Words Cannot Express the Frustrations of Arabic

Thursday, June 23, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Boshra in our classroom at Damascus University.
Here in Damascus, I am struggling quite a lot with my Arabic, much of which I forgot since classes ended at Georgetown back in early May. My professor there, Dr. Margaret Nydell, offered me a very brief list of basic Syrian colloquial Arabic phrases that has proven invaluable in communicating here.

My third day of Arabic classes at Damascus University has just ended. I'm in Level II of the university's system (in a program organized by Ohio State University) and think it's a decent fit, though challenging. Our teacher, Boshra, hasn't said more than four or five English words in the past three hours. Back at the house, I also spend nearly all my time listening to Arabic. I and the other students who rent rooms mostly hang out and try to chat with Ra'ife, who speaks only Arabic. She is very patient and helpful in correcting our grammar and pronunciation, as well as developing our vocabulary (by far my biggest weakness at the moment, it seems). Around town, English
speakers are few and far between.

With all this exposure, my comprehension is increasing quickly, but speaking is still very difficult. In many ways, I remain deaf, dumb, and illiterate in this country, a situation which really motivates me to learn. But as always with Arabic, that motivation only lasts so long, because learning the language is such a frustrating process. Every few hours I swing between a go-get-'em confidence and an I-want-to-give-up-and-cry despair. The amount of vocabulary seems frighteningly large and the grammar bewildering. (And that's just Modern Standard Arabic – the local dialect is a whole different animal.)

I'm making mountains of flashcards though, and trying to drill my head full of new words and grammar. It feels like catching rain in a sieve, but I think I'm making progress, with the trusty Hans Wehr dictionary always at my side.

Outside of my four days a week of all Arabic all summer long, I'll soon be taking advantage of the three-day weekends to do some traveling around Syria. The University has organized a trip tomorrow to the ancient ruins of Palmyra - check back soon to hear how it goes!

Update: Click here to read about the Palmyra trip. And if you're looking for more info on studying Arabic in Damascus, check out "How to Live and Study Arabic Abroad in Damascus: the Scoop on Syria, plus Practical Info for Students"

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