Sunday, June 21, 2009

Linguistic reflections

Test #2 was Friday. I got the exact same score I did last week, not best, not bad, so I’m still feeling okay. Almost all the points I got off were for the writing section, though, so I’m supposed to talk to the program coordinator on Monday about how to improve my spelling. Judging by people that didn’t do so hot last week, I think that probably translates to a private spelling tutor, which, although it just means MORE work, should be very helpful considering my current frustrations with class time.

I have two teachers each day. One is incredible—enthusiastic, jolly, and great at not getting exasperated at incompetent Americans. The other—not so much. I don’t think she’s had much teaching experience, which doesn’t help, but she also just doesn’t seem to have a good concept of the efficient use of class time, or pace, and her version of “helping” is to rewrite your sentence for you or impatiently supply you with the word you’re in the process of sounding out. It’s frustrating, and in a program like this where speed and intensity are the name of the game, it feels like a major handicap. I’ve tried to refrain from snapping at her, but I have very little patience for bad teachers (or anyone wasting my time, really), especially because St. Mary’s really spoiled me in the teacher department.

It has been a lot more difficult than I imagined to learn Tunisian and FosHa side by side. In case anyone doesn’t know, Arabic takes very different forms in the different countries it’s spoken in. FosHa, or Modern Standard, is the “universal” form that is supposedly understood by all (it’s the language of academics, printing, news, etc) but spoken by none. The way I visualize the structure of Arabic in my head is like the dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park—the basic structure, taken from the mosquitoes in amber, was dino, but they filled in the gaps with amphibian. FosHa acts as this ancient structure, but local dialects fill in the holes to create new and individual languages. With Tunisian, French filled a good number of those holes and so did Italian (ex. Pen= “steeloo”, like the French “stylo”; OK=“dack-wher-doo” like Italian “Dacuerdo”). Tunisians appropriate French so naturally that half the time they can’t remember the Arabic word for some things that they’re used to referring to in French. The longer I’m here, the more I just want to learn Tunisian, as it’s more the talking to people than the grammar that inspires me. Unfortunately, we only get about 30 mins of Tunisian a day, compared to 4 hours of FosHa.

Arabic itself is a mix of familiar and unfamiliar elements, and although the completely foreign writing system and sounds and lack of cognates make it harder to absorb/retain, the structure is actually much simpler than the languages I’m used to in many ways. Like romance languages, there are masculine and feminine nouns, although like Spanish (and unlike French) it is usually relatively easy to tell which is which from the sound/appearance of the word. There is no subject for formal address like the French “vous” or the Spanish “usted,” thank God, so it’s not quite so easy to offend someone by using the wrong one (although, interestingly enough, the Spanish “usted” comes from Arabic, where it is a title of respect for a teacher). Verbs are conjugated from BOTH sides, with a first person, second person and third person prefix and a suffix for plural. THERE ARE ONLY THREE IRREGULAR VERBS(!) (come, eat, and take) but there are oddly no infinitives—the base form is the imperative. Nouns are altered with suffixes to allow possession (walidy = mother, walidity = my mother) and, like romance languages, usually precede their adjectives.

I had a great lazy Saturday yesterday, but I’ll save that until later, because I need to use my precious café Internet to do my homework. Until then, here are the explanations for this post's pictures of the less touristy, less glamorous sides of where I’m living. Tunisia is like the Where’s Waldo of stray cats—they are literally everywhere, and if you stand still long enough you can usually spot several lurking under cars, in trash cans, etc. They’re fairly clean and tame, though, as many families leave out scraps for them (because they’re preferable to rats). Also, Tunis is a very littered city, with new apartment buildings next to piles of rubble and discarded trash, especially as you move into the more middle class areas. Last: the vendors who sell to tourists often use their children to try and boost sales, which is both cute and a little sad. Here are two boys who posed for me, who are selling little bouquets of Full and Jasmine--two wonderful smelling flowers that grow everywhere here, and whose aromas will forever after remind me of Tunisia. These little handmade bouquets are sold on every street corner here for about half a dinar, and are purchased primarily by men (either old men, who wear them behind their ears, or young men, who buy them for their lady friends).

Last but not least: I don't know if he reads this, but if so, here's wishing a very happy Father's Day to the best Dad I know.


  1. He reads it! Arabic sounds like a lot of hard work! Missing you and wishing I were there at the same time.

  2. You did not just compare Arabic to Jurrasic Park... Michael Criton is smiling at you from beyond the grave (haha).

    Also, OMG, "burquini" is the BEST WORD EVER!

  3. Only three irregular verbs? Do you know how glad I am that whatever language I choose to learn it can't possibly be as bad as english? haha! Good luck with the teacher... I hope she gets a bit of patience from somewhere...
    very cute cats but I'm not getting another one. Hex has taken to leaping on and off of tall things in the middle of the night and waking us up.. or falling asleep on your face. Not sure which is worse.
    Tunesia sounds amazing, parts of what you say make me want to holiday there for months, and parts of it convince me I would go a little crazy.
    I'm sure your spelling will improve, after all, look at mine! I even have semi legible handwriting these days :)