I have varying degrees of competence and experience in seven languages, and I've purposely avoided starting any new ones for quite some time as I struggle to maintain and improve the ones I have amidst all my other obligations and hobbies. From time to time I've thought about what the next one might be: French or Italian, which I love and which would be easiest given my history of Latin and Spanish studies? Japanese or Korean, which would be most valuable in my current high-tech career? Russian, which I'm attracted to for its history, literature, and culture? Actually, I've decided (and already begun) language number eight, and it is none of the above.
Early this month I carpooled to a concert in Fresno with a very casual friend, someone I met online and have encountered from time to time but with whom I've never had a deep conversation. She is Iranian, a devout Muslim, and over a decade younger than I am. It is not often that one gets an opportunity to make a profound connection with someone so different, and even less often that one takes advantage of that opportunity. I feel immensely privileged that during our five-hour round trip we talked, and talked, and talked, and I came away with a glimmer of true understanding of her values, beliefs, and upbringing. Genuine understanding, not the simplistic picture of Islam and the Middle East that we are fed by politicians and media in an effort to gain popularity by feeding on people's natural fear for the unknown.
Different people have different ways of acquiring knowledge of a culture, different paths to making it accessible. Some are attracted to food, or literature, or art; some do it when they begin dating someone of that culture. For me, the link is language. I could write a book on the secondary effects that my studies of Spanish have had on me, from my appreciation of Latin pop music to my views on immigration. I've mentioned before that the study of foreign languages has opened my mind and broadened my horizons far more than anything else I've done, including travel. Thus, it is through the study of Arabic that I shall seek to fill this huge gap in my understanding of the world.
Some of my friends and acquaintances have already expressed surprise at my decision, convinced that Arabic is a far less "useful" language than, say, French. A few months ago, I would have agreed with them. In fact, Arabic is the fourth to sixth (depending on exact criteria) most commonly spoken native language in the world, far ahead of all the languages I listed above. I believe that my previous notions of what languages qualify as "useful" were heavily influenced by growing up in an educational system that highly overemphasizes Western culture and history, and a economic system that equates importance with wealth. I consider my ignorance of Middle Eastern language, culture, and religion an embarrassment, and I will delay no longer in trying to remedy it.
Good intentions are only that, however, and it's proving to be quite a challenge. Although I consider myself an experienced language learner with a natural gift, for the first time I'm tackling one that is substantially different from English, without the benefit of ethnic heritage and connections (Taiwanese and Mandarin) or previous familiarity with the alphabet (Greek). After a month, I'm still trying to master the abjad---the term for a consonantal alphabet---connecting all the letters (which can take up to four forms!) to their sounds. It's a slow process, but as with all new language acquisition, a deeply rewarding one for me.
My only hope is that I maintain my energy and motivation for this work, for passion and a lofty purpose can often be defeated by a healthy dose of reality; I remember several classmates in my Ancient Greek class who took it with the worthy goal of reading the New Testament in its original language, only to drop out when faced with the devilishly difficult grammar. My friends and fellow language lovers, I'm counting on you to hold me to my word.