Tag: polyglot

Je suis le vent

*This is a long read, explaining some changes going forward… if you just want the TLDR; version, skip to the end!

I still have yet to write about Berlin, I haven’t been able to wrap my fingers around coherent thoughts on a keyboard… but there was one moment that stuck with me in regard to my own path over the years. (There were MANY intense and wonderful moments that stuck with me concerning my time in Berlin and the program, but this one that I’m about to talk about is strictly related to my “life choices”, so to speak – my time at UW and with future work.)

During my second last night in Berlin – after the program was over and when Husband had come to visit – Husband & I stopped in for dessert and drinks at a little Italian restaurant next to our AirBnB.  Our server (who also turned out to be the owner) was very much an Italian. So of course I broke out my (limited) Italian language skills which were more than enough to order for husband & I and make nice. I swooned a little bit, as I always do when it comes to the Romance languages and I thought, “maybe I should just stick to Italian or French, instead of German?” I rationalized that Arabic was my hard, “practical” language so why not allow myself a pretty, easy, and “fun” language? (And, I reminded Husband – they do have refugees in Italy, after all! It could be useful?) This is typical of me, though – shiny object! what?! I reminded myself that I really need to stick to plan this year, no getting distracted for this last push.

I have no idea why I chose to start learning German a couple years ago. I guess I had just decided to conquer it since it was one language that I had struggled with decades ago. (I think I had just spent so much time on Romance languages and Czech, the sounds of German gave me trouble.) When I went to pick it back up, it suddenly became very easy. I had somehow taught myself enough to speak a fair bit during my time in Berlin – a fair enough bit to get me in trouble! It’s wonderful to realize you’re saying things well enough that people assume you can actually speak German and they respond to you in German… but then I’m left giving my best “deer in the headlights” imitation because they start spewing a ton of words I don’t know at a speed that is far too quick for me to manage.

Berlin did not sink it’s claws into my heart as I had expected. I thought I’d fall head over heels and never want to leave – I mean, it’s BERLIN, ya know? I loved my experience there, the people I met, and the friends I made. But one night, as we were strolling through Victoria Park, I looked up at one of the apartment buildings and remarked, “Can you imagine living there, next to this park?” We talked about how amazing it would be to spend your days in the park and then have people come over to hang a little while longer in an apartment with a balcony with this stunning view. Husband had stars in his eyes and said maybe we could, he LOVED Berlin. I found myself saying, “I love Berlin for it’s proximity to the rest of Europe.” I realized that the things I loved about Berlin were things that I loved about European cities in general – I long for my daily life to include walking miles a day, hopping “bahns” and buses and trams. It’s one of the things I spend the most time waxing nostalgic for about my years in Prague. But Berlin itself didn’t inspire me the way all of Spain does, for example.

I realized that I am a “Latin” girl, through and through. Spain has my heart, forever – in fact, we’re going back this Christmas to the Basque region again and are thinking of Formentera next Summer. I still swoon over Portugal and France. Italy… even during the hottest, sweatiest, most miserable time of the year, Florence had me feeling like I could spend a lifetime there. These are the languages I love most and always go back to. I would LOVE to spend a year or more focusing on Italian but at this point, I feel I need to focus on things I love that are ALSO useful towards my future plans.

But I still got swept up in the excitement of being in Berlin – Europe, really. So when I realized I was reminded, again, of the upcoming Fulbright scholarship deadline, I jumped on it. I started writing a proposal for a research project in Berlin and reaching out for recommendation letters but it never felt quite right. Had I completed the application and been awarded the Fulbright, I’d have gotten a ride to spend 8 months in Berlin working on my own independent research project. I was going to study German for a year at UW, starting in Fall, along with my second year of Arabic. My proposal entailed further exploration of a primarily Arab space in Berlin and working with the refugee community that I had begun a relationship with this past Summer. In my proposal, I spoke about my use of the Arabic language and learning German… as the internal UW deadline approached, I realized that as enticing as it was, 8 months in Berlin honing my German skills really wasn’t what I wanted. I had let Berlin distract me, thinking who on earth wouldn’t do everything in their power to be there? Husband and I talked about the possibility of taking the Kid with me and giving him a year of school in Berlin; He and I would be able to fly back and forth every couple of months. I also felt somewhat pressured to keep going with this idea because husband LOVED Berlin. (I considered the possibility of then applying to Grad school there and we could ALL officially move to Berlin for awhile – he could easily find a job in his field there.)

