Scott Bridges

Vanity Online Brand Facilitation Node

Page 2 of 4

Back to school

I arrived in chilly Amman three days ago after a 30-hour, three-plane journey from warm Canberra, dressed in a t-shirt which attracted many curious looks at the airport. As I bought a bottle of water from Starbucks in the arrivals hall, the guy who took my money asked me where my jacket was in exactly the same voice my mum would use.

The next day I was wide awake at 4:30am and it was the first time in as long as I can remember that I had nothing to do, nowhere to be, and no two-and-a-half-year-old alarm clock about to run into my bedroom as the sun came up. So I lay in bed for a few hours and read a book, only getting up every now and again to make another coffee or tea. It was bliss. After doing a few hours of work in the late morning (okay, I lied about having nothing to do), I caught an Uber out to a shopping mall for a few supplies, and on the Uber ride home I had my first real attempt at a conversation in Arabic. The Palestinian driver was a good sport, speaking slowly and choosing simple language I would more likely understand. It was quite liberating to force myself to say things out loud I knew were grammatically incorrect, or that drew on clumsy vocab, as long as I was able to communicate my meaning.

I spent the past couple of days mostly taking it easy, working to tame the jetlag, exploring the streets, finalising a bit of other work, and settling into the little apartment I will call home for the next four months. Starbucks guy will be relieved to know I’ve been sleeping under three blankets. It has been nice just pottering around but as day one of school approached I was definitely getting restless and anxious to start what I came here to do.

I arrived at the language centre at 9am this morning for my placement test along with five other new students. We were a mixed crew: I was joined by students from Britain, America, the Netherlands, South Korea and Italy. The test took over an hour and included a reading and writing component which got progressively harder as you moved through the paper, and an oral test at the end. Even though I knew it wasn’t a test test — that it was formative rather than summative — I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I managed okay, though, and I don’t think Mohanned would be too disappointed in me.

While the test papers were analysed, the director of the Arabic course gave an orientation presentation, and then we were split off into four different ability streams based on our results. I went with the Italian student to join a Swedish student in another classroom where we met our teacher for the next month. In four weeks we will be assessed again and re-streamed as necessary.

My teacher walked into the classroom and started speaking Arabic with no pleasantries or warning in English, but she got it perfectly right: her vocab choice was just challenging enough without being overwhelming, as was the speed she talked. And I had to talk back. No mucking around, no time to overthink it — just talk and make mistakes and learn from them. It was great.

It was only a quick lesson today because the placement test and orientation had taken up three of the four hours so we stuck to getting-to-know-you topics, but even in just 60 minutes I felt challenged and motivated, and I left the room filled with anticipation and the good, productive kind of nervousness.

The language school offers all of its new students a tour of the city on their first day so five of us enthusiastically signed up. Our first stop was the famous Hashem Restaurant where we recharged our brains with falafel, hummus, mutabal, chips, bread and hot tea.


I remember eating here nearly seven (!) years ago when I backpacked through Jordan for a week or so.

And of course we checked out the Roman theatre which was teeming with visitors despite the frosty wind.


Tonight, back at the apartment, I’ve done my homework and am hoping I can smash out a proper night of non-jetlagged sleep in preparation for tomorrow when it’s game on proper for learning.

Pause and reflect

Having now completed my final lesson with Mohanned, I thought it might be good to pause and reflect on the progress I’ve made before I start the next phase of my learning in Jordan next week. Even though I know that reflection is a useful learning tool which helps to bed down knowledge etc. etc. I’m not very good at doing it — indeed, part of the reason I decided to start this blog series was to force myself to do it. Because language learning is so slow and incremental it’s really easy to lose sight of your wins and triumphs, which then leaves more space for self-doubt and defeatism. I mean, my Arabic is obviously heaps better now than it was before I started with Mohanned but all I seem to be able to think about most of the time is what I don’t know and can’t do instead of celebrating what I’ve mastered.

