Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Art of Motivation - Know Thyself

I made a plan that I would learn something new at least three times per year.

Just to recap, in addition to my current goal of publishing my book, I have added kickboxing, motorcycle license, and for the third one ... I was not quite sure.

As I considered various things I could learn (musical instruments, how to read music, singing lessons, dance lessons, etc), I remembered Arabic.

My husband is originally from Iraq. His native language is Arabic though he is fluent in English. His family's native language is Arabic, and though most of them can also speak English, his father cannot. 

After seventeen years of marriage, I can understand some Arabic. I know a lot of words, and if I pay really close attention, I can usually understand the subject and maybe what is being said about the subject. However, I cannot translate fast enough to really communicate - not enough vocabulary to understand everything and I cannot remember words fast enough to respond in Arabic. 

I have taken Arabic classes twice.

The first time was soon after I married. I took classes at the local Mosque in Tempe, Arizona. I was very successful in learning the numbers and letters as well as writing. Any word that someone said to me, even if I did not know the word, I could write it correctly. This is especially hard because how Arabic letters are written changes according to whether the letter is at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. But I could do it.

I could also tell you every letter in a written Arabic word - but I could not pronounce the word unless I already knew it. I was too unfamiliar with how the letters sound together - how Arabic words sound when spoken. 

There were also a few other problems for me. 

First, the Mosque taught Quranic Arabic - the Arabic of the Quran. Formal. Like learning Old English (Shakespeare). No one speaks Quranic Arabic except when reciting the Quran. Though Arabs can typically understand Quranic Arabic, mostly, just like we can mostly understand Old English, few people who speak Arabic can reply in Quranic Arabic.

The consequence being, people would probably understand me... mostly... maybe... but I would not be able to understand their replies. Not a good foundation for communication.

Second, the Mosque focused on the reading and writing but neither of those helped me because I could not understand how to pronounce the words. My interest was in communicating, not simply reading. Even if I wanted to read the Quran in Arabic, which is encouraged but not required, not being able to pronounce the words, and therefore recognize the word and meaning, was a major problem.

Third, my husband's family spoke Iraqi, not formal or Quranic Arabic. Each country has its own colloquial form of Arabic. Even within countries, different areas have their own slang.

This in itself caused two of its own problems. Every region has its own form of Arabic.

Arabs from different countries often can understand each other due to television programs from different Arabic speaking countries -  especially Egyptians because Egypt was the Hollywood of the Middle East for many years - or due to travel. However, some words have completely different meanings in different dialects or different dialects have different words for the same thing.

For example, when I was in Egypt, I wanted a glass of milk. I knew milk was 'haleeb' in most Arab countries, however, I also knew Egypt called milk 'leban' - the word used for yogurt in most Arab countries. When I went to order milk, I could not for the life of me remember the word 'leban,' and the guy behind the counter did not know the word 'haleeb.' After several minutes of trying to figure each other out, he finally understood I wanted milk - though I ended up with a cup of hot milk because he could not understand I wanted it cold. Drinking cold milk was very unusual in the area.

Similarly, my husband has a favorite soup called 'hareesa' in Iraqi - but 'hareesa' is a type of dessert in Lebanese.

When I would come back from Arabic class and try to practice, my husband's family would correct me - telling me what I was learning was wrong and then tell me how to say it. Unfortunately, they were correcting me with Iraqi dialect and I was learning Quranic Arabic. Both the words and the pronunciation were often very different. I found this both confusing and frustrating. 

They would also laugh at my pronunciations and accent.

Funny thing, Americans are generally very understanding of non-native speakers trying to speak English. Americans might correct a little bit, but not too much. For example, when someone speaks in broken English, Americans tend to correct the pronunciation of a word but will not 'nit-pick' every word or missing article/determiner (i.e. at, a, the). Americans also tend to think the broken English or accents are cute and praise the person for trying.

Arabs are not so easy. Considering very few Arabs actually know Arabic grammar, which is extremely complicated, Arabs spend a lot of time correcting the grammar of those who are learning Arabic. Arabs rarely say broken Arabic or accented Arabic is 'cute.' More often than not, they will outright laugh. Then correct every part of the sentence - from the pronunciation of words, to the order of words, to the failure to use the right masculine or feminine form. 

