Some feelings that I can’t put into words, despite the fact that I’m living in Morocco, studying words. Here’s my attempt.
A new message from Brian pops up on my home screen. In the NSLI-Y group chat, he sent a research article about Arabic language processing in the brain. The title? “Reading Arabic isn’t Easy.” Before reading the findings of the study, I think to myself: I don’t need any science to tell me this. I semi-knew what I was getting myself into when I put down Arabic as my “First Choice Language” on my NSLI-Y application two years ago. I didn’t know the language required completely different parts of my brain, according to the University of Haifa study. I knew it all looked like art, and beauty, and love, to me. I didn’t know the feelings I could get from this language could be so indescribably strong.
This past week marked one month in Morocco, but our time in formal language classes here has only been three weeks. Throughout this time, I’ve of course questioned where I stand with Arabic.
Sometimes Arabic feels like an enemy. I’m corrected on a sound I swore I could pronounce perfectly. A simple word slips my mind. I go to the front of the class to give my weekly presentation, and every word I studied escapes me. Sometimes, I have to ask someone to repeat the same sentence four times, and then reply with a diplomatic “Mzyan,” or “Hamdoullah,” and pray it wasn’t a question or a joke. It can feel like the complex grammar doesn’t love me back. Sometimes I look at my homework, or the white board my teacher has completely covered with new vocabulary words, and I feel like I’m being betrayed. Sometimes, I hate the language. The feeling of inadequacy when I can’t communicate perfectly. When I’m tongue tied, and I slip into English. When the complexities and challenges nearly bring me to tears in class. Arabic, I’m enamored with you, and you reply to my love letters with verbal patterns and broken plurals and an array of synonyms I can’t memorize.
But even between the bad times, this language has filled my life with warmth and happiness. I’m sitting on the balcony of my host family’s apartment as I write this. And why am I here? I’m not smarter than anyone else, or a talented athlete or good at math. Simply put, I’m in Morocco for you and because of you. Arabic has taken me everywhere. It’s given me something of my own, intangible but mine. A pursuit, a reason, a goal. I can’t hold it or hug it, but I can feel this language in my bones.
There’s a constant reinforcement here. I have a nagging fear that I’ll lose all of my progress when I leave, and then I remember I’m not leaving tomorrow. I can’t go anywhere, it seems, without hearing, seeing, or reading a word I just learned. Today at breakfast, the word “majority”. At a café study session with a friend, “quality”. Yesterday, “winner”. It’d be hard to escape this if I tried. My lessons follow me into the street, the gym, every restaurant, concert venue, news article, café. It doesn’t feel like I’m drowning, but like I’m swimming without the need for air. This feeling that every time I learn something new, the universe places an example of it in my life. A reminder: “It matters, it’s real”.
So many words feel important. When does this stop? When will my vocabulary feel full enough? I learn the word for system. Yes, thank you, I needed that. And now process, and capitalism and television series, and liquid, and the verb for to believe in something. The distinction between that, and to simply believe a fact. The plural of cup, and bed, and most of the spices. To sit, to run, to have sore muscles. Poverty, hunger, the plural of solution. When I think, Yes, I’m finished, this is the most important word I needed. I can guarantee you there’s five more words that day just as important. Like whack-a-mole or sweeping a room and finding you missed a spot. But the spots just keep coming. It feels like I’m racing to acquire all this knowledge, and there’s no formal end. Step by step, I’m reminded, but I feel like I need to sprint.
But this isn’t a sprint. This is a marathon. We’re reminded that frequently, when it’s all overwhelming. And I don’t want to resent this language that I am so enamored with. Yes, sometimes it feels like I’m confessing my love to a brick wall, but it’s there. My love for this language has brought me here, and it’s the one thing holding everything together.