Learning Arabic lesson 1: Back to school

  • Posted by Jamie Goodwin, Web News Editor
  • Published 15:50 May 20, 2013

Can a British expat with a historical allergy to learning languages pick up Arabic in four weeks?

That’s what I decided to find out when I gamely volunteered to do such a thing for the amusement of Gulf News readers.

Day one back in the classroom, and a small group of just two other students and the teacher is great news as I won't get lost if I am slow to pick anything up - and also bad news because I can't get lost if I am slow to pick everything up ...

The bell rings (yes, my language school actually has a bell!) and the first lesson is under way.

With the priority on learning spoken Arabic, we read Arabic words using English characters, though the Arabic characters are written on the board and in the book, should we feel ambitions. I'll walk before I try to run.

First, fittingly, the alphabet: Arabic has 28 characters to our 26 - and it is not as simple as learning a neat table with the letters that I know and love next to their Arabic equivalents, plus two extras. The Arabic alphabet contains very different letters, such as those create the subtly different 'ta', 'tha' and 'tah' sounds, plus a sound that our Lebanese teacher compares to noises made by a chicken and one she describes as the sound you make when clearing your throat (her words, not mine!).

After learning essentials such as yes, no, and, or, and what, we move on to learning useful basic nouns; boat, station, bus ... that kind of thing. It reminds me of French class as a 13-year-old. The time flies, and soon the bell is ringing again.

As I leave the language centre, I realise something - I am hooked. That first two-hour session has stirred inside me something that lay dormant since I finished secondary school.

With a short-term memory that's poor, at best, I accept that the process of learning Arabic will be an exercise (tamriin) in sheer will and effort. So, upon arriving home after my first lesson, I spend an hour creating revision cards and then force a friend to test my progress.

I beam from ear to ear upon every correct answer. I find I have learned most of the 30 or so basic nouns we have been taught in day one, including car (sayyaara), airport (mataar), boat (baakhira). Yes, I have a long way to go, but even this most basic of learning experiences is exhilarating. Now I know why my two-year-old niece is smiling all the time.