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Facing old fears in a new language

Facing old fears in a new language

Written by Andrew


An OM communications intern, Andrew, faces his fears about learning a new language as he begins to study Arabic in the Middle East.

Many people who read my blog posts are surprised when I tell them I didn’t learn to read until I was 12. It’s true, though. I had tests done when I was 10 or 11 and found out I have a type of dyslexia that makes it extremely difficult – painful even – to keep track of multiple letters in a word and multiple lines on a page. Through a few different visualisation techniques I did learn eventually, but it was difficult, and I honestly don’t think I reached a point where it was completely effortless until I was in college.

With that in my past, it would have been hard for me to imagine that I would ever decide to attempt to learn a completely different script and way of reading. Yet, as an OM communications intern living in the Middle East, a dozen years later, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Last Sunday night, I moved into a hostel next to an Arabic institute, and Monday morning I began Intensive Beginner Arabic in the building next door. Classes go for three hours a day, five days a week, and in addition there’s about two hours of homework per day.

Leading up to this, I was trying to look at it positively, but, for the reasons mentioned above, I kept finding myself dreading it. Looking back on the first week, though, it has been a great experience so far. Everyone in my class is interesting: NGO workers from Europe, Arabs who were born abroad and never learned to read Arabic. There’s a Spanish Jesuit priest. There’s a British art therapist. There’s girl who went to college in New York, just up the road from where I grew up. They are from all over the place but have come here to learn the same thing, and there's a sense of camaraderie in the group that I don't think I ever experienced in four years of college classes back home.

The people have made the experience good, but the atmosphere is pretty fun too. The building we are in has an open-air nightclub on the roof and a café on the ground floor. I've never actually gone to the nightclub at night, but in the afternoon, when it's sunny and no one is up there, it makes a great place to study. In the restaurant on the ground floor they serve breakfast to guests every morning – I get an omelette – and then in the evening it’s packed with locals eating mezze and smoking arguile.

A Swiss-Lebanese guy studying formal Arabic lived in the room next to mine, and when I found out he worked out, he offered to show me the gym he used. I bought a monthly membership and we started lifting weights together. Yesterday, he told me he's moving south to go to a different school in a Shia area. I've only known him for a week, but somehow it's sad. Last night we had a little party for him in the café with some of the people from the floor, and under a haze of arguile smoke and the never-quite-dark city skyline, it felt like we were saying goodbye to an old friend.

We nearly finished the Arabic alphabet today and are starting to have legitimate-sounding – albeit verb-free – conversations in class and when we practice together. Looking back on the past five days I'm surprised at both how much Arabic I've learnt and how many friendships have started in such a short time. So much for my dread, right? I guess I shouldn't speak so soon. On Monday, we learn the last two letters and then plunge into grammar and usage. And it's only five days into the five-week intensive class.

At the rate things are going, who knows what could happen here in that amount of time?

As an OM MENA communications intern, Andrew loves going places where he can see the world from a different perspective – even if it's a difficult place – and telling the stories of people who've found ways of living out God's love in a broken world. If you spend a lot of time in coffee shops, then there's a good chance you'll meet Andrew someday.

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