Remember leaving Syria and dropping Arabic?

Here it is. Long-awaited and standing weakly in the shadows of its readers’ expectations.

Many of you have asked for this entry and for the reasons for my rumoured return to the UK.

So yes, Ladies and Gents, I can confirm I have left Syria for cooler climes and am currently in another in-between stage, at home in the UK. This state, however, won’t last for long, considering I have to get back to Germany for reasons I’ll document at the end of this.

A lot of people I’ve told about this have been surprise to hear it, particularly because of the way I am known to rant on about Arabic and its grammar for hours at a time unless meantime interrupted. Yes – it is a shock.

Please know, however, that it is not because I didn’t like Syria. I liked Syria and Damascus a great deal and my life there was very good. It was wonderful to be near Fay again and see all the other Durham faces I’d missed; I had started getting to be friends with Fay’s Syrian friends, which would’ve solicited much Arabic-speaking conversation, later in my stay and the family I was staying with were very, very lovely (thanks, Yansé, for helping me find them – even if I did steal).

“But why then?!” You may be shouting. Ok.

When I left Newark, on the train at the beginning of March, on my way to Heathrow to begin my Syrian adventure, I was surprisingly emotional. I think I wrote about this already, but I cried like a small child, all over my parents and my brother. I was shocked by the emotional reaction that had spurred in me, because I’d expected the change of scenery and my want to learn Arabic would override and make me super excited, let alone the fact that I’d soon be seeing Fay. I put all of this worrying about my own emotional reaction under a beautifully woven Syrian rug when I got there.

I moved in and I started my course, having spent a week settling in and finding my way around the Old City. The course started and I was surprised by how well-written it was. But something was wrong with me. And not just that I couldn’t be bothered to work. I know that feeling – that “ugh, I spend my whole life doing this, break pleez” feeling. It wasn’t that.

At this point, I should probably let it be known that this is a super, super hard thing to describe. The thought-processes I have about the entire thing are really complicated and affected by loads and loads of things, including tiny reasons that don’t have any bearing, but tapped on the fragile icy surfaces of the whole problem and, in their small insignificant way, but larger number, the cracked the ice and I feel through into the water.

Basically, I realised that the problem was I didn’t actually like Arabic. I am constantly fascinated by how it works – how the whole semitic tree of languages can work, the way three letters, interspersed by other letters of a seemingly lower level of hierarchy can fit together to make meaningful stuff – the way all of these families of words were linked by these three letters that, like a skeleton, filtered down through the tree and held it all together in a sensical block of semanticism in my head.

Fascinated, I say. Fascinated by it – that’s true. But not enough. I realised that the only thing I liked about Arabic was that. I was constantly looking up words in the Hans Wehr (which is a canonical tool of Arabic study for non-native learners of the language, having rearranged the ‘alphabet’ (and with it the structure of the dictionary) into a way that more suits the nature of the language in the first place) and looking down the root forms to find out what it meant and looking how the meaning changed in one form or the other. But the word itself I didn’t care about. The one word that I constantly looked up and where this was particularly prevalent for me was the root ع ق د. The fact that I don’t know what it means know is testament to what I’m saying, but it was one of those words which would have lots and lots of meanings in lots of different forms (sometimes very, very drastically to ‘earlier’ forms of the word) [ps: I realise all of these words are super Arabic-language related and not that comprehensible, but you don’t really have to understand it – just know that there are lots of forms based on individual ‘root’ letters in Arabic – the interested can go to Wikipedia and find out there (it’s a trait known to all ‘Semitic’ languages (and what also gives them their name))].

So this latent not-like in me lead me to think: well, I’m here now and having Arabic would be a fantastic + on my degree: stick it out. And that’s a sensible thing to think or advise. But it too has its counter argument. I realised that I was there, in that place, grappling with a language that is difficult for someone coming from a language so distantly related (it made me realise how wonderful it is coming to another European language, because the similarities really do help), wanting eventually to be near fluent in the language. That’s what I’d need and… perfectionist me… wouldn’t let it be any other way. It was a case of, “you either get amazing at this language and become a complete Arabicophile, or you stop.” And I wanted to be amazing; I really did. But not liking the language enough played a deciding factor in that.

