the hard part about learning something new is that you don’t know how to do it

Caleb came home from his third day at his new school and said “look, mommy, I can write my name in Arabic!”  And he did:

It occurs to me that he may have actually written “suck it,” and I will never know. But still…he did it in Arabic.

Linguists talk about a “critical age” for language acquisition: to become truly fluent in a non-native language, you need to start at about age six. Caleb just turned seven. Every day, he comes home from school with new words: ketab, kaluam, bata, baqara, mimha, and of course that quintessential Arabic word, sabudra, whiteboard.  (I just asked him to say all these words to me and as I typed them, going by sheer phonetics, he was correcting me: “no, that’s not a “k,” it’s a “q,” no it’s not an “e” it’s an “i.”  So that’s nice. Now in addition to kicking my ass in Monopoly, he can correct my Arabic spelling.)

Liam is also taking Arabic and it delights him. His baroque nature finds great satisfaction in the flourishes and curlicues, in figuring out that the shape of letters change depending on where the letter occurs in the word.

Yes, you heard that correctly. The letters don’t look quite the same, depending on where they occur in the word. Oh, and another thing? Vowels aren’t so much included in the word. They get added afterwards, above, if you want to. There are 14 extra-alphabetical symbols that I’m supposed to remember on top of the 28 consonants.

Liam and Caleb think it’s all fascinating, like learning a new code.  Studying a new language works for them because they have brains like this:

My brain, unfortunately, looks like this:


And just like my kids, I’m also taking Arabic. But with a rock brain instead of a sponge brain. Letters that change depending on where they’re positioned? No vowels written down? An entire second layer of meaning floating in the symbols above and below the word?  It makes my rock brain hurt.  On the first day, I didn’t even open the book the right way. Which is to say that I opened it from left to right. Fail. It’s right to left, people, right to left. The workbook is written in English, thank god, and comes with a DVD that I’m supposed to watch in order to learn an entirely new system of mouth moves. Which sounds like a porn movie but won’t be as much fun.

I’d forgotten how hard it is to learn something new. I’m not sure I even remember the last time I deliberately set out to learn some new brain thing. Learning physical stuff—kick-boxing, karate, surfing—that’s hard too, but I think that brain calisthenics are even harder, because with physical stuff, someone can at least watch you and say you’re leaning too far to the right, or that you’re doing some weird torque with your hips which is why you’re falling over.

A few weeks ago, I went to the gym for a session with a personal trainer.  He said that it was important to do different exercise routines during each workout to “confuse the body,” because then your muscles have to work harder and you see better results.  After a few sessions with him, I wasn’t magically thinner or stronger (dammit!) but my aches and pains showed me that new muscles were emerging.

It occurs to me, as I make this analogy, that my brain isn’t as fit as my body. Who knew it was possible to have swags of back fat and poochy love handles on one’s brain? It’s a medical miracle. Someone call Dr. Oz.

My brain may not know it yet, but it’s just been put on a new fitness regimen that goes from right to left. I’m going to confuse that gray matter muscle and make my brain all perky and renewed, the brain equivalent of a midwestern gymnast. Who knows. Maybe the process will, inshallah, ward off Alzheimer’s: being temporarily confused as a way to ward off further, more permanent confusion.

The second Arabic class is on Sunday.  Maybe I can get my kids to help me with my homework.

 

brain coral in the photo above was a gift from Nancy Horwich to Caleb, who treasures it (not knowing that it’s a metaphor for his mommy’s brain)

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10 Responses to the hard part about learning something new is that you don’t know how to do it

  1. Susan W, September 16, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    It all sounds so exhausting. I don’t even want to pretend I speak French and Spanish any more.

  2. Ellyn L. September 16, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    Not sure why it surprises me, but Arabic is a lot like Hebrew–reading the book backwards from how we read, optional vowels, and lots of curly cues in its cursive form. Maybe some day we can compare words; bet there are a lot of similarities as well.
    Shalom and mazel tov (good luck).
    Ellyn

  3. anna ~ random handprints September 16, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    amazing how quick the kids are picking-up the language. sorry it is not as easy for their mom, but how cool that they can help you with your homework!

  4. Nancy Horwich September 17, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    If I had known you were going to compare that little rock coral I gave Caleb to your brain, I would have given him a bigger rock.

  5. Lady Jennie September 19, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    Go girl! I didn’t know that Arabic had the same vowel thing going on that Hebrew does.

    Your rock brain made me laugh. But just keep reminding yourself that you’re staving off Alzheimer’s with all this brain stimulation.

  6. Suzie September 19, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

    I’m taking my first on-line class, in English, and my brain is hurting a little. Good luck my friend, if anyone can do it you can. Caleb’s words sound great, I’d love to know what they mean.
    Take care, I miss you lots.
    I love this blog

  7. Stasha September 20, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

    I remember learning to read Arabic I kept asking everyone if they can please grace me with a dot. Sponges are all very well but ours we use more for dishwashing then learning. Enjoy the ride, you can do it!

  8. tracy October 16, 2011 at 1:30 am #

    It is my great regret – three years here and I still haven’t really absorbed any Arabic at all. Every year I promise myself, ‘This year, this year’, but I still haven’t got further than the alphabet. Which I learnt last year, and have, because my brain is also coral, never really absorbed, let alone remembered.

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