I mistook my unease for wanting it so badly… then I realized my unease was just that. All my life I’ve wanted to be officially bilingual, fluent in at least one other language. I didn’t really need (or want) for my second language to be German which I think is what would have happened had I spent nearly a year in Berlin. Sure, I’d use some Arabic but it would be mostly German. Also, I spent four years home with my son, then I began working part time and freelancing again and this will be my third year as a student. I LOVE academics and learning more than I can possibly put into words – grad school *sounds* like a “fun” idea. The truth is I’m done (for now.) I want to start pursuing the work I’ve been wanting (translating and interpreting) and 8 months in Berlin will be another 8 months of not working. Eight months in Berlin would be exciting to most people but I have to be honest… I’ve kind of been there, done that. The stress of either not seeing my son & Husband for 8 months OR solo parenting in Berlin while figuring out schools and visa issues isn’t something I’m really up for.

Most importantly… my original plan was to take an Arabic immersion course over the summer, after I graduate from UW. I knew that I wanted to be fluent (or close to) in Arabic and be conversant in a couple of others. I could not do the entire Summer AND a year in Berlin. So I pulled back and decided to not complete my Fulbright application. (I’m currently trying to decide between two Arabic programs – an immersive one in California or a non-immersive but advanced on in Jordan. As in the country!) AND THEN I’d like to possibly take a part time certification program in translation and interpreting.

As for grad school… sigh. It’s expensive. And time consuming. These past couple of years at UW, I’ve envied people who have time for like… hobbies and things…!! (I started knitting again the other week and it was SO NICE to just have time to sit my a** on the couch and zone out on a pair of gloves.)

I cannot let go of doing a formal year of study for another language, though. This is my senior year at UW and I intend to kick back and enjoy it. Languages are fun for me. German was out. I like the language a lot and was feeling really comfortable with it but German isn’t very useful with Arabic unless I’m IN GERMANY. Then let’s go back to how giddy I get over the Romance languages… do you know what language IS useful with Arabic? French. Many Arabs speak French – French is spoken widely around the world and used in both the Middle East and North Africa. Even outside of these regions and with Arabic, French is extraordinarily useful. Bonus – I already know a little French! (Because, of course I do.)

I’ve hesitated to say anything to anyone because for those who know me, I sure have bounced around a lot in the past few years! But what I’ve realized is that, after all the exploration and getting giddy over so many new things and discovering how much I love Chemistry and math and all else… I’ve finally come full circle. French and the Humanities and my love of languages, in general, is how I started out so long ago.

*TLDR; I realized Berlin distracted me from my goals so I’ve pulled back and refocused. My original intent was to spend the Summer after graduation taking an immersion/advanced course in Arabic so that I can work in translation & interpreting. As much as I enjoy German, I don’t have much use for it. Rather than taking a year of German along with my second year of Arabic this coming year, I’ll be taking a year of French. French is widely spoken in the Arab world – in the regions of the Middle East and North Africa. This isn’t a new idea – I’ve learned French off and on (both self-study and actual lessons) for the last couple of decades!)

