The bilingual switchover

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.   

Summer 2016: The one with all the Arabic.

Theoretically, I knew what I was signing up for. The Middlebury Language School's immersive program means two months of sole instruction in the Arabic language, pledging to only communicate in Arabic, hours of work. So I took lessons on italki for a few months to prep, then switched my phone to Arabic, set up an auto-reply message asking people to only correspond in Arabic, and took a flight to California. (Middlebury's Arabic School is run out of the Mills College campus in Oakland). On Friday, I spoke English. On Monday, I spoke Arabic.


Broken sentences, but Arabic. 

Middlebury's immersive program is an intense, straightaway crossover into the other language. Save for the very basic level, there is no instruction in English, no one translating simultaneously, no one talking you through a concept in English. 

Midway through the first week, I was uncomfortably reminded of being at school, struggling to write Arabic letters properly, spending a Saturday morning doing additional homework from my Arabic teacher because my writing was so astonishingly bad.

As I stared at my graded Middlebury homework, marked with red, sitting alone as a 31-year-old in a dorm room, I had a flashback to sitting in my bedroom as a child and my mother talking me through how to write calmly instead of scrawling over the page. (My mother's patience was tested many, many times over my struggle with the Arabic and Urdu script.) 

Middlebury's immersive program is that feeling multiplied a dozen times over. I was reminded of all of my structural failings, the hangover of a haphazard Urdu education that bypassed grammar and went straight to conversation. I knew the program was intensive; what I didn't fathom before I walked in was just how much of my day would be spent doing homework, that every day of that first week would feel like an exhausting blur of classes and dialects and confusingly long questions. It wasn't until the third week or so that I started to develop some semblance of a routine, and it was only when I woke up in the middle of a night, startled by my raised bed's proximity to the window that my first thought wasn't in English. It was in Arabic. 

Is the program difficult? Yes. Does it work? Yes. 

By the end of the summer, I had given two presentations in Arabic, recited part of a poem in public, written an 1100 word paper (and discarded many drafts) and taken several quizzes and two key exams. It wasn't just that I could read or speak fluently, and that I could understand large chunks of text and the context of words, the meanings shifting based on the theme, the "force" of the verbs. As I packed my suitcase and emptied out my desk at the end of the summer, all the homework, filed away in a folder, had led to something real: the ability to think in Arabic.