If you know me at all, you are aware that I am fascinated by languages. I speak English, Spanish, French, and Italian, in rapidly descending order of fluency. Although I once could manage to communicate about everyday matters and punctuation marks in Russian (thanks to 10 years spent teaching English to immigrants from the Former Soviet Union), I am now reduced to asking questions that even I don't understand. I used to speak Guambiano, an indigenous language only found in a particular region of Colombia; after years without practice, I remember how to ask if anyone is home. Nobody answers.
Bells go off, however, when I am offered the opportunity to learn a new language at my place of employment. Once a week, at lunchtime, I will study conversational Arabic. For years I've been wanting to do precisely this! Arabic tops the list of languages (the other is Mandarin) that I have promised myself I will learn to speak before I die. And as I'm not exactly certain just how long I'll be around, I am anxious to begin.
Knowing that I have several weeks to get a head start, I pull out the kit the father of one of my Arabic-speaking interns gave me about 11 years ago. Numerous books on calligraphy, tapes, and grammar study guides spill out. As my course-to-come won't even touch upon reading or writing, I return the contents to their carton.
No problem! There are 1001 ways to learn Arabic via the Internet. Over the next several days, I download the first program I find. Unfortunately, it isn't exactly what I'd had in mind. As much as I would love to understand the Qur'an in its original tongue, I want to speak -- not to pray -- in Arabic.
My next stop is the public library. I find three attractively produced, suitcase-sized boxes of books and CDs that might help me. But what I ultimately check out is the drab, little brown case containing two CDs that promise to teach me Iraqi Arabic. A fortunate coincidence! As I teach six Iraqi adults, one of whom used to be an Arabic instructor, I am certain that this set will give me the vocabulary I'll need to practice during class breaks at night school.
I stick CD number one into my car's player. I quickly pick up some of the some basics: how to ask males and females how they are and how members of each gender can answer, "Fine, thank you!"
"Perfect," I think. "Boy, am I going to surprise my students tonight!"
I arrive early and set about readying my classroom and myself for the evening's lesson. What luck! The first person to enter the room is Ibrahim*, an Iraqi musician. I smile and say, "How are you?", using the proper word endings for his gender.
He stares at me as if I were a deer his car is about to run into.
"How are you, Ibrahim*?" I ask again, a little less sure of myself.
He looks back at me, unblinking and, apparently, in shock.
"Don't you understand me?" I ask him.
"Iraqi Arabic," he says.
"Yes, and shouldn't you be replying 'I am fine, thank you?'" I show off my correct adjective ending, but he just repeats, "Iraqi Arabic."
Fatima*, the former Arabic teacher, saunters into the room. "Good evening," I say in English, following up with "How are you?" in what I am sure is a perfectly pronounced and grammatically correct way.
She stops in her tracks, giving me the same wide-eyed look that I'd received from her fellow country fellow.
I hear laughter coming from a Sudanese woman who has already found her seat in the middle of the room. "What is it, Huda*?" I ask.
"You speak Arabic like a baby," she says.
I take this as a compliment.
On the drive home I start my CD. "I nailed what I learned," I'm thinking to myself, as the CD plays. I know I can't learn everything in one night, so I just listen, certain that with constant review, I'll improve.
The CD voice moves along from basic greetings to family members. Now I'm at the lesson dealing with directions. "North," the man's voice says, first in English, then in Arabic. "South." "East." "West." These words are quickly followed by those for "right" and for "left."
It's late and it's dark and I'm starting to tire, but I figure that I'll stick it out until the end of this unit. My mind is drifting, when I'm called to attention by the CD man's voice shouting, "Drop to the ground! Hold your hands up over your head!"
I practically careen my car into a tree. I pull over, and pull out the little brown box from my glove compartment. I study it carefully, realizing that I have been learning Arabic targeted to U.S. soldiers who were being deployed for combat in Iraq.
I decide to postpone my private studies and to wait to learn Arabic in class. The day before I am scheduled to begin my course, I learn that it has been cancelled.
Disappointed, I enroll in Italian 102. At some point during the first session, it dawns on me that I have no command, whatsoever, of this language -- beyond an ability to order pasta; apparently, nobody has informed me that I've been speaking Spanish all along.
* Names have been changed, sometimes more than once, to protect the innocent.