Monday, September 16, 2013

A people, a language, and thoughts on learning it

كوب شايkoob shai – cup of tea

Today, as I loitered on the University of Jordan campus waiting for my class to start, I decided to go and grab a cup of tea from one of the many cafeterias that are scattered about. Tea and coffee on the UJ campus are extremely cheap by American standards – a cup runs 0.10 JD, which is about 15 cents in US dollars. In the cafeteria, I am again confronted by a common scenario – I don’t really know what to do here. I don’t know where the cash register is. I don’t know what everyone is saying. I manage to order a cup of tea the old fashioned way – saying shai and gesturing.

After I pay, a girl I don’t know approaches me. “Did you get what you wanted?” she asks. I tell her I did. “I just wondered,” she says sincerely, “A lot of people here don’t speak English, so I can help if you need it.” I thank her I got everything, and leave.

I tell this story because it illustrates both the best part of studying abroad in Jordan and the most challenging part. The people of Jordan that I study and live with are overwhelmingly kind and helpful, like the girl who offered to help me. But my general inability to really speak and understand the language is a growing source of frustration.

The University of Jordan campus.

تي تاtay ta - grandma

The Jordanian I spend the most time with is my host mother, Samira. She’s an older woman with five adult children. Samira speaks decent English, enough to communicate basic household needs with me but not really enough to catch nuance in English conversations or have in-depth discussions. We live in a large apartment, which is one of four in the building. The other three are inhabited by her three adult sons,  Maurice, Anis, and Bassem, and their families, essentially making this the "family building". Unfortunately, Samira's husband died about a year and a half ago, leaving her a widow.

Samira is a kindergarten teacher at a local Christian school, and spends a lot of her time outside work caring for the gardens around the building and attempting to overfeed me (and mostly succeeding). Her various grandchildren (eight of whom live right next door) frequently stop by in the evening and to watch TV or have a bedtime snack. The grandchildren don't speak a great deal of English and are usually shy around me, but I practice my Arabic on them and play with them when they're interested.

My host brother took this picture of me playing just outside our gate.
Between her job, the hyperactivity of the grandchildren, and feeding me, Samira works extremely hard. I often wish I could do more to help out around the house, but Samira won't even let me wash dishes in the kitchen. Nonetheless, I do my best to minimize the workload I create and the resources I consume.

Samira's generosity is typical of people in Jordan, many of whom have gone out of their way to help me when I am lost or confused (which is pretty regularly). Most people in West Amman speak at least some limited English, which they will employ to help me out when need be. Sometimes taxi drivers or restaurant workers seem perhaps a little exasperated with my seeming incompetence. "Welcome to Jordan," they sometimes say in a tone that suggests I figure things out. But exasperated or otherwise, nobody here has refused to help me when I needed or wanted help.

A lot of Jordanians in West Amman actually have friends or family living in the United States or have lived in/visited the US themselves. But apparently, none of them have ever been to Oregon. When I am asked which state I am from and say "Oregon", most of the time I get a blank look and an acknowledgement that Oregon is, apparently, a state. Samira was under the impression that Oregon was in the Southeastern US, somewhere in the vicinity of Georgia. Maurice got it when we looked at a map of the US together, "Ah, it's north of California". Nailed it Maurice - it's that place north of California.

اللغة - allugha - the language

Before coming to Jordan, I studied Arabic at school for four semesters. One might assume that this would give me a leg up in communicating in Amman, but any advantage I have gained is marginal at best. I find myself in an interesting quandary - I know infinitely more about Arabic than the average American (who knows nothing) and yet as demonstrated I still don't know enough to order a cup of tea without sticking out as the obviously lost American.

Part of this stems from the way Arabic is structured - it is essentially divided into a number of complex sub-dialects. Jordanian/Levantine (ammiya) Arabic is different from Egyptian Arabic (masri) which is different from North African Arabic (maghrebi) which is different from Gulf Arabic. None of this is taught in the United States - instead, most universities teach Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). MSA is spoken in official speeches, diplomatic settings, on Al-Jazeera, and basically nowhere else. As far as I know, only Denver University in the US teaches primarily ammiya.

What this means is that students in the US who study MSA end up coming to Arabia with the ability to understand almost nothing. If you speak MSA in public here, such as in a taxi or restaurant, it sounds absurd to Arabs, and you'll probably be laughed at. The best analogy for it I have ever heard is if someone came up to you and started speaking Shakespeareian Old English. You might get the point of what they're saying, but you'd think they're awfully strange. And of course, if you've only studied Shakespeareian English, you won't really be able to understand most of what people around you are saying.

All this is well known to anybody who's studied Arabic for a while, but MSA remains the primary dialect of Arabic taught in the United States. I think part of the reason for this is simply that the primary teaching resource available is the famous (infamous?) Al-Kitaab textbook series, published by Georgetown University Press. I have heard (though I have not been able to confirm) that the US State Department had a hand in developing al-Kitaab, and I know for a fact that the National Endowment for the Humanities contributed about $130,000 the project. The idea that the State Department influenced the development of al-Kitaab is not far fetched to me, given Georgetown's historical prominence in the foreign service, the fact that MSA is often spoken in diplomatic settings, and the seemingly random sprinkling of random diplomactic and political words in the book's vocabulary pages (i.e., United Nations).

Note that I don't think there's anything wrong with learning MSA - in fact students need to know it in order to understand politics and news in the Arab world. But I think that the focus in American universities should be on a dialect - probably on either the Egyptian Levantine dialects. My failure to understand most of what is said here is profoundly discouraging to me - it makes me feel like my time spent studying MSA was wasted. It separates me from the culture and the people. And it contributes to my sense of inferiority as one of the only Macalester students who cannot speak a second language with anything approaching fluency. Perhaps my ammiya will improve to the point I no longer feel this way over the next three months, but sometimes I wonder.

Also in the category of things I don't understand: ancient Latin.
البرنامج - al-bernamaj - the program

At Macalester, Arabic instruction still has a long way to go. This is not the fault of any person as much as it is simply a product of the program's youth - as I understand it, it was only started about six years ago. In addition to the program's youth, our one Arabic professor did not have his contract renewed after his first five years, so the program underwent a transition to a new instructor. Finally, Arabic at Macalester is taught under the heading of the Classics Department. MSA may be a classical language (the Koran is written in classical Arabic) but the dialects surely are not.

In the future, I'd like to see Arabic or Middle Eastern Studies become a real department and major at Macalester. Right now, the college offers only a Middle Eastern Studies concentration, toward which Arabic counts. This is not enough to stay competitive with other colleges and universities when Arabic is the fastest growing language at US colleges. Given that Mac's faculty recently voted not to discontinue the Russian Studies major (despite the department having only 6-7 majors and no full time instructors), I don't think creating a new department for Arabic is unreasonable. When a group of Arabic students took these concerns to Macalester's Administration last year, the only thing we got offered was a possible Arabic only floor in a dorm and the possibility of hiring another preceptor. These are both steps in the right direction, but not enough in the long term.

I regret not getting more deeply involved with the push for a better Arabic program last semester, and I intend to get much more involved when I return to Macalester. I do feel that my overall Arabic comprehension is growing in speaking, reading, and listening here in Jordan, and I hope to have some level of conversational competency by the time I leave that I will be able to continue developing back home.

On Thursday our CIEE group is taking a trip to Wadi Rum, which should be exciting. I'll try and get another post uploaded shortly after I return discussing it, along with pictures.

No comments:

Post a Comment