Rock Mclimbing*

February 21, 2014 § Leave a comment


“Climbing to the top demands strength, whether it is to the top of Mount Everest, or to the top of your career.”

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, one-time President of India

To this above quote, I’d add learning a language. It can be a long, arduous climb.

I did a bit of rock-climbing at school. Ideally, you’re told, keep three points in contact with the rock face at any one time. Two feet and one hand; two hands, one foot. Only once you’re an expert should you consider dangling over a precipice by a fingertip or two.

I’ve been spending some time over the last 6 months or so, on and off, learning Arabic, mostly by myself, with YouTube videos and a grammar book, but with a few hours, one-to-one, in the company of a couple of Arabic tutors. It’s the structure of the language I’m particularly interested in, and the writing system.

Here is what I’ve found:

At first I couldn’t even work out where one letter started and the other finished. I didn’t know which dots belonged to which squiggles. Some English ex-pats I know in the Middle East call it spaghetti writing.

I see a word, I hear it. A few days later, not only have I forgotten it, I have no recollection of ever meeting the word. I’m convinced I’ve never met it before, until I flick back through my Arabic notebook and see I’ve written it down.

It takes me numerous sighting before I even begin to recognise the word as a whole, to “know it on sight”. Usually, I have to sound out the letters, getting many wrong, so my offering is often largely inaccurate. A dot above a short squiggle is obviously pronounced differently from a dot below a slightly longer squiggle. Obvious in hindsight, or rather hindhearing.

Arabic doesn’t have to show the vowels in the word (it can do, with diacritics), only the consonants, so I am basically guessing the vowel sounds. If it were English, I’d be saying things like “ilafont” instead of “elephant”, “fatbil” for “football”. Some of you will spot the similarity between me and the English policeman in “Allo Allo”.

One set of YouTube videos I found was quite good, they’re just a collection of phrases with say 6 or 7 words. At first, I can pick out a word or two. After literally 20 playbacks, I can hear every sound and every syllable, understand every word and say it back, and know what I’m saying. Progress. Very much so. But also very much slow.

So, what do I want, need, as a language learner, at least as a self-access resource, something I can use by myself?

Well, actually, I want language plants.

What are these?

A way of presenting collocations, lots of them, and the interactive ones have lots of listening practice, changing a word here, another there, keeping three words out of four, say, at any one time. What I don’t want is to hear a sentence, then another one, then another, and another, in a seemingly never-ending stream of “engaging” content. That’s like hanging off a cliff face by my fingernails.

Image*The title, “Rock Mclimbing” is a reference to the McNuggets view of grammar splicing.

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