Think French is hard? Try studying Arabic

Instructor Awatef Samaan stared down her nose, through her reading glasses at George Zarubin. Her gold earrings jumped as she demanded, “Where the letter? Why you eat it?” Hunched over his textbook, Zarubin clearly had no idea what he’d eaten.

But then, neither did the rest of us.

Straightening up, Samaan articulated the word again and then listened, head tilted, as we echoed back to her. Twice more, she repeated the exercise, pausing each time to listen to us. Finally, she rolled her eyes and chuckled at us. We had a lot to learn.

Learning any language from scratch can be daunting. French students have to wrestle with the perplexing question of gender; why is the vagina masculine? For Spanish students, there is the maze called the subjunctive. And in Chinese, slight tonal fluctuations can leave students floundering in a linguistic puddle.

For beginner Arabic speakers, the first hurdle is the alphabet, with its letters that constantly change pronunciation and appearance depending on where they are located in a word. Recognizing the letters is an achievement, let alone picking out a whole word.

Which is why, during my first few “Arabic Level I” classes at the Middle East Institute (MEI), my classmates and I learned one or two basic phrases — “my name is” and “I am from” — and spent the rest of our time plowing through words like pistachio, eclipse, friends, sinful, destruction and cholera. By lesson five we had mastered the exceptionally useful terms “gizzard” and the female word for “bodyguard.”

The class, which runs from 8 to 10 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, is one of four introductory modern standard Arabic classes tucked into a brownstone a few blocks off Dupont Circle. Hebrew, Persian and Turkish language classes are also available.

Classes aren’t inexpensive ($440 for nonmembers), and the cost doesn’t include the $60 textbook. With that in mind, you’re going to get your money’s worth as you grind your way through unfamiliar vocabulary in response to good-humored instruction.
Students come from a variety of linguistic backgrounds. Some took Arabic in college and want a refresher, others are interested in Middle Eastern studies, and for some it has a professional purpose.

“I’m just a glutton for punishment,” joked Briana Ronhaar, a Southern California transplant who attended the University of San Diego and majored in international relations. She said she had always been intrigued by the Middle East.

For Stu Fleischman, a visa specialist with the State Department who wants to pursue intelligence work, Arabic made good career sense. A former Hebrew student, Fleischman noted that the Arabic vocabulary sounded familiar. “It is like Hebrew,” he said, “Some words are really close, close enough to just make it more confusing.”

Galen Stocking, a recent graduate of the National Security Studies Program at California State University San Bernadino, echoed Fleischman. For Galen, the dilemma was keeping Arabic straight from French and Turkish.

Instructor Samaan marched us along, exercise after exercise, ignoring the occasional yips of frustration and laughs over mangled pronunciation. Originally from Syria, she clearly knows from personal experience just how hard learning a language can be — she arrived in the United States not knowing a word of English — and the importance of being patient. To a rebellious outburst on the first day, she responded soothingly, “Why so many questions?”

“You must be like children,” she continued firmly. We all stared back at her in wild-eyed confusion, our minds overwhelmed by letters and markers, our throats sore from coughing up the unfamiliar pronunciations. Zarubin, undaunted, began, “But we don’t underst —”

“Don’t worry!” interrupted Samaan imperiously. “I will teach you. Ya’Alla [next]. …”