The Dream of Fluency

After studying Arabic for two and a half years, I'm still learning

By / September 2018

Before we moved to Jordan in 2015, I read these lines in a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye: “Until you speak Arabic/ you will not understand pain.” I took a pen and copied the words into my journal. Learning Arabic was on my horizon, so although I didn’t understand what she meant, I figured these phrases held hidden wisdom for me.

Austin and I had talked to several people about learning Arabic, and their opinion was unanimous: Arabic is hard. Of course, “hard” is relative, unquantifiable. Early in our marriage, we’d spent two years in Palestine, where Austin had studied Hebrew and I had absorbed enough to get around. Had that been “hard”?

Someone told us, “Unless you’ve been in the army or gotten a PhD, learning Arabic will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.” That was getting a little closer to understandable. When we applied to study Arabic at a private language center in Amman, Austin was completing his doctoral dissertation. As his wife, I had an idea about the perseverance required to finish a PhD. Was that what Nye meant in her poem?  

As we packed up our life in the Chicago suburbs, we learned what the U.S. government thinks about Arabic. Based on years of teaching languages to diplomats, the Foreign Service Institute neatly tabulates 67 languages into four categories: Category I Languages, Category II Languages, Category III (“hard languages”), and Category IV (“super-hard languages”).

Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic are the “super-hard” beasts, languages the FSI describes as “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.” On average, they require a student to spend 88 weeks, or 2200 hours, in the classroom to reach a Speaking 3/Reading 3, or “professional working proficiency,” level. (S4/R4 is what we might call “fluent,” while S5/R5 is considered “bilingual.”). The webpage noted that these figures assumed no prior knowledge of the language, but also “assumed that the student has an above average aptitude for classroom learning of foreign languages.”

Still safe in America, I read those tables and shut my laptop. Because I’d been homeschooled and never studied a foreign language in college, I didn’t know what kind of aptitude I’d have for learning Arabic. My memories of studying Spanish (Category I, 600 hours) in high school involved sitting in the corner of my room with a textbook in hand, listening to sentences from the CD in my boom box and softly repeating them.

Yet somehow, despite my inexperience (or maybe because of it), I flew into Amman with six pieces of luggage and a whole lot of self-confidence. My expectation (which I did not recognize as high) was that after two years of Arabic study, I’d come out pretty fluent.

My first semester class contained a hodgepodge of nationalities—two Brits, two South Koreans, a Latino, a Norwegian, a few fellow Americans. We met five hours a day, four days a week, to study Arabic. Some of us were married; I was the only one with a small child to limit my study time. Still, I chose to start in the textbook with Arabic script instead of English transliteration. I’d practiced writing the 28 letters in sidewalk chalk on my in-laws’ porch before we left.

During the third week of school, we were supposed to show a family picture to five Arabs and explain who each person was. With two photos in hand, I crossed the hallway and knocked on our elderly neighbor’s door. I kneeled near her chair, where she sat in front of a gas heater, and pulled out my pictures. I struggled with the Arabic words for “firefighter,” “midwife,” and “veterinarian,” all professions in my family. I attempted different combinations of vowels and letters, tried to emphasize the sounds we don’t have in English.

My neighbor sat back and looked at me. Her sagging face was framed by the gray roots of her hair, which needed dyeing. She couldn’t understand what I wanted to say, but she did have some advice. “Learn Arabic very well,” she told me, in English.

So I continued to learn, though only time would tell if I was learning “very well.” On a school day, after picking up our two-year-old from daycare, Austin and I would eat lunch before sitting down to study. I’d dive into my elementary school notebook with a famous soccer player on the cover, facing pages of vocabulary that multiplied daily. Before dinner, we took walks, pushing our son in the stroller, and all we’d talk about was Arabic, comparing words from our separate classes, testing our pronunciation on each other.

By the end of our first semester, I decided Arabic was more like a castle than a house, and I’d only just opened the door and stepped inside. I had an idea about the language, what was contained in the vast rooms above me. I could say a lot, but without an ounce of precision. I could conjugate verbs in past, present, and future, though my teachers said to expect a year before I could do so easily.

Expect a year. At that point, I had a lot of expectations for myself, and waiting a year for verbs to flow was not one of them. I buckled down hard. I spent an inordinate amount of mental energy conjugating verbs. Before visiting someone or going to the store, I prepared conversations in my head, thought of questions I could ask or statements I could make to sound good. Almost every day, I came home and was pummeled with things I could have said, ways I should have conjugated verbs, how I had used the feminine instead of the masculine.