Not liking it would lead to me not being motivated enough really to get to grips with the things that I couldn’t do and not having a tingle in my heart when I read Arabic sentences meant not really learning them. Sure, I’m using my experience of learning German as a benchmark and I know I shouldn’t, but on the other hand, I sort of can. I am so lucky to have found a language that really sparks with me in a way that means I’m very rarely sick of it – even among other linguists at Durham: a lot of people tell me or hint that they’re not nearly as in love with their main foreign language as I am with German. And that’s sorta good to hear; this way I know I’ve struck gold. But the point is: when I was learning German, I’d mutter sentences to myself and playing around in the grammar would give me a little golden fleck of joy in my heart (GEEEEEEEK): Arabic, on the other hand, didn’t do that nearly as much and rarely ever. Even now, when I read German sentences, the mixes of verbs with dative and the way you can put your object at the front of the sentence all cause me to smile at the way the language works like an appeased God at his creation, benevolently smiling. Arabic doesn’t do that. It was just a jungle of words and phrases, little bits of little words that wouldn’t fit into the grammar-calculator (grammarculator?) that my brain has become (as a result of German). The exceptions would bug me beyond comprehension and, sure, I could deal with them and put them into use, but I didn’t get anything from them. And God knows, Arabic’s the kinda language where you’ve got to love the irregularities because of how many there are.

That makes me sound like I’m saying that Arabic was “too hard” for me. That’s not true. I didn’t find Arabic ‘too hard’ at any time in my entire career of studying it (the past 2.5 years). I was always confident with it and happy to be one of the best. New grammatical concepts would go straight into my brain without much problem and I could factor them in and remember them pretty well. New vocab, vocab learning being a weakness of mine in language learning generally, was difficult, but that’s why Fay and I were so good at revising together: what I could bring to the grammar comprehension, she could bring to the vocab learning. But the point is: it’s not that it was too hard. At all. I could easily have fought my way through, but my motivation would’ve lacked and the level to which I’d’ve learnt Arabic would’ve suffered as a consequence.

Another thing I realised as I was dealing with all of this in my head in that dark, dark week just before I came home (and believe me (or Sophia), it was a pretty dark week. I was  plagued with decision-making and guilt and worry that I’d be ruining my degree), was that my interest in Arabic and my knowledge had just about got to the same point. I took up Arabic 3 years ago with the express desire to learn a new language and not because I was interested in the Middle East (much at all actually). That sounds sacrilegious coming from someone who’s studied it, doesn’t it? That’s the point, though, I guess. A lot of my peers were super interested in it and even if not wanting to pursue a career in languages (it’s my plan to study interpreting after I’ve finished my BA) had a reason to approach the language in that they were interested in the world and world politics. I’m only interested in the world in a selfish and egotistical way, which is pig-headed and blunt of me, but what’s a little honesty between friends?

This feeling of my interest and knowledge being at the same point crudely expressed itself once in me thinking, “Everything I wanted to know about this language, I could’ve learnt from the Wikipedia page.” I felt disgusted with myself for thinking that a few days later and still sort of do now, but there is a truth in it. I’ve realised that my heart lies in languages itself and not in Arabic as its own language, which lead me onto thinking I should actually be doing a degree in German and Linguistics, but where’s that gunna get me in an interpreting career?

I didn’t really think about any of these things when I first took up Arabic at 18. I hadn’t really considered the idea that I might not enjoy it and was just hell-bent on being an ‘Arabic student.’ “I study Arabic” are strong and addictive words.

This is by no means the end of the reasoning behind what’s gone on my head, but I can tell you that I’ve thought about it simply (“Do I like this language?”) and not simply, going through all the various emotions. Having that many things in your head all at the same time is really tiring and I was a little steel ball in a big metal hemisphere, at the edge of which were towers exuding all kinds of gravitational pull in different directions and I’d roll wildly from one edge to the other and topple down to the centre again. And whenever I thought, “I’m leaving,” the metal ball of my consciousness would rest, perfectly addressing the attraction of all the towers and still remaining in the middle, quivering slightly under the pull, but there and safe. But letting it go made me roll about and feel sick. So possibly one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.

As I say, please don’t view this as a comprehensive discussion of my thoughts. If you want to know anymore, you can talk to me about it – I am willing to discuss it, but I can’t promise I’m not going to repeat myself. The one-sentence summary of the affair is this: “I didn’t like it enough to become really, really amazing at it and so decided it wasn’t worth it.”

