In preparing for her trip to Tunisia, Julia McLean grabs some audio CDs and immerses herself in the Arabic language.
“A different language is a different vision of life” according to Federico Fellini, the film director. This is the best reason to learn the local language when I travel. For me, a holiday in a foreign country is not just to see the sights, cocooned in an air-conditioned coach or floating offshore but to see the natives and how they really live.
I find, too, that people are more attentive and helpful if you make an effort at speaking their language. The Welsh are considerably more affable if I simply speak with a Welsh accent! I have announced myself as being one of the tribe.
Using a simple Japanese Grammar book which was written in Roman letters, I learnt enough Japanese to smooth my path. I decided to learn – the usual tourist things. I didn’t want to mention the War, as John Cleese said, nor did I want to discuss politics or religion, so simple pleasantries were enough.
Apart from listening intently to tapes, I used a method learnt from a French teaching course developed at the University of York in Toronto. It relies on knowledge of basic structures and substituting words at will. For example, I used the given structure ‘XXX-wa, doko des ka? Meaning ‘Where is XXX?’
so I could invent sentences like:
‘Toire-wa,doko des ka? (Where is the toilet?)
‘Hoteru-wa doko des ka? (Where is the hotel?)
‘Takusi-wa doko des ka? (Where is the taxi?) and so on.
The Japanese words for hotel, toilet and taxi are obviously English words pronounced in Japanese so for other words that were intrinsically Asian I had to find a way of remembering them by association. I remembered the question form ‘des ka’ because one of the ways of asking questions in French is ‘Est-ce que’ and sounds similar. I just had to substitute the question word to change the question so ‘Kore-wa NAN des ka?’ was ‘WHAT is that?’ etc.
I am currently preparing for a trip to Tunisia. I am only on Lesson Five of the Arabic book and it is proving very challenging. The problem is that the book gives too many alternatives which all presume that I am going to strike up conversations in a train or hotel with a stranger – in an Arabic country? You are joking! I don’t want to be followed everywhere by hordes of souvenir sellers or irate Mullahs. I already wear a long coat and a black headscarf so that I don’t give any offense or stand out from the crowd.
So far, I have learnt, by association, that zero is ‘Cipher’ (sufr in Arabic), something that sounds like ‘mille’ (a thousand in French) is the word for a hundred. ‘Bint’ is a girl (daughter) and was frequently used by soldiers after the war to mean a girl of easy virtue. Ibn is son and we have seen that in peoples’ names – like Mc in Scottish or Fitz in English. The word for children sounds like ‘lad’. And the word for ‘juice’ sounds like ‘syrup’: lemon sounds much the same (lamoun) but ‘orange’(burtuaan) is going to prove a problem! I shall just have to stick to beer (birra) or if they don’t have any, ‘shay’. The British have used ‘a cup of cha’ for tea for years so calling it shay is not too far away. Coffee is ‘kawa’ but sounds like AHWA. Because all the East drinks coffee heaped with sugar I have to learn to ask for it ‘not too sweet’ (mazbut) but I am having a problem retaining that word but as it sounds like ‘mazout’ (the French for oil/petrol) I might remember that sugar gives me energy! . ‘Biddi’ is the word for ‘I’d like’ and I associate that with ‘I bid you’.
‘My name is Julie’ is ‘Ismi Julie’ (it’s me, Julie). The word for ‘I’ is ‘ana’ and it seems to me that when I learnt Russian years ago ‘ana’ was the sound for ‘she’ and as I am a girl I shall remember that. ‘Ana Britaniya’ means ‘I am British’
‘Kifelhal’ is ‘How are you?’ Sounds like ‘keeping hale’ so I shall remember that. The reply is ‘bi-khayr’ which is not far from ‘better’ and like ‘Big hair’ without the ‘g’ so all that is easily remembered.
‘Where do you live’ is ‘wayne sackna,’ which I have associated with a sleeping bag so I am asking ‘Where do you bed down?.’ The word for phone number sounds like ‘reckon’. Numbers are really hard to learn but I have managed to retain most of them by association with people or places or languages I already know.
The question ‘Are you married? Sounds like ‘Are you in with a miserable witch?’ ‘Inta mitzawwij?’. A wife is ‘marty’ like the word married. The word for husband is ‘jawzi’(Josie) so I keeping calling my husband Josie –just to get him used to the idea.
I know the word for Doctor because it is used in French as a slang word for Doc ‘toubib’ and the word for hospital sounds like ‘mustachfa’.
The word for ‘next to’ is janb – like the French ‘jambe’ leg. Slap your thigh as you sense the meaning of ‘next to’! The word for ‘behind’ has got fixed because it is ‘warra’ as in ‘Worranarse!’ ‘In the centre of’ is ‘waast’ and my waist is about the centre of my body!
‘I shahrrif illi’ is the reply when people say ‘Pleased to meet you’ and is like the reply Brits give when they are embarrassed saying ‘AW sharrup!
I have a long way to go and only eight weeks to get there so I shall listen to the discs as I drive, as I wash and iron, as I sew, as I cook and clean and as I fall asleep; with luck, I shall acquire enough to impress the Arab world and smooth my way in all encounters and revolutions. Perhaps the Tunisians won’t be revolting. Inshallah!
Sheep Cartoon. Courtesy of Julia McLean
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