That first year, I encountered lots of things I didn’t expect, besides verbs. I didn’t expect that my Arabic voice would sound different than my English voice. That people would laugh at me for saying something correctly, like how we laugh at babies when they babble. That in the same day I would feel the heights of exhilaration (after correctly expressing my opinion, perhaps) and the depths of humiliation (finding myself tongue-tied when greeting the trash man).

I didn’t expect the exhaustion that comes with learning a language, and how Arabs couldn’t understand this constant in my life. I wished I could explain how exhausting it was going to the grocery store—staring at bottles of dairy products to figure out if they were milk or the popular salty yogurt drink; how I got nervous when I had to ask the butcher to cut my whole chicken in fourths; how unhinging it felt to stand in the produce section and forget the English word for kusa. There they were, sitting in front me, green and long, and all I had was a glowing white space in my head where the word zucchini used to sit.

I tried to explain my feelings to a neighbor once. I had the verb for “feel” and the adjective “tired” and the qualifier “very,” which I added to everything, when I knew there were more precise words, probably thesaurus columns full. And this is what came out: “I feel very, very tired because of the life in a new place.”

I didn’t expect that after a few months in Jordan, I would be prescribed an anti-anxiety medication. This reminded me of Nye’s poem: “Until you speak Arabic/ you will not understand pain.” Anxiety is not painful; it is uncomfortable. It makes you feel like you can’t breathe. It made me breakdown emotionally every couple of weeks. It began to rob my sleep. Especially on Thursday nights, after a week of classes, my brain felt like a record with two tracks. I couldn’t fall asleep in the Arabic track. As I lay in the dark, I struggled to move the record player’s needle to the English track, fought to banish every Arabic word from my consciousness so I could relax.

One or two expat friends saw what a mess I was. “Heather, you don’t have to do this,” they told me. “There are different ways to learn Arabic. You can slow down.” Mostly, their suggestions annoyed me. I still expected to finish two years at our language center and come out speaking better than most. I made small concessions, like dropping out of grammar classes to focus more on speaking. But really, I could not let go.

After three semesters, I decided Arabic was like a skeleton—I’d excavated the bones and put them together, but there was no muscle. After more than 1,000 classroom hours, my Arabic was still emaciated. And like it or not, I started to see that I was emaciated, too, and that my body was beginning to fall apart.

When I came down with mono, we went to the US for several weeks to rest, and instead of resting, I got insomnia. I was eventually diagnosed with adrenal fatigue and depression. I doubt Naomi Shihab Nye had an obsessive relationship with the Arabic language, or that she developed an anxiety disorder because of it, but by then I was sure I understood (for me) what her poem meant.

In the fourteen months we stayed in the US, I spoke Arabic less than three hours. As I lay flat on the couch, I was humbled. As friends brought us meals, I felt loved–even if, practically speaking, I had failed. “Learning Arabic almost killed me,” I started to joke with people, and because the joke was partly true, I knew I had to change.

If I was going to live happily anywhere, I would have to slow down. I would have to take more naps, take up knitting, be quiet more. I started to practice new skills, like identifying expectations and lowering them, like watching Arabic cartoons without panicking.

When we returned to Amman last year, the unexpected struck again. I found that my year-of-not-speaking Arabic had helped me understand it. One day, as I was playing with my son, the vegetable truck drove by, the loud speaker shouting its wares. Suddenly, an auditory string of fruits and vegetables hit me, and I sat up straight and smiled. I knew exactly what the voice was saying.

Two and a half years after I first began studying Arabic, my relationship with the language is no longer dysfunctional. I now go to school just once a week. I continue to collect words in too many notebooks. Every week I meet words I’m not sure how I’ve lived without. Sometimes when I walk away from a session with my tutor, I feel like a pirate carrying away a bag of jewels—verbs, expressions, adjectives. I continue to make mistakes every time I open my mouth, but now I don’t dwell on them. I note them and keep walking.

While my son is at kindergarten, I run around the city visiting women—Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Jordanians—who speak a baffling variety of dialects. I still feel like I’m drowning sometimes, but I try to imagine the water like a shower flowing over me, rather than waves pulling me down. As I listen to the stories of refugees, learning words like “bombing” and “missile launcher,” I feel Nye’s words gaining a new layer of meaning. To speak Arabic is to understand pain—not my pain only, but the pain of millions around me.  

I have discarded the expectation that I will ever gain fluency in this language. Newcomers, when they hear we’ve been in Amman for two and a half years, raise their eyebrows and comment, “Oh, so you must be pretty fluent.” I try not to laugh in their faces.


Heather M. Surls is a writer in Amman.