Learning (to Write) a New Language is Hard (Part 2)

A few months ago, in a previous blog post, I talked about my experiences trying to learn to speak Arabic (read about it here). During my last month of living in Morocco, I decided to start trying to learn how to read and write in Arabic. The operative words here is “trying.” This experience was eye-opening, even more so than learning how to speak the language.

In addition to teaching for VIPKid, I also taught evening ESL classes in Morocco for adults and teenagers. One of my students gave me two beginning Arabic writing books, and, since my husband has been studying Arabic for about five years, he was tasked with helping me through these two books.

To put it lightly, he is not the most patient of teachers. He criticized how I took notes on the letters. He even criticized how I wrote the letters (He claimed I had atrocious handwriting). As a result of these less than kind teaching methods, he ended up making me cry while teaching me the letters. He didn’t mean to make me cry, but he also didn’t understand why it was hard for me. And it is really, really hard. I’m probably never going to let him live it down, either.

Prior to this experience, I would become extremely frustrated when teaching low level ESL students, especial Level Two, Unit One trials, which mainly consist of “Big A,” “Small a”. Never again will I feel this way. Learning to read, speak, and write in Arabic has been one of the best things that I have ever done as an ESL teacher.

Here are the first two pages from my “easy” reader for Arabic:

What you are basically seeing is the equivalent to a “word family.” The first page covers the letter “Ba” (ب) and the second the letter “Ta” (ت). Now depending on the marks above or below the letter, it changes the vowel sound. If there is a line above the letter, it’s “ba” but a line below the letter becomes “be.” There are also long and short vowels, which means the letter changes shape yet again. The comma looking mark above the letter changes it to “bu,” and two comma looking marks changes it to “bune.” Keep in mind that the lines (called diacritic marks) that are above and below the letters only show up when you are learning to read. In actuality, everyone has all the words memorized, so no one uses the lines when writing or reading. I have been told this is very similar to how Hebrew is written.

Also, since Arabic is written using a cursive script, each letter has three positions depending on where it is in the word: initial, medial, and final. By the end of my stay in Morocco, I had learned about six letters. It took me almost three weeks, and I still don’t have them all mastered. I finally learned how to write my name in Arabic: كارن (I am not even 100% sure if I wrote it correctly).

Are you starting to get why I find this hard?

Looking back on this experience, I now understand why so many low Level Two students only repeat and can’t read. Yes, they might have had forty (or more) lessons, but learning to read in another language takes time. Don’t assume that they aren’t trying hard enough or studying enough. Shower these students in kindness. Praise the heck out of them. Most of all, give them time.

If you ever want to gain a new perspective on language acquisition, learn to write in a language that doesn’t use an English alphabet. It’s hard, but such a worthwhile endeavor.

Happy Teaching!

Teacher Caryn EU