My language journey didn’t start with Spanish…and I’m not going to count high school French. It was years later, at University, that I had the desire (and the opportunity) to learn Arabic.
Well, if I had a sticky date for every time I was asked that! I would answer that I was really interested in the culture, which was more than partially true, but there were other reasons too. As I was edging towards the final year of my degree, the race was on to prepare myself with skills that I hoped would better my career prospects (and I thought the script was beautiful too)!
I had a vision of setting up camp in the desert (not literally, just in the broader sense of the Middle East) and getting a really “cool” job – something that was exotic, exciting and worlds apart from what I knew.
I persevered through years of lessons, first at University and then at evening classes at a local language school. But there was never enough demand in Glasgow to keep students in attendance for longer than one term. So, I started private lessons with a lovely Lebanese lady and together, we drank mint tea and she showed me her beautiful silk occasion dresses, while teaching me the fundamentals of Modern Standard Arabic, and about the richness of Arab culture.
When the time came to stop – I was sad but accepting. I had achieved something; I could read and write the beautiful script and had enough phrases up my sleeve should I ever find myself bargaining at a spice bazaar in Beirut. But the (less exotic) job I had landed in Glasgow had no requirement for this Semitic language. I had no one to practise speaking with and just not enough reason to study out-with my weekly 90-minute class.
So, I bought a beautiful copy of “The Arabian Nights” with gold gilded pages, for the memories. It has pride of place on my bookshelf and whenever I pick it up, I get swept away in a fantasy of fascinating far-away lands.
And since moving to Spain, I have been amazed to discover what an influential part the Arab-Muslims (Moors) played in this country’s history, and the deep-rooted connection between the two cultures. The imprint left on Spain from almost 800 years of Moorish ruling in the 8th Century is still evident today (particularly in El Sur), from mesmerising Arabic architecture, and musical influences (not to mention the importance of chickpeas in Spanish cuisine)!
And then of course, there is the language. Although Spanish is a Latin language, around 8% of its vocabulary derives from Arabic – even the words that sound oh-so-Spanish to us like guitarra (guitar), barrio (neighbourhood), hasta (until), naranja (orange), and nearly every word beginning with ‘al’!
I believe there is something irritating and wasteful about dedicating so many years of our lives to learning a unique skill only to lose it all through lack of practice (or need). That’s why I get so excited when I connect Arabic words in Spanish, because I am reminded that all was not lost.
All those years of learning; of adapting to reading right to left, of remembering the alphabet and its changing form, and of pronouncing the deep guttural sounds (which is actually surprisingly easy if you happen to be Scottish, or German)! If anything, reminding myself of this was starting to make learning Spanish seem pretty simple!
Looking back now, I realise that Arabic was a stepping-stone. It quenched my thirst for learning about a culture that has fascinated me since I was young, and it awakened my appetite for learning languages. But as it turned out, it was not the language I “needed”.
It’s different this time, with Spanish. I NEED this language and that is the driving force. We all start learning new skills for different reasons, but the idea that this is one that will enhance my life is enough of a motive for me to give it all I’ve got!
I haven’t given up the dream of achieving polyglot status yet, and one day I will make space in my brain for more than one foreign language.
But I must also leave space for imagination because dreams of magic lamps, Persian princesses, sultans and sorcerers (oh, and really cool jobs) are never far away!