The first time I ordered shawarma in Arabic, I made sure to go by myself. I’d mentioned it before, as a joke, with a friend from class one night when we decided we desperately needed to go get some chickeny, garlic sausey deliousness. At the time, it had been just that, a joke, but as I sifted through my very limited Arabic vocabulary I realized I had all the words I needed to say “I want a small chicken shawarma with water please”. So I did it. I planned every syllable and still tripped over it.
The first time I spoke in Arabic spontaneously was when I was volunteering, teaching English to kids who had just arrived in Ottawa as refugees from Syria. I’d spent the last half hour trying to teach a table full of 6 year olds how to count and although they could write out the numbers and chant them out in order, I knew they weren’t making the connection with what “One, two, three, four…” actually meant. So I ran my finger down the page saying “Wahid, one. Ithnayn, two” etc. Their eyes lit up with understanding and they immediately starting babbling at me in Arabic. Obviously, I didn’t understand much but for the rest of the time I volunteered there, I would answer questions about my life in Arabic and get taught names of animals or foods by the kids.
I am one (school) year into learning this beautiful language and my life is already richer because of it. Often, when I get asked about my program I hesitate and wonder whether or not I should say my minor as well as my major. Partially because I don’t know if that’s something people do and partially because I know a lot of questions will follow haha.
The first question is usually why. There are so many reasons I chose to study Arabic but even I myself wasn’t sure if it was the right choice. I really considered taking Spanish again as my third language; I had studied and loved it in the past and knew that after 4 years I would be able to have a decent level of fluency. I had this nagging feeling though that if I did that I would regret it. I knew that I would always look back and have a what if moment, wondering if I had missed out on an adventure because of fear and the desire to take the easy way out. I knew Arabic would be difficult and unlike anything I’d ever done. I also knew that the eye-catching script intrigued me, that I wanted to unlock a new part of the world.
In high school I became really interested in language learning, not for the sake of the languages themselves but for the people that each one allowed me to meet. The thought that there were suddenly thousands of people I could connect with with each new language I learned filled me with excitement (and sadness that I can’t learn them all!) I struggled through French, forcing myself to get better, to be able to laugh and joke with my Swiss friends in their native language. I memorized Spanish verb conjugations in the hopes of one day being able to understand some of what my friend Bradley said when he teased me about my accent. I learned songs in American Sign Language, accumulating vocabulary quickly, amazed by Deaf culture. I recently met someone at church who is Deaf and because I knew a little sign, she invited me to have coffee with a group in Ottawa. I didn’t get a chance to go but I’m hoping to in the fall. How cool is it that learning even a few words in a different language creates an opportunity for connection with people that you otherwise may never have even learned the name of?
Learning the language has been difficult, I’m not going to lie. Even just learning the alphabet was hard. I remember that on the first day of class my professor told us that 9 of the letters had no French or English equivalent sounds. And real talk, I probably still sound ridiculous when I speak. But I try to savour the little successes, like handing in my first page long piece of writing, seeing on Memrise that I hit 500 words learned, or ordering shawarma. I’m enjoying it and its connecting me with new people and for me, that’s what it’s about. That’e enough for me.
I’ve also gotten to learn more about Arabic culture, because of conversations sparked when I got asked what I study. Once I mentioned it and the boy I was talking to, who was from Lebanon, sat and talked with me about his country and language, religion, politics and media portrayals for over two hours. How cool is that? Next year, as part of the requirements for my minor, I’ll be taking culture classes as well.
One year in, and swirls and dots that used to mean nothing to me are now sounds, words and names. No, I’m not exactly sure how they will tie into my future career, although yes, I do have some ideas. For now, I’m letting my professor laugh at me as I fall asleep in 8:30am lectures. I’m studying in the laundry room where no one bothers me while I say the same word over and over and over again. I’m writing the same few sentences again and again, still amazed that I can read this script. And yes, I’m eating a whole lot of shawarma dajaaj. Suffice to say, it’s an adventure.
-Unti next time, Sam ❤