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  • David Sunderland

Cairo blog 3 - Articulations, mistakes and metaphor

It is amazing what you can come up with by the ordering of combinations from a set of 26 letters, but conjuring them together really well to make them sing and even make other things dance is a different thing.

Learning a language is hard. Including, perhaps particularly, your mother tongue. For English, when you look at the size of the shorter, nay full, version of the Oxford English Dictionary, you realize how little you know. Let alone all those annoying words that pop up in all manner of written material or conversations that you might have heard or seen before but you can’t quite place the meaning.

In language, among other things, we are exhorted to learn then master the rules before we can break them. We might say writing passably is akin to riding a bicycle just after coming off stabilisers; good writing is like completing a Stage of the Tour de France; and great writing is equivalent to successfully juggling on a moving unicycle. However, the irony is that when learning a new language the only way you can progress is inevitably breaking the rules first.

I would not however say that my first couple of months of trying to learn Arabic in Egypt have involved a single moment of being stylish on any number of wheels. A better metaphor would be walking blind into a fast-moving flow of traffic on Nasr Road. At least I have developed competency in a few other languages to know for me that learning involves 100% perspiration, an awful lot of repetition and the repeated experience that words and phrases will go in one ear and out the other, and the guarantee that I will be feeling slow and awkward for years when I open my mouth before I can hope to come near to the speed and fluency of an Egyptian.

Language learning points in Cairo:

1. Non-verbal communication will either on its own, or in complement to one or two badly pronounced words, provide you with a vocabulary and range that will astonish you. Conversely, you may also be alarmed at the misunderstandings that this potentially creates.

2. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You can’t learn without them (but you can sometimes learn from mistakes other people have made). However, be prepared for Egyptians telling you that your mispronunciation or invention of some words are rude or inappropriate – without necessarily telling you why.

3. Find some Egyptians who speak English and want to improve it, and fob them off in doing a language exchange. They will probably speak it so well that for every new word or correction you make for them, you’ll potentially learn ten times as much Arabic.

4. Prepare to be surprised how intimately linked the culture and language can be, and how much imagery, history, religion and philosophy it contains.

But coming back to combinations of letters. I sometimes wonder how many trillions of times the letter ‘a’has been used to formulate, build and modify all manner of things in the world. (That was five times in the last sentence).

Beyond these little symbols, to really use our A-Z (or alif to ghayn), we have to form words. Then put those in the right order and declination to form language. Not to mention taking care to navigate away from all those rude and sensitive areas. And that might finally get us onto stabilisers after a few hard years, with any hope of entering the Tour de France or juggling on a unicycle being an impossible dream.

I might be able to knock out the odd passable sentence or two in my own language, but feel that doing justice in any other language would be as hard as cycling up a cliff face. However, there is a spark of hope. This is that each of us has such a particular set of knowledge and experience that means despite any linguistic limitations we may have, it is still possible to dream up metaphors and related innovations in language in very different and unique ways. We come from a different culture and background, which gifts us with a perspective that is ours and ours alone to react to things, describe, and perhaps inspire.

Indeed a lack of knowledge of another language and culture may allow us, particularly at first, to have a more profound insight into it, as if we were a fine single malt whiskey granted the ability to speak a reaction to its very first encounter with a bottle of vodka. I for one however prefer being a blended and aged whiskey with experience of multiple cultures and languages. However, a warning: moderation is sometimes safer, as it might be dangerous to get drunk with metaphors and try to juggle and ride a unicycle for the first time, at the same time. Particularly when facing fast-moving traffic on Nasr Road.

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