Thursday, October 23, 2008

On Language Frustration

Until about a week ago, my host family had assumed I was learning Fusha (Fuss-ha) rather than Darija (dah-ri-zya). Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the international standard form, the lingua franca of the Arab world, and mostly the same as Qur’anic Arabic. My host family made this assumption in part because most people study Fusha; it’s much more useful and a lot easier than Moroccan Arabic, which is a dialect further removed from Fusha than any other. Darija is completely incomprehensible to any other Arabic-speaker, with the exception maybe of Algerians. But my host family also assumed I was learning Fusha because, even though it is spoken every day at home and on the street, Moroccan Arabic is not considered a ‘real’ language. It is considered something of a bastard child; it is not literary, and it is not worthy of real study. It is not taught at a university level, and Arabic-language Moroccan publications generally write in MSA, not in Darija (though there are a few exceptions). So if you want to really learn Arabic, you need to study the ‘real’ Arabic: Fusha.*

In any case, because she assumed I was learning Fusha, Manal kept correcting the words she saw me writing on flash cards. I was spelling them wrong, she said, I was forgetting letters.** “Is that what they’re teaching you?” she would ask me with quiet outrage in her voice. Finally, it dawned on me that she didn’t realize I was learning the spoken language, not the official standard. So I explained. She was surprised. Why would I want to learn the dialect? It’s not useful at all, it’s no good! When I asked her why, precisely, she didn’t really have an answer. “Because it is, it’s just better, it’s the ‘true’ language’,” she said, making heavy movements with her arms to convey to me the solidity of MSA. “Darija is not good, the words aren’t pronounced right,” she said, with an expression of disdain. “It shouldn’t be ‘tlata’ [‘three’]; it should be ‘thalatha’.” Because she was hard-pressed to explain to me why Darija was so bad and MSA so good, this must be something that is implicitly understood or natural, to Moroccans. The language used in daily communication isn’t official, and it simply isn’t a real ‘language’. And consequently it seems difficult for them to understand why I would want to learn this language. Even my usual explanation, that it’s for my research, that it’s because I want to talk to people, didn’t satisfy Manal. “But you can speak to them in Fusha,” she said, “and then you can use it beyond Morocco.” Only when I told her that I wanted to be able to speak to people of all backgrounds, including those who haven’t had enough education to speak Fusha, did she seem to accept my reasons.

But now that my host family has realized I am learning Darija rather than Fusha, and kind of speak some already, they are making an effort to speak Arabic rather than French. This is good, because I need the practice, but my synapses seem to be getting completely overwhelmed. These days I am constantly moving back and forth between four languages: I speak Dutch at the NIMAR (where I’ve been going regularly to work on my grant application in peace), I write my notes and this blog in English, and try to converse with my family and other people in either French or Arabic. Especially with regard to the latter two, I get my words completely mixed up and often find myself starting a sentence in French and ending up in Arabic, or the other way around. The thing is that I need to learn both, but trying to work on them simultaneously is not going as well as I hoped; it seems as though my brain cannot keep up. French was going pretty well, but now that I’ve added Arabic, my ability to communicate has seriously deteriorated.

Usually when someone speaks slowly – and when my brain is quick enough in processing to actually let me say, ‘could you slow down a little please?’ – I can understand what they want and ask for the meaning of the words I don’t know. But sometimes it goes too fast. I need to process the sounds more slowly than they are pronounced, and while my head is doing that I just sit there being silent while everyone is looking at me. Realizing I don’t understand what has been said my host family will begin repeating the keyword from the sentence, which is usually the word I do happen to know – it’s the little in-between-words, the connectors, that I don’t get. Did they ask me to bring *them* some milk, or offer themselves to bring *me* some? And then for some reason, I freeze: I get overwhelmed because I am still trying to figure out which form of the verb ‘to bring’*** they used while they keep repeating: “‘milk!’ Do you understand? ‘Milk’?” And because I am getting nervous, because I need to respond and stop looking so stupid, my brain just stops and leaves me feeling completely inadequate. I really wish my brain was quicker.

