Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

The Most Frustrating Language in the World

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I anticipate having a heart attack by at least age 35; Arabic may stop my heart well before my third decade commences. Fluency in it has become a primary ambition and I spend several hours a day studying, speaking, and writing. Before moving to the Middle East, I anticipated developing a conversational capability in about ten months. After all, how many people do you know who return from six months in Madrid saying, “Yeah, I can speak Spanish pretty well.”

Those people are either supercilious or sagacious. After 18 months here, I can still barely chat with someone. Thursday evening, for example, I went to dinner with about 30 people from church. The group was divided as follows:
15 – “Belad Issham” (Syria/Lebanon/Palestine)
10 – “Sa’ideen” (Egypt/Luxor/Aswan)
4  – Jordanian
1  – America
These participants organized themselves in a circle, installing the feckless American in the center. He functioned as a coffee table book: many spoke about him, but none ascertained his contents. His questions and timid contributions to the animated conversation were met with the obligatory wrinkled brows and head shaking that would discourage Napoleon. I used the word “trash” at one point.
“What?” my interlocutor said, head shaking.
“Trash” I repeated. More head shaking and brow wrinkling. I thus retrieved my notepad and pen and wrote “trash.”
“Trash,” my friend read, just as I had pronounced it.
“Yeah, trash. That’s what I said.”
“I know. You said that.”

This confusion is caused largely by the various dialects present in the Arab world. One can scarecely select an accent in the UAE, though. I initially learned the Gulf vocabulary, but as my circle of friends expanded, I started to learn Egyptian, Lebanese, and Iraqi words. Great, I thought. Now I’ll sound more provincial.

One afternoon last year I was leaving the base. The guard stopped me and asked for a tissue. We chatted briefly in the Gulf dialect, and I asked if he would have leave soon. When he affirmed positively, I said “Nice”, as an Egyptian would.
“What are you, Egyptian or American? Don’t talk like that,” he said.
This was the first of many times that I learned not to mix dialects.

Arabs themselves complicate the learning process. In the Middle East, English proficiency indicates cultivation and status. On Wednesday evening I was speaking with the building watchman. He’s one of the only people who can tolerate my mangled speech. A sartorial Palestinian entered the building and issued several commands in English. Baffled, Ahmed said nothing (his English is limited to “yes” and “plumber”). I translated the requests for Ahmed, to which the Palestinian replied flippantly, “Uhh! I can speak Arabic.” He then continued for several moments in Arabic before striding towards his waiting Mercedes.

Later, an Egyptian stepped onto the elevator as I was retiring for the evening.

“You still studying Arabic?” he said in English.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said.
“Well, how’s it coming?” he asked eagerly.

Last evening I was out in Bani Yas, a small community 40km from Abu Dhabi. An Emirati family of Yemeni descent has taken me in, and I visit them on weekends. A debate erupted amongst several of the younger boys about how to lose weight (a pending wedding instigated the exchange). Why don’t you ask him, one said, flicking his eyes toward me. No way, the other said. He doesn’t understand anything. What’s worse: not understanding or understanding that you can’t understand?

Written by Spence

February 24th, 2007 at 11:22 am

Posted in Language

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