It’s easy to take being bilingual for granted, particularly when you’re studying a language with the same script. I don’t think I’d ever really thought properly before about how your brain switches over into a different language before I started learning Persian a couple of years ago. I’d start replacing “gaps” in my sentences with the language that seemed closest – in my case, Urdu. I did this with Arabic when I lived in Jordan as well, though that was out of sheer necessity since I wasn’t learning Arabic at the time.
But at Middlebury this year, the switchover wasn’t as easy. I’d automatically want to fill in the gaps with words I knew, but because this was a formal method of education I was hesitant about using the wrong word, or didn’t know if it was an Arabic word or Persian. (There was one day in class when I insisted that the word for horse was اسب because the Anki card popped up in my head.) It was only when I got to a stage where my grammar or basic sentence structure improved that all the words in Arabic/Urdu/Persian began to make sense, and I felt like there was a potential for words. This is the advantage of being bilingual. Just like learning the root of one word in Arabic can be expanded into other words, Urdu can serve as a base for learning other languages. Especially when I began learning forms 7-10 and اسم فاعل و مفعول, it felt like a whole world of possibilities had opened in terms of language and how I could use words that were familiar and finally understood the context.
The advantage of being able to read the script is hard to explain. It was also frustrating because my fluency with the script didn’t match up to my comprehension. It also can be a disadvantage, since I speak very fast (the word often used is incomprehensibly fast) in Urdu and the “automatic switchover” in my mind assumes that a similar sounding language must be spoken at the same speed. What’s also interesting is that one word can sound so utterly different in all languages – the stress, the pronunciation, the usage.
It was also just as surprising to learn ممنوع من الصرف, because it separates words that are not of Arabic origin. I’d always assumed names like ‘Ismail’ were Arabic words. Suddenly, the language became more complicated. The context of these words became more paramount; I couldn’t just rely on my vocabulary, now I had to think about history and geography and other languages.