Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fun with Arabic

Learning Arabic is a life-long process. Just when you think you've mastered a few words, they change. The following was posted by one of our team members who can laugh - today - about some of his learning experiences.

Learning Arabic can be fun and frustrating at the same time. I have to admit that I hated taking English grammar classes when I was in school as a kid. I think most people agree that grammar is boring with not much use in the real world. Well, I am leaning that might be true in your native language, but when trying to learn a new language, learning grammar of that language can be very helpful and even fun at times. For any of you who have attempted to learn Arabic you know there are very few things that are fun when it comes to the language.

While living in one part of the Middle East, I learned to say to the gas station attendant (there is no self-service here), “fillilha.” I kept trying to figure out what Arabic verb the word derived from. In Arabic, you can take a verb and add a pronoun to create a direct object of the verb. For example, the word “suft” means I saw. Therefore, if you add the pronoun “ha” for her, she or it, to form “suftha” it now means I saw her. Well I knew that the “ha” apart of the “fillilha” corresponds to the car, in Arabic words have gender, and the word for car “sayyara” is feminine. See I told you grammar could be fun.

However, for the life of me I could not find the verb “fillil” anywhere, not even in the dictionary. I finally asked my Arab tutor what verb in Arabic this came from. He looked at me quizzically and said “how I don’t know it is English”. I said “English!”, and then it hit me the word that I though was Arabic was just the English word “fill” with the Arabic object for it attached. The il might come from definite article meaning “the”. So “fillilha” means fill the car or fill it. I guess the word could be called Engbic or Arablish, some might just call it Gibberish.

Now here comes the not so fun part, as soon as you think you understand the rules for Arabic some Arabic speaker will change them on you.

After moving to another part of the Middle East, I had to learn many new rules and I am still learning. On a recent youth outing with a Palestinian friend, we stopped to get gas. Now I have stopped to get gas with this friend many times. After I told the gas station attendant “fillilha” which my friend had heard me say numerous times, he finally broke down and said emphatically “you should use Arabic.” I told my friend that I learned to say it that way and in fact, I have heard many Arabs say the same thing. He said yes but it makes you sound like a foreigner. I quickly pointed out to him that I am indeed a foreigner. “No you sound like you are from Jordan” he said “that is a different kind of foreigner than the kind of foreigner you are”.

He also lectured me that if I was going to live here I should talk more like the locals. Wanting to learn as much as I could and not wanting to appear to be the wrong kind of foreigner, I relented, putting aside a trusted and familiar often-used phrase for a new one. So I said to him “OK what do people here say”. He replied “full”. “Full” I said excitedly “that is not Arabic nor does it even sound right in English.” He said “yes but they know what you mean”. Needless to say I don’t go to gas stations with him anymore.

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