الموسيقى العربية

These past couple weeks I’m consciously realizing that I need to begin to immerse in the Arabic language. As I’ve had to choose classes for the Winter quarter, I’ve decided that this class (Arabic) is the most important one and the one I need to invest the most in. (Since I’m hoping these two years of Arabic will become a useful skill and that I’ll hopefully be able to USE and refine the Arabic I’m learning.) I decided it’s worth sucking it up and only taking two classes next quarter, in order to really focus on Arabic. I have to admit, given how little time I’ve been able to devote to Arabic 101, I’m doing pretty well in the class. But I feel like I’m doing well enough for the tests, I don’t feel like I’m really absorbing the language like I do with other languages. That very well may be because it’s taught differently than other languages. But after spending a few months on German, I can easily pepper my day with German all over the place. I can watch German movies and make out many of the words and phrases, and I could have simple conversations and make myself understood.

What we’re doing in Arabic 101 is a little harder to work into daily practice. I mean, of course it took 4 weeks just to cover the alphabet but it’s not a communicative approach. The book that all the teachers are forced to use is ridiculous. (I mean, it just IS, as many Arabic learners will tell you. Al-Kitaab is ridiculous but at least we have the adventures of Maha! It’s so entertaining that we discovered someone made a Twitter account for her. I doubt you’ll find it entertaining unless you’re familiar with Al-Kitaab, though. Maha is SO LONELY.)

In any case, I’m sure I’d feel like I could communicate more if I were able to spend more time practicing throughout the day. I’m hoping to start practicing with some native speakers and hoping that next quarter I will be able to spend a good hour or more each day writing things out and really USING the language that I know. I wish I’d started learning Arabic during my first year so that I could get three years under my belt instead of two! But again, hopefully I will be able to use the language going forward and will continue learning.

Spanish was my first “second language” so when I started learning Czech, I would often default to or slip up and use Spanish when I didn’t know (or forgot) words in Czech. Then when we lived in LA and I was trying to help a man with directions in Spanish, he eventually started to look like he just wanted me to shut the hell up so he could escape and figure it out on his own. I then realized I was speaking Spanish with a bunch of random Czech words thrown in.

When I started learning German… hm. Well, oddly, I don’t remember having any language mix-up issues with German for some  reason. And I never got far enough into Japanese (I took a class a few years ago) or Russian (which I started learning when I was dating a Russian whose family liked to ply me with Russian vodka and teach me curse words almost two decades ago), I also didn’t get far enough into them to start mixing with other languages. (Also, the Japanese alphabet and Cyrillic alphabet were a piece of cake but Arabic took some time!)


At least a couple times a week I find myself reaching for words in either Spanish, German, or Czech. I’ve used Spanish to remember Arabic words. For example: The word for “money” in Arabic is “mal”. “Mal” in Spanish is “bad”. So I think “money is bad” to remember the word for “money” in Arabic. (Got all that?)

Then today! Today someone asked what the word (in Arabic) is for “sister” and I turned around and said, “Sestra!” Then I realized that’s Russian. I’m waiting until I start throwing some French or Portugues (which I know a fair bit of) Swedish (which I spent about a month learning on DuoLingo), Danish (another month of self learning), or Turkish (I learn a new word or phrase every few months). Yes. I am all mixed up.

But what I really wanted to say is this: Arabic is a scary language to most people. I get that. I put it off for over a decade. But you know what? If you have any interest in learning Arabic, then do it. Don’t be scared off by it. Sure, there’s a little more work to be done in the beginning but it is SO worth it. It helps that I’m in an awesome class – definitely find a good group to learn with (don’t do it on your own.) My teacher is awesome and a lot of fun and I really adore the group of students that I’ll be with for the rest of the the Arabic 100-level (101, 102, 103.)  I cannot say this enough: if you’re a person who loves learning languages and finds them fairly easy to learn, then the challenge of Arabic is so much more rewarding. And let’s face it, I love the reactions from people when I say I’m learning Arabic. (They usually think you must be some kind of crazy rock star language person.)

