Saturday, March 24, 2012

Learning a new language

I entered Saudi Arabia with almost zero understanding of Arabic, although I could fluently read the language as the holy Book of Islam is written in Arabic. On the first night, when I arrived at Ta'if near midnight, I had a hard time talking to the cab-driver who drove me to the Children's Hospital. An Asian fellow who minded the parking lot just outside the airport helped me put my request across.

From then until now, I have come a long way. I have a vocabulary of over 300 words, and am able to ask questions and understand the answers to/from the patients in about 40-50% of the conversations. Today, that is. Saturday, 24th March, was an unusually heavy morning in the OPD. On top of this, there were at least 3-4 patients whose medical problems were not the usual run-of-the-mill types. I had a tough time questioning the parent/care-taker and on almost 2 occasions, I simply dropped my head into my hands and gave up. Eventually, I had to approach one of the Arabic-speaking Egyptian doctors to make sense of what I was asking and what they were replying.

This got me thinking about how difficult it must be for a small child to communicate. For sure, their cognitive skills must be ahead of their expressive ones, and it must be as frustrating for them to convey to their care-takers that they, for example, wanted their diaper changed, or wanted water, and not milk, or that they did not want to be kissed, but just talked to. How fast do children develop! One day you find them articulating all their needs with goos and gaas, and one day, they grow up to argue with you. Isn't that a miracle of Nature in its own way? 

Arabic is spoken very differently from the way Indian languages or English, for that matter, is. While the emphasis is on clear speech that emanates from the larynx and is modulated by the tongue, the mouth and other articulatory parts in all the other languages, in Arabic, there is a greater role for the articulatory parts and the nasal passages (the nose). In fact, many words that are spelled in the same way sound totally different on account of the way their consonants and vowels are articulated. For example, some words seem to emanate from the larynx and even more nether regions of the respiratory tract - for example, the wind-pipe; at other times, the nose modifies the erupting sound so that it is heard with a distinct nasal quality. This makes the Arabic-speaking individual appear as if she/he is gasping for breath in between, or finding it difficult to speak! 

For a person like me, it becomes nigh impossible to make out what they are saying since there is hardly any punctuation in this language except, perhaps, for a full-stop. Most of the times, the words run into one another as if breathlessly speeding up to reach a target in the least possible time. And it is I, the person who is trying to understand, who begins to gasp for breath!

All said and done, though, it is a fascinating process and it is something that is teaching me a whole lot of new things.

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