Some years ago (many in fact, when high school was a very recent memory and the fun times of tertiary education were only beginning to unravel before me) I learned Portuguese. Unlike Afrikaans (one of the eleven, at least, languages spoken in the wide and diverse country that is South Africa), I had actually chosen to learn this language instead of having said education imposed on me as a petulant scholar. Something I became grateful for as time went by and traveling taught me that Afrikaans was in fact a fun and secret South Africans-only code which could be used to ask inappropriate questions or wonder out loud to friends when abroad, safe in the knowledge that you would never be understood. Except when there were Dutch people around, mind you.
But I digress. Unlike Afrikaans, Portuguese was something I had chosen as a challenge, and that was what made it particularly special. That, and the fact that I had fallen head over heels for a girl in Portugal. In the end, I never got the girl, but the language stayed with me and has been intermittently useful in more than a few circumstances since, becoming something that, regardless of my original intentions (cringe), I am really happy that I learned.
Truly, if you should ever feel the need to set yourself a challenge that will leave you feeling like an incompetent dunce faster than you can say Salaam Alekum, then language studies – particularly the ones with their own alphabets – are for you.
It was in this spirit that I enrolled at the beginning of the year to try and learn a new language. Clueless as to what and confronted with a veritable linguistic smörgåsbord at the Language School, I settled on Arabic, after minutes of talking to myself and scanning the course brochures as one might a menu at a restaurant, much to the irritation of the professor in charge.
And so, many weeks ago, our first lesson commenced. At which it became immediately clear that this would be no simple comparison to my warm and fuzzy memories of Portuguese. Oh no. Say goodbye latin characters, who served me so well in grasping the basics of Portuguese (eu falo, nos falamos, tu falas anyone?). Hello to a whole range of new and tongue distorting syllables, coupled with all of the every-object-has-a-gender complexity that made the romance languages a struggle in places as well. It was nothing short of heartbreaking to stare at the coursework and not to be able to understand even the first letter of the first word in an exercise. Truly, if you should ever feel the need to set yourself a challenge that will leave you feeling like an incompetent dunce faster than you can say Salaam Alekum, then language studies – particularly the ones with their own alphabets – are for you.
Thus it has been for weeks now. With each new exercise, each bit of reading reinforcing the crushing feeling that I am just not suited for this. The complexity of trying to be able to read anything, while simultaneously remembering all the new words and the rules of conversations. It was a sad and frustrating cocktail of… well… sadness and frustration.
Until today, when, after what seemed like an eternity of focused concentration and studious checking of the alphabet handout (and the writing handout, and parrot-fashion-scribbled course notes, and…) I actually read a word. A whole word, all by myself. The sudden and delicious realisation that I could actually do something – even a tiny something – made the weeks and weeks worth it. It might be cycling with training wheels, but good god, it is cycling nonetheless!
And you can breathe a sigh of relief that I will not try to deluge you in future with every subsequent word I learn – if for no other reason than I haven’t the foggiest clue how to enter arabic characters through an English keyboard. It was just a special little squeal of achievement this evening that had to be shared. The realisation that learning a new language really is as easy as Wahid (one), Ithnayn (two), Thalatha (three).
Which is to say, hard as hell – but well worth the struggle.