Thoughts from an intensive Arabic classroom

I’ve logged a lot of hours in various language classrooms over the last twelve years. Since 2001, I’ve had classroom instruction in German, French, Italian, Ancient Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Modern Greek; this summer, from the end of May to the end of July, I was in an intensive Arabic program, covering all of the first year in nine weeks. It was an awful lot to manage; four hours of class a day, two hours of language table a week, and then a movie a week, with other things peppered in here and there — and, oh yeah, two tests per week plus 2-3 (if not 3-4) hours of homework per day. At the end of program, even as intense as it been, I was at once marveling at how far it felt like we’d come since “Hi guys, my name is Richard” (مرحبا يا شباب، إسمي رشيارد) on the first day and yet realizing really how little we’ve done in the grand scheme of things of language learning.

A summer intensive course, as I also found with the Modern Greek classes I did in Athens, is a very different beast than an academic year course. Since it’s the summer, people are there for disparate reasons that maybe have nothing to do with academia, or even necessarily with wanting the experience of having a concentrated exposure to the language so that they can be able to speak it and write it. That might be there; it might not. At the Athens Centre, there were Greek-American heritage learners who had time to kill, there were people with touristy motivations, there was a guy who had married a Greek woman and wanted to be better able to raise his kids speaking Greek, and then there was a diplomat who needed to speak Greek for his job. Tourism, love, and heritage seemed to be the basic reasons the people I was in class with had for doing an intensive Greek summer course.

For Arabic, people still seem to have a wide variety of reasons that aren’t necessarily scholarly or linguaphilic, but tourism, love, and heritage weren’t really represented in my class much. The “18 types of people in your Arabic class” list is pretty accurate (even if, as a friend of mine pointed out, “nerdy Orthodox convert” isn’t on there), although there are only 10 people in my class. We didn’t have any Muslim converts, but we certainly have several of the other types.

That in and of itself makes summer intensive Arabic a unique experience, but the whole setup of spending around 40 hours a week for over two months being introduced to a language outside of your own language family also makes it its own thing. Starting out with a new language is already kind of like going on a first date; it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, you don’t know exactly what to say, and you don’t know how to say everything you think you want or need to say, but if you keep doing it you’ll get to a point where you can communicate more comfortably and naturally within a few weeks. The trick, especially in a smallish intensive course, is that the students have to embrace the awkwardness as a group, dive in, trust that everything is going to be okay, and realize that everybody’s in the same boat, especially in an introductory course.

Sometimes a contrary phenomenon can happen, however, and instead the students let anxiety dominate them early on, which results in the class atomizing into smaller groups that don’t overlap much, and really the groups are there for the purpose of resisting, rather than facilitating, language learning. This can give way eventually to something that’s always bizarre to me when I see it, and that’s a student getting angry at a language for not following what they’ve decided is how it “should” function. “I’m confused, because I would have thought that the words for ‘smile’ and ‘laugh’ would be related, and I don’t understand why they aren’t,” is an example that I’ve actually heard of this. The students ultimately spend an amount of time trying to negotiate with and complain to the teacher about what’s going to be on the exam that would have been better used absorbing the language. The opposite problem can also occur, which is that the student confuses being passive with being open to the language, so that effectively they absorb next to nothing — what my wife, seasoned language teacher that she is, describes as “rocks in a stream”. On the one hand, this person isn’t freaking out about the ways the language is different from their native tongue; on the other hand, they think that the effort they’re not putting into it represents effective study habits.

All of that said, it takes a lot of guts to take an intensive language course for a language outside of one’s own language family (especially if one has never learned a foreign language before, as was the case for some in our class), and I’m really glad I had the chance to take the course with the cohort and the teacher I did. It was an interesting group, and our instructor, Basem, a native speaker from Jordan, was absolutely terrific. I did find that Syriac was helpful in terms of at least preparing me for some of the linguistic concepts (as well as not being intimidated by the script); it wasn’t quite like going from Ancient Greek to Modern Greek, but it was sort of along those lines. I don’t know that I’ll get to do any more formal classroom Arabic (I’ve got to spend this year making as much headway on the dissertation as I can), but I’m going to keep it up as much as possible (along with Greek, now that I actually have people willing to speak some Greek with me), and also take advantage of such opportunities as I can to chant in Arabic. I have a set of the chant books by Mitri El Murr, and I’m working through them, albeit a bit slowly, as I’m able.

Anyway — شكرا جدا to SWSEEL and Basem for the language instruction, as well as to the Center for the Study of the Middle East for the FLAS!


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