Friday, July 3, 2009

The Trials and Tribulations of Script

Learning to read and write Arabic Script was not very high on my "to do" list when I came to Morocco. I admired my peers, including my husband, for taking on the challenge, especially the ones that had never studied Arabic before. However, there where many reasons that I didn't dive into this activity myself, and even discounted it completely as something I would ever do.

Upon arrival in country, the Peace Corps gave us trainees a book in which to help us learn Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. Although this resource contains Darija in the form of Arabic Script, the book, as well as the subsequent lessons taught by Moroccans during training, focused on transliteration. Transliteration translates the script into symbols that we are already familiar with; the English alphabet with a few extra embellishments. I can see why the Peace Corps sees this is the logical approach. After eleven weeks of training, they didn't expect us to be fluent in Darija. They didn't teach us every nuance of the language. Their goal, at the end of eleven weeks, was to give us enough language so that we could get our basic needs met, be conversational enough so that we didn't feel completely isolated, and have enough working knowledge of the subject so that we could continue our language learning in our new communities on our own. Communication was drilled into our heads. Above everything, the Peace Corps wanted us to be able to talk with Moroccans. This was strike one against learning Arabic Script. I felt that talking was a more important and useful skill than reading or writing.

Being able to write in Darija, even in the form of transliteration, has been very important to me from the onset. It gives me a chance to see the language laid out in front of me. It enables me to learn words without having to memorizes them after a first hearing. It gives me the opportunity to create in this language an alternative fashion, which in turn, helps my oral skills. With transliteration, who needs Script? Strike two.

For the most part, Darija is not a written language anyway. That's not to say that written and even printed Darija is nonexistent, it's just rare. When people write in script, they write in Fusha, which is basically a whole other language. Strike three. Who needs to learn how to read a language that isn't written?

On top of all of this, there is the fact that Arabic uses completely different characters than what we, as English speakers, are accustomed to. So not only is the language itself foreign, but the symbols that accompany it. Even the direction that script is read, from right to left, is the opposite of not only English, but other languages that Americans are typically exposed to, such as Spanish, French, and German. (The symbols used in Spanish, French and German also greatly resemble those of English). This, over everything else, was probably the biggest road block in my mind. It didn't occur to me that I could ever makes sense of all those strange lines and shapes.

Strike four. Learning Arabic Script, out of the question.

And now, the rest of the story...

Ten months into my service in Morocco, with all that is stacked against its favor, I am learning Arabic Script. It happened this week, during the third tutoring session with my new tutor, we'll call her "Melisa" (I wish to not use the names of host country nationals in this public blog). Melisa, by the way, happens to be a very intelligent female in my site, but I'll get into the importance of this fact later. Learning Script came about as a means to better understand the pronunciation of Darija. Many times I hear something and want to write it down, with the purpose of being able to remember it later. The problem is that I sometimes write down words incorrectly, which defeats the whole purpose. Many times the reason for my error is that my ear has miss-interpreted what I have heard. Often, I ask the speaker to repeat herself/ himself, several times if necessary. But the truth remains that sometimes it's just easier and more exact to see something spelled out right in front of me. But if I don't know Script, I can't understand when someone does spell it out for me. Some Moroccans understand this, and thus try to write things in their own form of transliteration, but many times sounds get lost, and besides, it's a different transliteration than what we've learned.

Fusha, and by extension, Darija, are different than English in a very important way; they use a different symbol, sometimes just slightly different, but different none the less, to indicate a different sound. What a novel idea! Now think of all the sounds that our vowels make in English. Even though every "a," "e," "i," "o," and "u" look exactly like every other "a," "e," "i," "o," and "u," they have the potential for sounding very different, depending on the context of the word. Our consonants too are far from immune from this identity crisis. Take the poor "p" for instance. Put a "p" in the words "pan," "apartment," or "cap," and it makes the same sound each time, but follow it with an "h," and suddenly it turns into an "f." Of course, this is just one example of many.

