love” with the language. How it sounded, how it felt to write the letters, and how the letter roots combined with word forms combined to make thousands of meanings. Not only that, but I felt like I was learning it quickly. I developed this over-confident idea that “Arabic is going to be my thing.” I applied for the Language Flagship Program and had it in my head that I would pass this rigorous language test and spend my first post-college year studying intensive Arabic at the American University in Cairo. Everything was exciting and fast moving.
I wish I could tell naïve, eager-beaver Julie that language learning is never “exciting and fast moving.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
A Tale of Two Language Classes
When I returned to college for my senior year, after spending a semester in Turkey, I entered a semester behind my previous classmates from Arabic. Moreover, my university’s new, more competitive Arabic program was designed to accelerate classes through hours of meticulously marked homework, completing one “Al-Kitaab” chapter per week, and tricky exams. At the rate I was going, it became clear that I wasn’t going to pass that Flagship test.
That year, I enrolled in both Turkish and Arabic, and my two language classes created a perfect juxtaposition. My Turkish class had about six people, and we started our mornings sitting around a coffee table drinking tea and eating cakes baked by our cheerful professor. In Arabic class, my strict professor had our full class memorize ten different verb forms and tested us on having each vowel perfectly placed for each conditional, irregular verb and plural noun. In Turkish, we wrote weekly journal entries, which were graded with helpful corrections, smiley faces and “süper”s. My Turkish professor even invited us to her home, where we learned to make baklava and played games. Our Arabic professor never failed to remind us that even though our class was “Intermediate Arabic II” on paper, we were really closer to “Beginner I” than anything else. I binge studied for my Arabic final for 14 hours. For Turkish, I spent about an hour a day consistently on homework and studying for exams. Still, I got a better grade in Turkish than I did in Arabic.
So, you get the point. Turkish class was “easier” while Arabic class was a giant struggle. But in the end, it turns out that having a fun, positive, and safe language class provided me with more encouragement to keep going. I moved back to Turkey after college and continued practicing by talking with friends, self-study, watching soap operas, and listening to music.
Of course, there were days where I felt like giving up, because I couldn’t participate in lunchtime conversations, and no matter how many times I asked for water (su), the man at the store didn’t understand me. But the encouragement of my friends, classmates, and previous successes made me wake up everyday and keep trying. By contrast, after college, I stopped learning Arabic altogether—it felt hopeless.
You see, for me, by far the hardest part of learning a language is not conjugation, grammar, or vocabulary, but rather, my feelings. There is never a time when I feel more vulnerable and “unintelligent” than when I’m speaking in a language that’s not my own. Many late language learners might relate to frustrating moments such as:
These seemingly-small frustrations happen all day, every day; and they build up. Overall, the process of learning a language—both in the classroom and through immersion—is so slow, grating, and unglamorous that in my view, learners need all the encouragement they can get.
Where I’m At Now
Given my previous Arabic experience, I was nervous to relearn the basics and enter the world of Darija (Moroccan Arabic). But I was pleasantly surprised—the Peace Corps language program, known for being effective, is the least competitive learning environment I’ve experienced. We weren’t given hours of meticulously-graded homework, because hanging out with our host families was practice enough. And while we spent a lot of time in the classroom, our progress was never measured against one another. Instead, our activities were collaborative; we performed dialogues, shared stories, and created games. Our classroom reminded me of Turkish class back in college. It made me feel like I could keep learning.
Now we’re on our own, with no teacher to tell us how much we’ve improved and no test to motivate us to study. I’m back where I was when I was living in Istanbul, with no idea whether my language skills are advancing, stagnating, or declining. Now that I live in my own house, I’m getting even less practice than before. Regardless of the reality, I constantly feel like I’m not where I should be, and I’m confronting those “everyday frustrations” alone, without validation.
Highway to Nowhere?
To move forward and stay sane, I need to master not the language, but rather, my feelings. I need to focus on what worked with Turkish, and what didn’t work with Fusha (the Modern Standard Arabic I learned in college). I supposedly “loved” Arabic, but I let it go so easily when I realized I couldn’t be the best. In reality, there is no end to language learning, and I’m so far from native-level proficiency in either language, that even saying those words is laughable.
What got me to keep learning Turkish wasn’t being the best, but instead, connecting with the language and its speakers in small, inconsistent bursts. Those moments when I had a really great conversation, led a class, had a meeting, or attended a social gathering with no problem. There will always be better non-native speakers than me. But those memories and moments, with those people, in that language, will always be my own.
To use a cliché, language learning is a long, bumpy road with no real end, but lots of nice cafés along the way. And a healthy language-learning environment makes you feel like you’re worth it, that you should keep going; no matter how fast you go, or how stupid you look. When I help other people with English, I focus on fostering this confidence above all else. And even if learning new languages isn’t really your thing, I think you can apply this philosophy to learning anything else in life, too.