Ten in the morning in a crowded conference room. Aerosolized nescafe, assorted teas, and zaatar manaqish saturate the heated air and stimulate the olfactory system. The click of computer keys and colliding fingertips, a sense of dread and excitement simultaneously.
It’s hard to believe that all twenty of the people about to sign the CET Language Pledge were somewhere in the stratosphere above the Atlantic Ocean some 72 hours prior because it feels like we’ve entered another universe.
It’s the second day of orientation, and we’ve just been briefed about what it means to sign the language pledge. The full pledge commits the audacious signee to a semester speaking only Arabic: all day, everyday, wherever they go, in the apartment, in the street, except for when calling their parents. The limited pledge mandates an extra three hours of Arabic outside of class.
We sign the language pledge with many final anglo ejaculations. I distinctly remember hearing: “Oh oh, oh no, this might be the craziest thing I’ve ever done” and ‘”It’s been lovely talking to you Joe.” We press submit and, immediately thereafter, are born again into a strange and wonderful new world. Like baby deer, we test unsteady legs and take a couple shaky steps.
Unfortunately, some of us are linguistically immobile and collapse immediately into fluent silence. The more capable comment on the weather, their favorite hobbies, and where they go to university. It’s hard at first, but we trust the process. And we trust the process because it works.
One of the students is taking a gap year and, when he first arrived, knew little more than his name and the letters. Now, a month and a half deep, he’s improved beyond all recognition. I smile proudly and with fatherly affection as he fluently orders at our favorite shawarma shop, asking for fries, declining a drink, and paying exactly 1.8 dinars.
Because I live day to day, it’s hard to detect improvement. In fact, sometimes it feels like I’m getting worse. After four hours of Modern Standard Arabic class, it sometimes feels like I’m on the brink of an imminent regression, like I’ve learned one too many words and my brain is about to crack in half, spilling all my vocabulary irreversibly into a cerebral void. But according to the proverb, with great tribulation comes great success – or something like that.
Like becoming friends, or falling in love, or becoming addicted to Tony’s Chocolate Bars – it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the relationship changes. Only by looking back over the past month can I appreciate my Arabic progress. Immense progress I might add.
I am currently on break, visiting my Palestinian friends in Hebron and Jerusalem. And as we catch up in Arabic, I think about what our conversations looked like just two months prior. Not only were they completely in English, they were also less natural. Things feel different in Arabic. It’s truly special. I imagine this gives the personified emotions from ‘Inside Out’ that live within my cranium a reason to celebrate.