Monday, November 06, 2006


(Debbie - Posting for Sharon - originally written October 18)

I wonder where Arabic falls in the worldwide ranking of how easy a language is to learn (is there a worldwide ranking? I'd like to see that!) It should be noted that we're not learning Classical Arabic (which basically hasn't changed since the Koran in 622 - and is still used for script and all writing across the Arab world) but are learning Darija, the form spoken here in Morocco. That's what we need for survival and communication.

The easy part about learning the language is that the sounds don't change - the d is always "dih" and a "a as in that," for example. What makes it tough is that most words don't have vowels - so you have something like "lbs" (to wear) or "wqf" (to stop, stand up). In addition, there are several sounds not found in English. They include:
- a d, s and t each with a dot under it - emphatic d, s and t - lower pitch and greater tension in tongue and throat than regular d, s and t (which also exist).
- q - like a "k" (which also exists) but further back in the throat.
- x - like "ch" in Bach - all those years of trying to practice my father's original name are paying off.
- g with a dot over it - like the French "r" - again, this one isn't as much of a problem for me as it is for some people, but it's not easy.
- H - aspirated "h" - more of a whisper - I find it tough to make a distinction between H and h but am getting better.
- E (looks like a curvy sigma from Sharon's writing) - the toughest for me. Kind of like - "a-a" with "a as in fat" but it comes from deep in the throat. I kept wanting to say "e" when I saw "E" but at least I'm getting better at that.
- r is not normal English r, but more Spanish "rrrr"
- there's also a separate sound for "sh," an s with a small u over it (similar to the symbol used to denote a short vowel in English dictionaries)

Another thing that makes Darija tough is that for the most part, the language has nothing to do with languages I've learned before. There are a few words borrowed from French or English (such as "telefon") but everything else requires completely new learning.

More good news - there's no "o" or "long i" sound - the only vowel sounds are "a," "u," and "i" which is "ee." They can be short or long but are basically the same sound. Vowels can be combined.

We're in the throes of verbs now - I'd forgotten how many tenses there are! We did past - there are regular and irregular verbs and I have down most of the ones I'll use most often (imshallah). Now we're doing present, and there are a lot of exceptions that we just have to memorize ("a" becoming "i" or "u" or staying "a" for example) but the conjugation (I, you male, you female, he, she, we, you plural, they) stays the same. And exceptions in the present become exceptions in the future and the imperative is a shorter form of the present - so while it's a lot of words and rules at the moment, it's actually not completely overwhelming.

Sentence structure is pretty standard too. It's time expression - subject - verb - object - and adjectives, adverbs and possessives come after nouns. To negate something, you add ma - at the beginning and sh (the s with the u on top) at the end - so "fhmt," I understood, would become "mafhmts" (the s with the u on top), I didn't understand. (I say both of those quite a bit - one more than the other). Nouns can be masculne or feminine.

We do language 3-4 hours a day at CBT and less at the seminar site. We also spend time on our own - for homework my group writes in a diary every day, and I started my own little dictionary. Mina, our LCF, has a lot of games to help reinforce the lessons. Examples - "I went to the store and I bought" - where you have to remember what everyone before you said and add yours, or "the wind blows for" - which is a musical-chairs kind of game where everyone has a list, you say a word and whoever has that word on their list has to move to a new place, but someone ends up with no seat and has to say the next word, or "Ali says," which is like Simon Says.

We're really learning Survival Arabic so that we can somewhat get out on our own. The Peace Corps will pay for additional tutoring for a year. Some of the topics we've covered so far:
- greetings/describing ourselves
- possessives/pronouns/prepositions
- numbers/telling time/directions
- shopping at the hanut and for fruits and vegetables
- family (so important in Morocco that there are different temrs for relatives on father's side and on mother's side)

As I said, we're in the midst of verbs, but looking ahead in the book I see:
- clothing/bargaining/adjectives
- food and drink
- medical and body
- site visit/travel/hotel/post office
- the Peace Corps mission
- renting a house (safety and security)

At this poing, if I initiate conversation with my family or someone in a store, I can usually have a short dialogue and get my point across and understand the response. If I'm not directly involved in a conversation - the family talking amongst themselves or watching TV - I can pick up a word here and there but generally have no idea what the conversation is about. It's hard to believe that in a few weeks we'll be out on our own - but we know a lot more than we did a few weeks ago. And we do have the tutoring for continuing education.

Script is another thing. One plus is that each letter always has the same sound. Each letter has four forms - one for isolated and then one for the beginning, middle and end of the word. Some letters don't connect to other letters at all. I'd love to get to the point of reading but right now the priority is speaking and we haven't learned all of the letters yet so I haven't tried all that hard. I think it will be fun. Then again, if I'm working with illiterate women, maybe not being able to read will help me relate more.

As for French - I worked with Rosetta Stone this summer but with all that was going on I didn't get very far. At the beginning, I was doing lessons over and over to really get them down - I now wish I had spent less time on more lessons. I also bought a multi-CD set and listened to that on my midwest-farewell driving trips. I haven't used it much though. People in stores will quote prices in French, I did learn the numbers, but I ask them to tell me again in Darija so I can practice it. When I wanted to get digital prints for my host family, I spoke in half-Arabic and half-French, and I think the French was more what I'd picked up over the years than what I studied this summer. I can get tutoring in French, but Peace Corps will pay for it only if I have a valid work reason, and I think that means no. I can work on it on my own just to use when I travel on my own, but in almost any case it'll probably be better to concentrate on the Darija here. Still, if I learn French while I'm here, it will probably come in handy later in life, non?

Having just entered this - written almost 3 weeks ago - I am wondering how much progress you've made since you wrote this!?! Hoping that you are pleasantly surprised!
I think I have made some progress but it is all swiya b swiya - little by little. We will leave training with the ability to get points across, but then we get tutoring...they say that we may be fluent (enough) in a year...
How did the other people like their sites?
Some are happy, some are still adjusting. Partly distance (feeling off the grid), weather (hot in the desert), uncomfortable family siutations or work expectations that may not be met (training center vs. working with small business). Most seem happy - all seem prepared to give it a go.
P.S. I got up early to look at election returns. So far, I like what I see!
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