Since then, I’ve had to deal with the repercussions, obviously. The first thing I should stress, and the first thing I needed stressing to me, is that it’s actually not a ruining factor in my degree. I don’t lose the 2 years’ study I’ve already done and it will appear on my degree certificate as it is. I also won’t lose the knowledge. Just because I’ve stopped doing it, doesn’t mean all of it just drops out of my head as if it had never existed in the first place. Secondly, this allows me to concentrate on German in my fourth year and for the rest of this year abroad. Now I can go back and really get as amazing as I want to and that fills me with such joy. I know I’ve got better so far and I knew when I left, I could feel it, that I still had some way to go before I’d be happy. That’s why leaving wasn’t such a big thing – I couldn’t think about it directly because it’d upset me too much.

It doesn’t entirely rule out coming back to Arabic in the future. This is something I realised while I was deciding too – I’m grateful for the fact that I learnt German really slowly and, by the time I really realised I loved it, I already had all the basics in my head and moving on from that was easy. 7 years’ tuition at school really did set the foundation. So I am in a position now to let my interest in Arabic grow, if it’s going to, and then facilitate some further, motivated study of the language at a future time (that’s not to say that I have lamented the fact that I’m giving up on it now, in my life, where I have this period specially set-aside for it (then again, having a higher interest in it and pursuing the language with greater motivation will give a greater gain)).

The future’s not all bright though. I need a second language and am taking applications and suggestions. Although I heard from an EU interpreter who gave a talk at Durham that the EU was super short on English native interpreters (that’s a global shortage actually) and interpreters for German (making me auto-appeal to two shortages), I still don’t satisfy the very basic of the EU’s criteria – you must have 3 languages and one of them must be English (in my view, this is biased against English natives, because anyone who’s interested in languages and isn’t an English native gets English exposure all around and almost everyone in Europe speaks some quality of English, enabling linguists to go on and study one other language and just perfect their English (a little cynical, but who’s counting?)). Having had this experience with Arabic means that I can more accurately assess how I’m going to react to a language and what exactly it is about languages that pleases me.

So I sit here in on this little island (currently, aggravatingly, underneath an Icelandic cloud of ash grr), and I look at the European mainland and I see: the Romance languages of France and Spain and Italy; the breed of Germanic languages from Germany right up into Scandinavia, and the Slavic languages from behind the former iron curtain. I look at myself and I see: one understanding of a Germanic language, one ability and love for languages and an appropriate talent to learn them, and one fascination with regular, but complicated, grammar systems. When I put the two together, and realise that having languages from different families is more favourable, because of the way my career would open me up into languages similar to the ones I’ve already learnt, the Slavic languages look most appealing. And where better to start than Polish, neighbour of Germany, homeland of The Polish Plumber in England and step 1 on the wrung of Slavic understanding.

Sure, it’s a bit stupid for me just to pick these languages out of nowhere, I know. But I have to start somewhere and my logic will hopefully stand. I’ve bought myself a Teach Yourself Polish book (yet to make any kind of real in-road into it though) and will probably take a course in it at Durham’s Languages For All programme next year, assuming my little Teach Yourself book entices me enough.

Any suggestions anyone has on languages I could learn that’d be handy for the EU (or otherwise) are gratefully received – thinking outside the box is also very gratefully received (big shout-out already to Jane on that front with the British Sign Language suggestion!).

So that’s that.

Things to look forward to in the next blog post:

What’s happening next? Where’re you going for the rest of your year abroad? Are you coming back to Heidelberg? What are you going to do there? Where will you live? What the bloody hell are you knitting at the moment?! and other such fun stories.

It’s been great. Love to all.

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4 Responses to “Remember leaving Syria and dropping Arabic?”

  1. Nikki Says:

    Personally, I favour Italian, and what *are* you knitting at the moment anyway? Up with knitting linguistics!

  2. Nikki Says:

    Linguists, even….

  3. Nicola Mirams Says:

    Hellooo! *waves*

    I just wanted to say that as I read your post, I felt you sounded so much happier having reached the decision to drop Arabic. I know it wouldn’t have been easy for you to sort out in your mind. I am afraid I don’t know anything about languages, so can’t give you any suggestions, but will be around if you want to sound ideas off anyone (if I can be helpful).

    Take care, hope you’re well xx

  4. Elena Says:

    spain is very beautiful…you should try spainish or portugese.

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