Then again, maybe that is mostly Arab women.  Come to think of it, most Arab men have been more encouraging, in my experience.

At any rate, the frustration and insecurity got to me. So I quit. 

The second time I took Arabic classes was while I was in Amman, Jordan taking summer law classes through Seton Hall Law School - over ten years later. Several students wanted to learn Arabic so the professors found a local teacher to hold classes after our regular classes. We all signed up.

The first day, the teacher wrote all the Arabic letters on the board with their sounds. After we went over them twice, she erased their sounds and then called on members of the class to say the letter. Unfortunately, I don't think that way and am not that quick. 

She then called on me, probably because I was the only hijabi (person wearing a head scarf, usually worn by Muslim women), and asked how to say 'house.' Yes, a word I knew!! I said "bait!" She promptly told me I was wrong and then said a word I had never heard of. I had been saying 'bait' for over 10 years and no one ever told me it was wrong. 

I went home and asked my husband. He explained the word she said was the Palestinian dialect. He was also surprised she told me "bait" was 'wrong' because it was more common among Arabs in general than the word she used. 

The frustration and insecurity got to me. Again. So I quit. Again.

Though I have continued to learn Arabic words so that I can try to understand what is going around me - which I often use to shock those who assume I do not know Arabic - I have made no real effort to learn Arabic as a language.

Thinking about that, I realized I have continued to fall victim to one of the very things I counsel people against - letting what others think or a negative experience hold you back from doing something. 

Wow! What a revelation. 

Normally I never let what others think or negative experiences hold me back. One of the quickest ways to make me do something is to tell me I can't. 

But in the end, I am human. We must all be ever vigilant about what motivates us and what fears or beliefs are driving us - one way or the other.

So learning Arabic could be my third goal of 2016.

But in order to make it a viable goal,  I needed to figure out exactly what I wanted to accomplish. Just deciding I would no longer let the opinion of others affect me would not keep me motivated.

Do I want to learn proper Arabic or Iraqi? Do I want to become fluent or just focus on increasing my vocabulary? Do I want to take formal classes or self-study?

I decided increasing my vocabulary is all I am really interested in at this time - focusing on Iraqi dialect specifically. Becoming fluent in Arabic is just not that important to me right now.

I also decided I wanted to self-study.

Then I thought about how I had most effectively learned Arabic words before. My most successful technique was associating Arabic words with English words. For example, I associate 'kayf halik' (How are you?)  with 'calf alcoholic,' or 'shookran' (Thank you) with 'shook ran.'

Funny I know, but it is a very effective method for me. Similar to how I studied for the Bar using mind mapping.

I might even incorporate some mind mapping into my self-study method.

I am keeping this third one a secret from my husband for now so I can surprise him - so if you know my husband, please do not mention it to him until the end of the year. I would greatly appreciate it. 

As a general rule, I do not keep secrets from my husband (one of my tips for a happy marriage) but I see everything as an opportunity to surprise him (another of my tips for a happy marriage) from what's for dinner to how I organize his clothes by color and type. Everything. 

It keeps him always feeling excited about our relationship and home. He never knows what "surprise" I might have in store, but he knows there will always be one... or two... or three. I can make him excited about his sock drawer, and I do.

Just to recap, in addition to my current goal of publishing my book, I have added kickboxing, motorcycle license, and learning more Arabic to my 2016 goals. 

Projects keep me busy and motivated - just the way I like it!

Deedra Abboud is the founder of the Global Institute of Solution Oriented Leadership, a "rising tide raising all boats" resource on the art and science of finding solutions, not fault - at work, at home, and in the community. She is an author, keynote speaker, lawyer, and frequent media resource. When she's not helping clients or speaking at organization events, she's traveling the world.  At last count, she's been to over 15 countries including Bahrain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.


  1. Learning arabic will help you to get good job in middle east or you can make a good impression on your team as you are gained another great speaking language in the world. If you are a muslim you will be very proud to learn arabic because the holy book Quran is in Arabic and reading and understanding arabic is dream for every muslims. Learn Arabic in Morocco

  2. I think we I mean Arabs find it funny and interesting to correct other speakers mistakes .
    nice article

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