So – الموسيقى العربية is “Arabic music”. In my quest to immerse myself into Arabic, I am searching for some fun Arabic music to listen to. None of it will be in MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) which… well, let’s pause for a moment and “LOL” at the idea of Arabic pop music in MSA…   I’m going to ask my teacher for some music recommendations but in the meantime, I did some googling and found some stuff worth checking out. I’ve been collecting it all in this playlist but my favorite so far is the “Arabology” album from Yas:


That word up there is “coffee”, btw. A very important word, always but also one that took me some time to get accustomed to in my Arabic vocabulary.

Someone asked me, a few days ago, if I could say a bunch of things in Arabic now and I laughed. It’s been, what… three and a half weeks since classes started and after these past few weeks what I now know is the alphabet. Normally, after a few weeks of learning a language I’d be able to say all sorts of things. Hell, I could have entire conversations (simple conversations, but still) in German after teaching myself for a couple of weeks. I am used to languages being easy. This is really new and unusual for me, having to put some real effort into learning a language. Arabic is not at all unattainable but it is not easy. It is, by far, the most challenging language I have learned but in that respect, also the most rewarding.

I have, at times, bemoaned the fact that I’m locked in to taking a full year of Arabic – there’s really no point in taking one quarter. So now that I’ve started, I need to complete the 100-level. However, now that we’ve finished the alphabet and are moving into actual words and sentences, etc, I expect it to get a little easier. I love my teacher and and have a great group of people in my class that I’ve been studying with.

I’m really glad that I’m learning Arabic and thinking I will continue with it after I’ve finished the 100-level. I had considered doing German AND Arabic at the same time this quarter and I am really glad I didn’t!!

right left right left


The quarter began mid last week and this Monday marks the beginning of the first full week of classes. My classes are all interesting and fun and OH MY GOD, I mentioned that I’m learning Arabic, right?

On one hand, it’s no big thing – this is what I do! I learn languages! I had taken a class (a non credit, just for me class) in Japanese and learned the Japanese alphabet, I had also learned cyrillic long ago (back when I was learning Russian and had a young Russian boyfriend to help me!) Which, by the way, is why I’m choosing to learn languages AT SCHOOL instead of on my own. On my own, I get distracted by ALL THE LANGUAGES where at school, I have to be committed to sticking with it for a minimum of a year. So, learning a new language and learning a new alphabet isn’t new to me. It doesn’t make me feel scared or overwhelmed, thankfully. BUT. Arabic is a whole new ballgame. On one hand, it’s no big thing and on the other, after filling up notebook pages with practicing my first few letters, I’m like woooooah… I’m learning Arabic!

It’s so cool to look at the pages and see that I’m writing actual letters. We only learned three vowels and three letters so far but it’s amazing that I can write them and recognize them in a string of what once looked like nonsense. Arabic writing, with it’s system of dots and connected lines feels all at once primitive and highly sophisticated.

So here’s all the letters I know, individually (very excited I got my Arabic keyboard cover and have the keyboard working):

ب ت ث  ي ا و

And here they all are “connected,” in no particular order.


Well, that’s the “long” version of each vowel (the last three in the first row… or rather, the last three, since you read right to left!)

Each letter has different forms – an initial/stand alone form. A beginning form (for letters that can connect on the left), a middle form (for letters that can connect on the left AND right), and an end form (for letters that can connect on the right.)

But wait! It gets better!

Vowels can be long or short. Long vowels are just written, same as above – an initial form and, for those that can connect in different ways, a beginning, middle, and end form. Then there’s a “short” vowel sound which is a tiny little mark that’s written above the consonant that precedes it.

I get it, I understand it all so far… but it’s going to take some practice!!

And then there’s the right to left thing. Everything. Reading from right to left and writing right to left. Everything. It’s like spelling backwards. Most of the time, I’m surprised at how easily it comes to me to write “backwards”… and other times it’s a complete mindf*ck. But it’s always fun!


Had to swap out my magic rainbow colored keyboard cover for a little while…! #learningArabic #alifbaa #uw

A photo posted by Nikki (@psychogeographer) on