Monday, June 28, 2010
Misha is an expert at counting to 10 in Arabic. See for yourself! Though most of his preschool is taught in English, he is exposed to some Arabic and he has learned the most common expressions that you hear. Two of his favorite words are la and halas (meaning "no!" and "that's enough/that's all!") - particularly with respect to his little brother.
He knows shokran for "thank you." He also knows alhamdulila, which means "thanks be to God," and is said in many, many situations. For example, when they finish eating lunch at school, they say alhamdulila. When you ask someone kaifa hal? ("how are you?"), they usually answer with just one word: alhamdulila. When someone asks how my children are doing, and I respond that they are well, they say with a smile, alhamdulila. When people talk of anything that happened for the best, they always include this word. For example, if there was an accident, they will say, "But we were all right, alhamdulila." If there was an exam, they might say, "I got full marks, alhamdulila!"
Arabic would not be Arabic without the phrase inshallah. It means "God willing" and it is sprinkled throughout conversation in places where we might use a word like "maybe" or "probably" or "hopefully," popping up for sure in any discussion about the future. Students will say, "I want to be a doctor, inshallah," or "See you next week, inshallah." When we teachers assign homework and tell them, "This is due tomorrow. Bring it with you!" the students (it never fails) respond with, "Yes, teacher. Inshallah." When, as it sometimes happens, some students come to class the next day without their homework and we tell them to bring it the following day, they say the same thing. "Yes, tomorrow, inshallah!"
Josh and I are now able to get around with basic Arabic. Last weekend on a little drive around the city, we managed to end up in an area that we were completely unfamiliar with. We rolled down our window and asked a cheerful, sparkly-eyed old Saudi in the car beside us, "Wen Faisalia?" ("Where is the Faisalia?" The Faisalia, if you remember, is the tall, pointed skyscraper near our compound.) He told us in Arabic to go straight, then turn left. We drove straight for awhile, and then suddenly noticed the same guy was suddenly beside us again, telling us we just missed our turn. He drove ahead of us to lead us to the U-turn and onto the right street. "Straight, baden yemin," he told us in a mix of English and Arabic. Straight, then right. We found our destination right away.
I have also had a few conversations in the women's waiting area at the clinic. (The waiting rooms, like everything else, are separate for men and women.) Sebastian was toddling around the room, and an older woman, completely cloaked, asked, "Kam amur?" ("How old is he?") We then had a small discussion about our kids, families, where we were from, and what we do.
We know enough Arabic to surprise our students; but then again, the students are easily impressed. If we say something in Arabic to them, it is not uncommon that they will start clapping with delight!
There are many different dialects of Arabic, adding to the challenge. The formal vs. informal is just one distinction. When I ask my students to tell me a word in Arabic, the first thing they say is, "Do you want formal, or informal?" In writing and when speaking with important people, they use formal. In everyday conversation, however, they use informal. The nice thing about the formal Arabic is that you will be understood in any Arabic-speaking country. The informal dialects change depending on the country and even the regions within a country. My students argue among themselves about the pronunciation of a word because they come from different parts of Saudi Arabia. How do we deal with this? Well, we just try to learn it all. We learn the formal word, the Saudi informal, and sometimes the Egyptian informal too - since we will be going there soon! For example, all of the following are ways to say "what": mathaa, ma, esh, wesh, shu. It depends if one is speaking formal or informal or Saudi or Egyptian.