“Do you have any idea what’s going on?” I whispered to John, one of three other students in class that day.
“Not at all.”
I felt a small, but not insignificant, wave of relief. It was our 8:30 a.m. advanced Arabic class, Arabic 306, and we were reviewing the first five chapters of the novel we’d just began reading the weekend prior. Or, rather, my professor was reviewing—John and I were trying to look like we understood what was being said while frantically typing words into Google Translate on his computer screen.
When I tell people I’m majoring in Arabic, or that I’m in level 300 classes this year, or that I’m “reading a novel,” I feel like I’m slightly lying. They tend to assume that I must have, by this point, attained some level of fluency.
“Oh wow,” they say. “So you must be pretty good. Can you speak it?”
Only other Arabic majors will know the sad, ironic pain this brings.
The truth is, my most fluent sentence is probably “I don’t understand,” which I forced myself to learn because if there’s anything more embarrassing than not understanding, it’s not being able to say that you don’t understand and having to sit there looking like a red-faced idiot.
There are a lot of layers of shame involved when trying to learn a language. You can fail at conjugation or pronunciation, you could not even know the words you need to express yourself or you may misunderstand the question entirely, responding “Fish, meat or pasta” when they ask you “What do you usually eat for breakfast?”
That day in class, I opted for silence. My professor had proven skillful at knowing when I was entirely out of it, and since she hadn’t yet slipped me so much as a comforting sentence in English, I assumed she wanted me to focus on listening.
I started learning Arabic almost three years ago, when my freshman year advisor convinced me to try 101. It was only the second time in my life I’d ever had to learn an alphabet.
Initially, classes were a blast, with 20 or so students all trying desperately to learn the basics of one of the most difficult languages for English-speakers to acquire. According to the Foreign Service Institute, than Russian, Greek or Hindi, sharing its category only with Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. Needless to say, we had to have fun with it.
“It’s okay to laugh,” our Egyptian TA told us during one of our discussion sections when we all broke out, cackling, at a funny-sounding greeting word that I can’t recall now despite that I’ve probably reviewed it 400 times. “While I was training to be a language teacher, they told us that students would inevitably laugh at some words, since they sound so foreign to you. So it’s okay to laugh.”
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And so for a while, I laughed. For the first two years, I learned what it felt like to not take oneself too seriously—after all, I’d literally just learned my ABC’s, so I wasn’t too harsh about imposing limits and expectations on myself. If I could conjugate at least one verb correctly, it didn’t matter if the rest of my sentence was off. After all, this was learning, this was what progress felt like: a series of small accomplishments within a vast amount of incomprehension.
But by the time everyone finished with their language requirements and jumped ship after three semesters, there weren’t all that many people left to laugh with. There were not enough clueless Johns, with whom I could whisper in moments of confusion and frustration. There were some classes when most my effort was spent by trying not to cry, and some when even a tiny victory felt significant enough to brag about to my mom on the phone later.
“So we were debating the concept of a national language in class today,” I’d recall to her excitedly, “and I was actually able to say something. Like, I told a story. And sort of made an argument. In Arabic. And then I have no idea what they responded. But I’m happy.”
Other days my stories were more along the lines of, “I’m pretty sure I flunked the entire quiz, but on the written portion, there was this one paragraph that I was able to write without thinking about it that much. Like, I just wrote. In Arabic. So I’m happy.”
And then there were the days when I’d call her crying, not so happy.
“I just am not getting any better,” I’d whine after a bad test or particularly confusing class. “I just try and try and nothing works. I’ve been doing this for almost three years now and I’m never going to get there.”
Now, the language has somehow become my major, my nightmare and my obsession, and last Thursday I wrapped it all up with my final Arabic language class at Duke. I turned in my final project, which was a series of four cartoons in Arabic that took me a little over 10 hours to complete. I’m extraordinarily proud of it.
I’m proud because eventually, I stopped caring about grades and started yearning for genuine improvement. I stopped comparing myself to my peers and keeping track of my average, and instead focused on what I needed to do to get better, even if progress felt infinitesimally slow.
I’m proud because I entered Duke with the mission of learning more about the Arab world and the Middle East, and although I have yet to take any history courses, I can at least pronounce and spell the names of countries, cities and people the way they are meant to be said.
And I’m proud because, for three years, I learned to swallow my pride and be bad at something until eventually I was ok at it. My accomplishments from Arabic 305 and 306 can be summed up in a few small moments of glory, which would probably pale in comparison to what I’ve accomplished in other classes.
But, as my favorite author David Sedaris knows, “Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive.” It was only a few “ah-ha” moments that made weeks and months and years of demoralization and trekking to the John Hope Franklin Center worth it.
The homework took hours. The novel took a few all-nighters. And I may still not have much of a clue as to what’s going on—but you can’t say I didn’t try.
Daniela Flamini is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.