Week three: Arabic breakthroughs
January 26, 2013 4 Comments
One nerve-wracking thing about learning a language as a true beginner is the persistent sensation that everyone knows so much more about it than you. For example, many people in the US have at least a basic exposure to Spanish in their communities, in pop culture, and through TV shows like Dora the Explorer. So when they take Spanish lessons they are not true beginners: they know the names of food words like taco and quesadilla, they know basic numbers and dates like cinco de mayo, and from that knowledge they can come to conclusions about the language: the double l must make a y sound like in quesadilla and tortilla, the number must come first in dates, if you don’t know how to make a noun you can guess by adding el at the beginning and the letter o at the end, like el carro. In learning Arabic, I don’t have any basic tools that come from previous exposure. In looking up Arabic words derived from English I discovered that al means “the,” but that’s about it. I am a true true beginner. Therefore I am certain I must be making mistakes that the other virtual students in my virtual classroom would be rolling their eyes at.
The best way to combat the panic that comes with a true beginner’s lack of self confidence is this: blind faith in the teacher. In this case, it’s blind faith in my Rosetta Stone computer software. I don’t know what I’m saying, but if Rosetta Stone says it’s okay, I’ll believe it. Maha from LearnArabicWithMaha teaches the letters one way, and Rosetta Stone teaches them a little differently, and the people in the different versions of the alphabet song are calling the letters different things, but I have to trust that if I pay attention, be patient, and avoid getting frustrated, soon everything will fall into place. And this week, in my third week of Arabic study, I have been having some small breakthroughs.
- The letters are all coming together… literally.
As I’ve mentioned before, my main Arabic teachers have been Rosetta Stone, Maha from LearnArabicWithMaha, and random other videos I find on Youtube. What’s great is that Rosetta Stone and Maha both taught the same few letters in their introduction to the alphabet. What’s not so great is that Rosetta Stone, Maha, and the random YouTube videos all taught the Arabic alphabet a little differently. Maha started with just five letters and showed how to write them. Rosetta Stone started with the same letters, but always showed them with symbols above them that changed their sound. For example, ت makes a /t/ sound, but the same character with a little round symbol over it makes a “tu” sound, and the same character with a small diagonal mark makes a “ta” sound. (No, I don’t know the real names of these symbols, yet.)
Meanwhile, one of the alphabet videos I found demonstrated three sounds for each letter, so I knew that in addition to “ta” and “tu,” there would be a “ti” sound coming too. And as I progress farther in Rosetta Stone and in Maha’s videos, they begin to allude to these things. Eventually there is an “aha! Things are starting to come together!” moment. Then the letters really do come together, literally, when I start to learn how to connect them. (Arabic letters are written connected to each other, like script or cursive writing that I learned in third grade.) The next lightbulb moment comes when I switch my computer’s language from English to Arabic and start to experiment with writing letters. If I write just one letter, it looks a certain way: غ
But if I write another letter next to it, the first letter changes shape to connect with the second: غع
And a third letter changes the second: غعه
And if I write a whole strong of letters they all connect to each other: غعهخحشسيبلاتن
And if I delete them, the remaining letters change shape once they are no longer connected.
(By the way, even though I said it was a bad idea, I just used Google Translate to make sure I hadn’t just accidentally written something offensive in Arabic. Google Translate says I wrote “Gah.”)
- I’m beginning to recognize parts of speech.
Rosetta Stone taught me pronouns (“he” and “she”) by first teaching me the words for boy and girl, and then teaching me how to say that the boy eats and the girl eats. Then, when it wanted me to repeat two very similar sentences using the words it had taught me for “eats,” I knew it was probably trying to get me to say “he eats” and “she eats.” It taught me how to say “they” in a similar way. If I pay close attention and look for patterns in the phrases I am supposed to produce, I can usually make an educated guess about what I am saying. (There is no way to confirm this, however, as Rosetta Stone is a “full immersion” program– nothing is translated into English or any other language for me.)
Other grammatical structures I (think I) have learned: how to say yes and no, counterintuitive to an English speaker because yes sounds like “nah;” how to recognize a question, and how to recognize Arabic punctuation. Those last three breakthroughs, as you can imagine, came in rapid succession, in a thought process like this:
“What is going on? Why is the picture showing a boy drinking and the voice is talking about eating? Oh, that must mean no! Is the boy eating? No, he is drinking. So “lah” must be no! And that symbol must be a question mark! So question marks in Arabic must be backward! And the little dot must be a period at the end of the sentence!”
- How to pass the Rosetta Stone chapter when I don’t know what I’m saying.
This may not be the best kind of “breakthrough” to have. But I find that as I practice with Rosetta Stone more, I am not only learning Arabic, but I’m also learning how the program works. And that makes it easier to guess what the correct answer will be even when I have no idea what the voice in the program is saying to me. Most of the times when I have to match a sentence with a picture, I am able to do it correctly because I can recognize one word even when I don’t know what the sentence means. I know the word for boy: the program says something in Arabic about a boy sleeping and I can pick the correct picture (the picture of a boy sleeping) although I don’t know the word for sleep. That’s how Rosetta Stone introduces new vocabulary, so often that is intentional. It gets bad when I can do a series of five or six pictures this way, knowing that the set of pictures is supposed to be teaching me a new grammar point but not figuring out what that grammar is. In addition, many times I only get the last correct answer in a set of four questions because I know by process of elimination that it must be the only one I haven’t chosen yet. It feels like I am completing the majority of a lesson while having no inkling of what the goal of the lesson might be. Maybe my only recourse is to just repeat the lesson over and over, slowly, waiting for another “breakthrough.”
Find out how I decided to learn Arabic and how it all got started:
- How to learn to speak Arabic in just one year (In which I think I am *not* getting working knowledge of Arabic for Christmas.)
- My first Arabic lesson EVER (I stop procrastinating, crack out the Rosetta Stone and get started.)
- A true beginner’s first language lesson (Video proof of my [atrocious?] accent.)
- Learning the Arabic alphabet (Because you have to start with the basics.)
- Looking for an Arabic alphabet song (Not as simple as you would think.)