Remember the "strange lines and shapes" that make up the Arabic characters that I was talking about as being what I thought would be my biggest obstacle in learning to read and write? I now see this as Arabic's greatest asset to me. Our transliteration, like Scrip but unlike English, uses a different symbol for each sound. In theory, this should make it easy to sound out the words. The problem that I have, however, is that even though I understand what each transliteration letter is supposed to mean, I still sometimes apply the English pronunciation to it. Seeing a character that is completely alien to me has actually helped me to associate specific sounds with specific symbols. And, to my surprise and delight I have been able to pick it up rather quickly!

On day one, Melisa showed me my first three Arabic characters in isolation and taught me all the different sounds that they are able make by adding little marks and accents, which of course have their own names. Later on that day I practiced writing each new letter and symbol over and over, just as I did when learning to write in English. After practicing writing them out, as well as saying the sounds out loud, I moved on to trying to find these three letters in words in my Darija book. Finding words that contain only the three letters that I had just learned was difficult, but I did find a few, and after I did, I copied them.

The next day, returning to Melisa's house for another lesson, she taught me four new letters, and taking my lead, wrote out some words that contained these letters plus the three letters that I learned the day before. To my utter amazement I was able to successfully sound out and therefore read on that second day! This of course greatly motivated me. I was on my way to literacy!

On the day of my third Scrip lesson (yesterday), I learned four more letters, bringing my grand total up to eleven. One thing that I'm learning however, is that being able to write and sound out words is one thing. Being able to understand what I'm reading is another. This is complicated by the fact that a lot of the words Melisa gives me are in Fusha, and are either very different from their Darija equivalent, or not used at all in Morocco, making it very likely that I have never heard the words that I read and write being spoken in real life.

Overall though, I think this is a good thing. It makes me feel good to learn how to read and write. I can't really explain why. I'm not convinced that this will help me in my work here on a direct level, meaning that I don't foresee it being a necessity to read or write in Arabic to do my job here. But I do see it as a way to supplement my language learning and thus, helping me in that way. That said, I also don't regret not trying to do this sooner. I feel like this is a good time for me to start. I feel like I can now focus on it without too many other, more pressing, communication matters, since after all, I can talk about most of the things that I want to talk about at this point. Before now I wasn't really in a situation where I feel that this kind of learning was possible. For me at least, it's important to have an actual person teaching me this, so that I can hear each sound, rather than trying to learn it on my own from a book. Before two weeks ago, I didn't have a teacher that was interested in teaching me. Melisa is the third tutor that I've had since arriving in site back in late November. My first tutor was an English teacher from the local middle school. The original plan was for Jon and I to study together. That didn't work out at all, for various reasons, but with little trouble I found my second tutor. This one was a younger man, in his mid twenties, and like many young Moroccan men around town, was unemployed. He did have his degree however and spoke English pretty much fluently. We started lessons at the beginning of January and ended right before IST (in service training) in June, when he told me (via text message) that he would be unable to tutor me any longer. I never inquired as to his exact reason for cutting off the lessons. Maybe he got a job or was planning on moving away. Or maybe he just got tired of showing up at the Artisana twice a week in the mornings when he could be sleeping in. I guess I'll never know, nor do I really care. From the beginning it was a strange and uncomfortable situation. As a person he has a very negative personality. I found that I was having to drag myself to my lessons and that I absolutely hated going. After my lessons I would routinely ask myself, "what did I just get out of that?"

Melisa is different. I can tell that she really cares about teaching me. I don't feel uncomfortable and awkward around her, and I have a feeling that this is due largely to the fact that she is a female. Our sessions last for hours at a time. Sometimes her mom likes to come in to help out, which at first I thought would drive me crazy, but I have come to realize that I don't mind it at all (in fact, Melisa is the one who minds). One of Melisa's greatest assets though is that she doesn't speak English. She knows English, at least words, but our conversations are all in Darija. Because of this, I don't feel the temptation of slipping into English, which I admit happened a lot with both of my previous tutors.

Also, Melisa does crochet. As far as I can tell she hasn't done it for very long, though I can see that she's been getting tremendously better in just the span of a few projects. I hope that in the future this will be another way for us to bond and communicate. In short, I hope that this is the beginning of one of the strongest relationships that I make here in Morocco, one that results in both parties learning from the other. I never want to stop learning.


Sorry this image is sideways.