I learnt German as a child. It went rather well; my vocabulary isn’t always perfect and my grammar never is, but I’ve pretty much nailed the native accent, and that’s what counts in the “sexy” rankings (because it is well known that anyone who can speak a foreign language is automatically sexier than their monolingual chums, especially and definitely not even if that language is German). However, since untangling the Teutonic tongue, oh goodness, a couple of decades ago now, I have struggled to secure another string to my lingua-bow.
I have but two memories of a year’s worth of Italian tuition at school, one is learning to locate the all-important “dolce” on restaurant menus and the other is watching the film Pinocchio. The mass of wild tangled hair that is all I remember of my teacher would however be proud to know that since the discovery of caffeine in my late teens, my Italian vocabulary has expanded exponentially: cappuccino, latte, grande, biscotti… I can certainly fish out more Italian words from the murky depths of my mind than I can for either of her Romance twins, Spanish and French. Both of these I have laid siege to in adult evening classes, in neither case winning tangible rewards.
The closest I came to trilingual-ism was with Chinese. I remember my pride when towards the end of a year in the Middle Kingdom I was proficient enough to hold my own in a ten-minute socio-economic debate with a taxi driver on the relative merits of life in the UK and China and the comparative disposable incomes of her populations (if I remember rightly the conversation went something like: “England – expensive. China – cheap – me – can buy big things”). On the whole though, given that I was in China for a year, was surrounded by Chinese for every day of that year, and had two lessons a week, really, I should have learnt a lot more than I did.
With four failed language-learning attempts behind me, the possibility has occurred that perhaps I’m not a natural linguist. The possibility has also occurred that perhaps therefore I should stop attempting to learn new languages. After all, Albert Einstein allegedly defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Ergo, if you don’t succeed at something, after one, two or perhaps a dozen attempts: give up, lest you be certified a loon.
Well, I may not have Einstein’s genius, or indeed his mastery of the shabby-chic look in hair-dos. But neither have I his defeatism. Since the beginning of the year I have intended for one of my new things to be a new language, or at least an attempt at one: and so once more into the breach it is.
At a little after 7am last Monday morning, I sat down at my laptop to start a free online learning course in Arabic. Yes, Arabic.
The appeal? Well it is deliciously harsh and guttural and considered ugly by many an un-tuned ear and therefore is remarkably similar to German (which, incidentally, as well as being sexy, is beautiful on the inside once you get to know her). Also, after recent trips to Jordan and Morocco I am vulnerable to the odd daydream of starlit desert sands and the occasional fantasy of running thereto with a handsome kohl-eyed Bedouin. Above all though, Arabic, or indeed, any language, must surely be a doddle compared to the tongue-twisting devilry of French.
It was therefore with a good dose of determined enthusiasm that I began my Arabic lessons, an attitude that was rewarded by a rarely well-structured course. It is modular, and designed to lead you on your first visit through the Arab world in simple conversations from arriving at the airport until departure at the end of your holiday, business trip, pilgrimage, or kohl-eyed husband seeking expedition. Through listening to and repeating lines of dialogue again and again, and recording them yourself and hearing them back, and playing games with key words, I had by the end of the week memorised a not insubstantial little bundle of lines useful in small talk scenarios, and had accrued a vocabulary that encompassed everything from ‘grandmother’ (‘jadda’) to ‘departures’ (‘ar-riHlaat-al-mughaadira’).
What is more, I had learnt just about enough to give me the courage to carry on, and see if I mightn’t learn a little more.
With a week’s worth of lessons behind me therefore, I find all my justifications for attempting Arabic borne out. It is guttural but it is melodic. The ability to say ‘husband’ and ‘let’s go’ has not yet helped me fulfil my Bedouin fantasy, but the mere ability to say these two phrases – along with several dozen others after only a few days – has proved that Arabic is indeed easier than French. Which has given me the idea for another new thing I could attempt this year: perhaps an overhaul of the national curriculum for foreign-languages is needed.
For other curious would-be linguists, I heartily recommend learning Arabic through http://www.arabiconline.eu/.