I started off by doing the sums and was a bit shocked: turns out I’ve done no more than 250 hours of lessons with Mohanned which, while spread over a long three-and-a-half years, is pretty much bugger all. By way of comparison, my four month course in Jordan will involve 320 hours of instruction, plus homework. Strangely, this realisation makes me feel a bit better about not making as much progress as I feel like I should have in several years, and excited for what I can potentially achieve in Jordan if I put the work in.

Over the past few years there are several areas of progress that stand out to me:

  • Speaking. In last week’s lesson I didn’t write a single word for 90 minutes. Instead, Mohanned and I spent the whole time speaking (mostly) in Arabic. He threw a bunch of scenarios at me that I would face in Jordan such as catching a taxi, arriving at accommodation etc. And while I’m still slow, stumbling and massively error prone, I was speaking Arabic and making myself understood. And yet I clearly remember lessons as recently as a year or eighteen months ago when I would panic if Mohanned tried to make me speak without reference to vocab or a chance to script or rehearse. The crucial thing here is not so much the acquisition of vocab, grammar etc., it’s that my speaking confidence is light years ahead of where it used to be. And just in time, too.
  • Reading speed. I’m now much, much better at spotting phonemes and being able to construct words out of chunks and letter patterns instead of having to sound them out letter by letter. Related, I’m getting better at being able to guess or deduce the short vowels of unfamiliar words without diacritics.
  • Thinking. For a long time I would “see” words in my head not in Arabic script but instead transliterated into Latin script. Now, though, I “see” the words in Arabic. However, I still haven’t dreamt in Arabic which apparently is a key milestone in language acquisition, I’ve only dreamt about Arabic.

Set against the progress, though, are a lot of ongoing weaknesses, such as:

  • Vocabulary. I don’t know why I find learning vocab so difficult but it’s probably something to do with how much hard work is required to memorise long lists of words that you aren’t using regularly. Having said that, I often surprise myself when I remember the meaning of a word I have no real reason to have remembered, so some data at least is being written to archives somewhere in my brain.
  • Grammar rules, such as verb conjugation, gender, numbers etc. At this stage I still have to think too hard about tables when I do anything much more complicated than put together a basic sentence. I know this will come together quite quickly once I am speaking a lot in Jordan, and that learning tables by rote is an inefficient method of learning this stuff.

So, I still have metric shitloads of work to do. But when I stop and think about it it’s clear that I’ve built a solid foundation over the past few years (thanks to Mohanned) and I’m about to spend a large chunk of time focused for most of my time on nothing by learning Arabic. I’ll also try to build reflection into my daily study schedule.

Four months in Jordan

Today is World Arabic Language Day, commemorating the date in 1973 that the United Nations approved Arabic as one of its official languages. As such, it seems like an appropriate time to post my big news here at The Arabic Diaries™: I’m moving to Jordan in a couple of weeks to do a four-month intensive language course. 20 hours of instruction per week for 16 weeks, plus homework. And, most crucially, 24/7 immersion in the Arabic language. I can’t wait.

I’ve reached a point in my studies where the limits of doing just a few hours of lessons a week in a non-Arabic-speaking country have become painfully obvious, and I’ve had to confront the hard truth that if I keep learning at my current pace I’ll never approach fluency. Which, in turn, raises the question: why bother? So, it’s off to Amman I go in early January, to be followed shortly afterwards by my wife and daughter who will live with me for the final three of the four months.

I’m looking forward to being able to devote most of my time and brainspace to study and learning, rather than the day-to-day reality of my life where Arabic is just one of the many things that demand my attention. I’m also really excited about the experience of living overseas with my little family: learning Arabic from Sunday to Thursday (my wife is taking lessons, too!), and going on adventures on the weekend.

Upon returning to Australia in May, the biggest challenge will be maintaining my proficiency when suddenly removed from daily, intense and immersive contact with the language. This whole project represents a significant investment of our family’s time and money, and I am all too conscious of the need to ensure that none of it is wasted. I’ll certainly be knocking on Mohanned’s door as soon as we’re back to show off my words before humbly requesting his ongoing help.

To forget is to human

I met with Mohanned last night after taking a few weeks off for holidays and other life things that get in the way of lessons. It’s quite sobering after each of these breaks to be reminded of how damaging it is to your learning progress to go so long without engaging with the language. As I opened my books with trembling hands and prepared to respond to Mohanned’s basic questions in Arabic of “how was your day?” and “what did you do on your holiday?”, I felt really anxious and a bit guilty for letting things go for so long.