In addition to that, my mouth just does not seem made for Arabic. I can pronounce the qaf, the ‘k’ that is pronounced deep in the mouth, and I am getting better at distinguishing between the light and heavy ‘t’, the light and heavy ‘s’, and the light and heavy ‘d’. I am even starting to get the hang of the ‘ayn, the letter that doesn’t have anything remotely similar in any European language and comes from really far down in the throat. But my big problem – my Achilles heel – is the ‘r’. I cannot, to save my life, produce a nice, rolling, Spanish ‘r’. I do not know why, but I have never been able to. This is something that I wasn’t aware of until a few years ago. In Dutch the r is not that prominent a letter, and you can get away with pronouncing it more like a French ‘r’ than a Spanish one – and the French ‘r’ is as far as I get. I hear the difference between the two ‘r’s when other people pronounce them, and I even hear the difference in my own head when I say them. But apparently, they come out sounding exactly the same to everyone else.

In any other language, this wouldn’t be a huge issue – I wouldn’t pronounce words exactly the way they’re supposed to be pronounced, but at least the meaning would be clear. In Arabic, however, it just so happens that both ‘r’s exist, as two separate letters. There is the ghayn, which approximates the French ‘r’ (and which I am an expert at pronouncing), and then there is the ra, the true rolling ‘r’. So in Arabic, my speech impediment can lead to a lot of confusion. ‘Morocco’, in Arabic, is ‘l-Maghrib’: the ghayn followed by the ra. Can you pronounce that? Because I can’t. In my head it sounds great, but apparently it comes out as ‘l-Maghghib’. In this case, people will still know what I’m trying to say. But what about the difference between ‘bgha’, to want, and ‘bra’, to heal?

But I need to stop letting my frustration at not doing everything right, or not knowing everything, get the better of me. I have the tendency to despair at my own inabilities. I am not someone who is good at practicing, someone who derives satisfaction from working long and hard at something to improve a skill. To me, that is only frustrating. I love learning, practicing at something and I can be quite the workaholic – but only if it goes well, only as long as I make no mistakes. I hate the feeling of not being good at something; it makes me feel inadequate and unworthy. And this is how I feel, much of the time, when it comes to speaking Arabic and French. I hate the fact that I don’t immediately understand things that are said, and I hate it even more that I cannot produce these two languages in the way that I want. I literally feel like a dumb blonde in my Arabic class. I feel ashamed toward Ilyas, because I read slowly and completely mispronounce the words I do not know, and I feel ashamed because I do not understand what is being said in the Moroccan songs he plays. And I feel ashamed because I do not know how to formulate all these burning questions I have. He brings up the most interesting subjects in class – the Moroccan work ethic, the role of the King in government, the relationship of Sufism to Moroccan Islam and to the tradition of saint worship – and there is so much I want to know about all of this. But because I cannot find the right words in Arabic, even in French, I have two options, both of which make me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Either I keep my mouth shut and agonize over the fact that he thinks I am not interested in any of this, or I speak English, which makes me feel like I am committing a huge sin; I am not supposed to be speaking English. I am supposed to struggle with Arabic. But for some reason, even though I tell myself it’s ridiculous, I would rather be quiet and appear stupid than speak and reveal that I am imperfect.

I just need to snap out of this and use what I don’t know as motivation to keep going. I need to stop worrying about not being able to say things and just work at slowly learning what the right words are, through practice, and by making mistakes. I need to stop worrying about what my teacher thinks and remember that I am probably not that much worse than the average European/American trying to learn Arabic. And hope beyond all hope that at some point I will actually reach my goal, actually be able to converse in Arabic – and in French – without worrying about making mistakes, and without getting confused between the two. For now, that goal seems impossibly elusive.

* Perhaps this is why Moroccans had no issue integrating French into their language – because Moroccan Arabic is not ‘real’, there was no issue of ‘polluting’ their language with foreign influences – they way they would certainly feel if someone were to introduce foreign words into Modern Standard Arabic. The Arabic of the Qur’an is considered holy because it is the language God chose to reveal his last message in, and so cannot be altered. Technically, the Qur’an should not even be translated.
** In many ways, Darija is Fusha with all vowels eliminated. And with a lot of French added in.
*** The verb is ‘jab’ (‘zyab’); ‘bring me’ is ‘jibli’ (‘zyeeblee’), and ‘I’ll bring you is ‘njibik’ (n-zyeebik’). Especially when a sentence is pronounced at normal speed, the letters at the beginning and end of a word are hard to pick up. Milk, incidentally, is ‘hlib’ (‘hleeb’, with a very thick ‘h’).

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