Mohanned had prepared an activity which involved watching an Al Jazeera Arabic1 news clip and responding to a sheet of questions. One section of the report contained the words nasiya (forget) and insaan (human) which prompted Mohanned to point out that there is one school of thought about the relationship between the two: that the word for human is derived from the root for forget. The argument being that humans were designed to be both forgetful and capable of remembering, and that each trait has a purpose:

Man is undeniably a very forgetful creature! This trait of forgetfulness has two sides to it; there’s a good side and a bad side.

The good side of this attribute has been well-explained to us by Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him), who is narrated to have said: “Even a greater boon than memory is forgetfulness, without which man would not found solace in any affliction, nor would have ever gotten clear of frustration, nor could have gotten rid of malice. He would have failed to relish anything of the world’s goods because of insistent memories of affliction, nor could he ever have entertained any hope of weakening of his sovereign’s attention or the envy of the envious. Don’t you see how the contrary faculties of memory and forgetfulness have been created in man, each ordained with a definite purpose?”

Hence we can see how forgetfulness can be a blessing for us.

The bad side to being forgetful is quite self-explanatory. When was the last time you could not recall an important mathematical or scientific formula for your exam, or when you kept a very precious item of yours in such a safe spot that you yourself could not remember where it was? There are several examples of how our forgetfulness can mess up our day-to-day lives.

However, a higher degree of forgetfulness is the one that can ruin one’s life as well as afterlife (the permanent abode). This is definitely the kind of forgetfulness that one should try to keep away from by all means. It distances one from Allah and His special servants and leaves one in the state of absolute desolation!

But that is just one theory about the etymology of insaan; there is at least one other that I’ve come across:

… religious reformers who see God’s Law as the ultimate path to salvation take as their motto the phrase, “We hear and obey.” It is sometimes said by such reformers in Islam that the root of insan, the Arabic word for “human being,” is nasiya, “to forget.” Because human beings are forgetful, they need to be reminded of God through revelation and redirected toward salvation by Law (Shari’a) that God has mandated.

However, there is another possible root for insan, which is anisa, “to come close.” According to this understanding, human beings are close to God by nature because they are created in God’s image.

Regardless of the true backstory, discovering language stories like these is a fascinating insight into history, people, a region and a religion. I love how they add so much human(!) texture to the task of trying to not forget vocabulary.

1. Mohanned likes to use AJA clips for teaching because of the quality of the fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) its presenters and journalists use, not necessarily because of the content.

The unknown

A few weeks ago I asked Mohanned to run me through the passive voice in Arabic since we were encountering it more and more often in the stuff we were reading. He showed up the next week with a few pages photocopied out of a text book and told me it was easy so I should go home, learn it, and then teach it back to him the next week.

“The passive voice,” begins the text, “is widely used in Arabic without the negative associations regarding style that the passive voice has in English.”

(As a university tutor who has spent far too much time waging war on students’ passive voice sentences, I knew this was going to take some getting used to.)

“In Arabic the doer of the action [in the passive voice] is supposed to go unmentioned,” continues the text. “In fact, the Arabic word for the passive is al-majhool ‘the unknown’.” How fantastic! I keep coming across little examples of poetry like this one built into the language and I find them absolutely delightful.

Anyway, it turns out that Mohanned was right (as always) and it is really easy to turn an active voice sentence into a passive voice one. All you’ve got to do is take the active past tense verb, change the short vowel diacritics, remove the pronoun suffix which serves as the subject, and you’ve got the passive sentence. So, for example: darastu al-kitaab (I studied the book) becomes durisa al-kitaab (the book was studied).

“The only real difference,” says the text, “is that in English we can mention who did the action in the passive, whereas in Arabic we cannot.” Indeed, when I was recounting all of this Mohanned today to prove that I’d learned it, he told me that the object in an Arabic passive sentence takes on a special role, somewhere between subject and object — what’s called the naa’ib faa’il, or “deputy subject”. See what I mean about all these delightful little examples of poetry?

But, of course, as soon as I worked it and started getting cocky I came crashing back down to reality because, as I’ve learned while studying Arabic, nothing is actually that easy. This passive construction becomes a problem in basically all written contexts because the short vowel diacritics are almost never printed which makes it quite tough for us learners. Without the diacritics, a printed word could potentially mean half a dozen things, and the active/passive construction is not immediately obvious without studying the sentence construction. As the text quite sarcastically notes:

students are often uncomfortable with the passive voice when reading Arabic texts because the unvoweled passive conjugations often look exactly like the active voice conjugations. Since many students often are horrified at the thought of reading for meaning and recognizing words in context, and since they are usually very weak in grammar, sentences in the passive voice often are totally misunderstood.

Reading for meaning? Sounds awful.

War, battle, soldiers and elements

On Monday, Mohanned and I were discussing the military operation in Mosul as he prepared to set me a homework task. Mohanned repeatedly referred to it as the Mosul al-harb (war) and I questioned whether there might be a better noun since we’d probably call it a battle in English. He said he’d think about it and then set me a homework task for Thursday: write a report in Arabic on the Mosul campaign.

I kept the report simple (in line with my meagre skills), outlining the various actors and the size of their forces, and chucking in a couple of points raised by Iraqi generals I’d seen in various English-language articles. When I sat down with Mohanned yesterday, we went through the report and he awarded me a solid distinction after only needing to correct about 20% of it.

One of the errors he fixed was my use of janood (soldiers) when referring to people fighting for Daesh (ISIS). Mohanned explained that a lot of people use aanaseer (elements) when speaking of those fighters, in part because the term is somewhat delegitimising. I was initially surprised by this choice of language — why can’t we just call them all soldiers? — until I very quickly realised that we make such distinctions in English all the time. I wonder if my reaction has something to so with language learners having a very limited vocabulary to work with, forcing us to artificially simplify the way we think about things so we can select appropriately from that short list of words we know. Or maybe we’re just so focused on getting the construction of language right that we lose focus on the content of the message.

Anyway, we then watched an Al Jazeera Arabic report on the Mosul campaign which referred to it as al-maarakah (battle) instead of war. Conundrum from Monday solved, and another simple but useful reminder that there is so much depth, texture and nuance in language beyond simply learning words and establishing one-to-one correspondence with their English equivalents.

Belco votes

Driving back home from my run early this morning I passed a lonely figure standing on the side of the road waving a huge yellow sign at essentially nobody. Were it not for the peculiarly Canberra tradition of planting a forest of campaign signage at the sides of roads I’m not sure the 2016 election would’ve been on my radar, but our sign-waving friend reminded me that it was ACT election day. So, after breakfast, I decided to enjoy the sunny spring morning and go for a stroll with my camera to take a highly unscientific reading of the buzz around the 100m exclusion perimeter of the central Belconnen polling booth. I started by heading back up to the guy with the yellow sign to say g’day.


Tom Chen is the campaign manager for Kim Huynh, an independent candidate better known to basically everyone in northern Canberra as “Kimbo” due to his unique and attention-grabbing Go Kimbo campaign. Tom was the only person I could see campaigning away from the Westfield side of the exclusion zone, and the only other corflute sign in sight was for another independent candidate. He said the Go Kimbo campaign decided that being visible was the most important thing and that the team believes voters don’t necessarily respond well to having volunteers rush them with fliers and how-to-votes. After a long day in the sun, the Go Kimbo crew will hit the Belconnen Tennis Club tonight for an election party.


Leaving Tom to untangle his balloons, I walked around to Margaret Timpson Park where anyone wishing to transit for the past couple of weeks has had to dodge dozens of corflutes and volunteers crowded around the edge of the park facing the shopping centre. I couldn’t not grab a photo of a corflute belonging to prominent Belconnon identity and now Labor candidate Tara Cheyne. Over the years, Tara has waged war on the scourge of abandoned shopping trolleys lining the streets of Belconnen and the shallows of Lake Ginninderra. I think she’d appreciate the #belcopride irony.

Tara trolley

I spoke to a couple of volunteers from major parties who were happy to chat but didn’t want their names and photos shared. One lady has been handing out HTVs throughout the pre-polling period and said that she felt it was a way of making her contribution to democracy and to advocate for what she believes best for Canberra. Most punters have been polite, she said, even those who disagree with her party’s positions.


At the corner of the park I ran into two Greens volunteers, Ebony Holland and Sam Hussey-Smith, who were enjoying the morning despite the noticeably slow pace of voters heading into the booth (perhaps due to the fact that over 80,000 Canberrans had pre-poll voted before election day — roughly one-third of enrolled voters).

Sam and Ebony

Asked about the general vibe of this election they said there is an undercurrent of antipathy, perhaps due to this poll’s proximity to the July federal election. However, both said they’d had some great conversations with voters about in-depth issues while handing out and door knocking.

It was time for lunch so I put away my camera, met up with my wife and daughter, and we all walked up to our favourite local pho restaurant. After a typically delicious meal, and as we were paying, I noticed a sign in the front window.

Kim pho

“Do you know him?” I asked the owner, pointing at the sign.

“Yes!” he beamed.

Meetings and conferences

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working through the first unit of Media Arabic which deals with “meetings and conferences”. By concentrating on and drilling down into one theme of news reporting per unit, the textbook aims to introduce vocab and unpack writing styles related to the more common genres of reporting. The first ten pages have presented a series of progressively longer news stories which I’ve been translating with the aid of a table of key terms and then answering questions designed to elicit the key points.

The texts have been quite repetitive — Arab League leaders met and pledged democratic/social reforms, and progress on the issues of Palestine, Syria and Libya — but I guess this repetition serves the purpose of reinforcing my learning at that same time as being a realistic representation of those meetings and the reporting of them.

The other day, Mohanned set me a homework task: translate this real news article about the most recent Arab League meeting into English.

Arabic article

And sure enough, there is a beautiful predictability to the content and the vocab of the article which I’m surprised I’m surprised about given the similar paint-by-numbers nature of such reporting in English. The trickiest part is my ongoing battle with Arabic grammar and sentence structure, like being 15 or 20 words into a sentence and still waiting to encounter the subject, or the baffling lack of comma methodology and infuriating lack of full stops in some Arabic writing. But even so, it’s a really nice feeling finding myself having to flick over to Google Translate less and less, and being able to actually *read* Arabic ever so slightly less haltingly.

Agree to disagree

I recently asked Mohanned to refresh me on the cardinal numbers which I think I learned long, long ago but had since forgotten. This gave him a good excuse to launch a full-scale assault on the grammar of numbers which we’d been toying with here and there over the past few years. As a native English speaker, getting my head around gender has been one thing, but the rules of gender and other grammar when it comes to Arabic numbers is next level. One language website gives a handy overview of the rules:

The numbers 3–10 are nouns and diptote in declension (with the exception of 8). They take inverse agreement with the nouns they are counting. So, if you have a masculine object, you use the feminine form of the number, and viceversa. Yup, doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it works.

Ok, so far, a bit tricky, but manageable with a good bit of practice. Once you get past 10, though, you start having combinations of tens and ones. The numbers 11 and 12, using the single digits 1 and 2, have normal gender agreement, both with the ones and with the ten. The digits 1 and 2 are in their nominal forms.

The numbers 13 – 19 have normal agreement with the ten, but inverse agreement with the ones digits. These numbers (along with 11) also take the accusative case themselves — the tamyiiz accusative, or “accusative of specification.”

The tens (20, 30, 40, 50, etc.) are sound masculine plural in declension and don’t change. Complexity is over? Nope. If you have 31–39, you have to account for the agreement of the ones digits, and the rules of regular or inverse agreement.

The process continues into the thousands, with each new numeric level taking on a new set of rules. The word hundred is feminine, so to make 300, the “three” must be masculine in form to agree inversely with hundred, which is confusing, because you may have got used to basing the gender of ones digits on the counted noun, not another component of a compound number (here, the “three” is counting the noun “hundreds”).

On top of all this, you have to learn how the nouns themselves are actually paired with the numbers. One object is in the singular, two objects are in the dual, and three to ten objects are counted in the plural. Eleven or more objects actually take the singular of the noun being counted, and the noun is in the accusative case (again the tamyiiz accusative).

This covers the cardinals. Then you have the ordinals to worry about, as well as how numbers are used in dates, phone numbers, mathematical equations, measurements, designations of rulers, etc …


Another online Arabic learning site notes that “the grammar related to the numbers in Arabic is considered to be the most complicated thing about the language”.


I’ve been plugging away at work sheets trying to internalise the rules but I still feel like I’m drowning. There’s so much to think about that I end up freezing while working through the processes and whatever clarity might have been emerging just vanishes. It’s super frustrating and also a huge knock to my confidence.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been dipping in and out of The Arabic Language by Kees Versteegh which tracks the historic and linguistic development of the Arabic language. Rather serendipitously, I came across this line at the same time as I was grappling with the Arabic number grammar rules:

The morphology and syntax of Arabic numerals have baffled even the Arabic grammarians.

I found this strangely comforting — if even the experts are baffled, then I don’t feel quite so stupid for feeling the same.

While Mohanned and all the learning resources stress the importance of learning these grammar rules even though they are often ignored in colloquial spoken Arabic, I keep reminding myself that many native Arabic speakers don’t know these rules and I won’t be struck dead by a lightning bolt when I incorrectly pair a masculine number with a feminine noun while having a conversation on the street. So, me and the grammar of numbers will agree to disagree from time to time, and that’s okay.

The Arabic Diaries

After spending so long focused on proper grown-up writing that requires research, synthesis and endless drafts (i.e. a PhD thesis in the form of a book and a clutch of journal articles), I’ve decided to start this little project where I can punch out random, sometimes half-formed thoughts as they occur to me, just like during that golden era of the internet between LiveJournal and Twitter. So, welcome to 2007 and Welcome to My Blog. I’m going to publish these semi-regular Arabic Diaries to reflect in real time on something personal that is becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life.

I’ve been learning Arabic on and off (mostly off) since 2009, although notes and links I can’t remember emailing to myself since 2007 suggest I was thinking about it for a while before that. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure why I decided to learn Arabic. I do know that I’d always wanted to learn a second language because I was (and am) embarrassed that I speak only one, and I’d long been interested in the Arab world which at that time for me was an exotic abstraction. I guess that was enough.

I started as an absolute beginner in 2009 with two back-to-back short courses at the Centre For Adult Education in Melbourne, and by the end of that year I could read and write the Arabic script, and hold a basic conversation (greetings, food and drink, directions etc.). I spent much of 2010 travelling, including to Arabic-speaking countries like Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, although my language skills weren’t yet good enough to do much beyond deciphering signs. I then lived in Qatar for almost a year, although the ubiquity of English in that country combined with my work and social situation meant I wasn’t really immersed in Arabic at all.

After returning to Australia at the end of 2011 I knew I really should get learning again, especially because by then I’d lost essentially all of the vocab I’d learned in 2010. Eventually, in 2012, I did a short course at the ANU, and shortly afterwards I resolved that if I was ever going to make any real progress I needed to find a tutor and take regular classes. In mid-2013 I made contact with Mohanned Qassar, a local Canberra educator and businessman, and barring some breaks for travel, childbirth (my wife, not me) and the like, Mohanned and I have been meeting for 90-minute lessons in a quiet corner of a local community club every week since.

I’ve learned *a lot* in the three years since then, and it’s mostly down to Mohanned’s teaching because I’ve not exactly been a diligent student — it has been hard to find time for homework in between writing the PhD, teaching, working on AMEJE, and home duties. But that’s an excuse. Recently I realised that if I truly want to learn Arabic I need to get serious otherwise I’ll just spend the rest of my life treading water. So, about a month ago I started seeing Mohanned twice a week and (probably more importantly) trying really hard to do at least 30 minutes of Arabic study on most days. I also have ~~~plans~~~ … but more about that later.

Anyway, here is a picture of all the Arabic stuff I could find sitting around in my study.

Arabic books

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2018 Scott Bridges

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