Intern Journal: Ana Adam!

Yesterday marked the beginning of our formal Arabic lessons here in Nablus with Dr. Fawaz, a professor at the nearby An-Najah University.

Dr. Fawaz has graciously invited us to his beautiful home for our first few lessons.  Seated in his comfortable living room, Mathilda, Colin and I introduced ourselves in English before we began.

Wasting little time, Dr. Fawaz jumped right into the lesson, pointing to himself and declaring, “Ana Fawaz.”  With encouraging eyes, we were each ushered into repeating the phrase, replacing “Dr. Fawaz” with our own names.

After ensuring that we had mastered, or at least come close to, the correct pronunciation for introducing ourselves, Dr. Fawaz moved onto introducing others.  With careful movement of his eyes and hands, he was able to convey to us how to say, “He is ___”, “She is ___”, “You are ___,” and “We are ___.”

Again, all of these phrases we were encouraged to repeat ad nauseam.  The once unfamiliar sounds quickly taking the form of a novel nursery rhyme.

From introductions, we moved on to identifying objects in the room: table, window, door, book, pen, chair, paper and tea.  Once Dr. Fawaz had presented these words, he turned the floor over to us students, encouraging us to engage each other in elementary conversation.

Half an hour into the lesson we had each acquired the ability to string together a half dozen complete sentences, and remarkably, Dr. Fawaz had used less English than I normally hear in my fifth grade English class!

For the remaining time, Dr. Fawaz offered to us the word “wa” or “and” in Arabic.  With this simple conjunction, our ability to construct complex sentences instantly emerged as we could link two distinct thoughts together.

Sure, our grammar may not be perfect.  Or, to be honest, it’s essentially non-existent at this point.  But, as Dr. Fawaz continued to stress, grammar is secondary to language.  To learn to speak, one must first master the words, the sounds, the language itself.  Only once this has been acquired can we then turn our attention to the correct structure of sentences and paragraphs.  Focusing on grammar first would be like trying to build a house with all mortar and no bricks.  It’s just not going to work.

I bounded out of Dr. Fawaz’s house giddy with excitement, feeling like a child to whom a whole new world had been opened.  I hopped in Munir’s taxi and instantly felt inclined to introduce myself, despite our friendship of over three weeks.  I found similar joy in identifying the car’s windows and doors by name.

Childish?  Yes.  But, isn’t all language acquisition?

We do not try to teach toddlers “i-before-e” nor do parents get upset when their youngster points to a robin and proudly declares “bird red.”  We don’t worry because the structure, the tenses, the spelling, the form will inevitably come in due time.  For now, only the language itself is important.

Dr. Fawaz has taught Arabic and French at the university level in America.  He currently teaches English to university students in Palestine.  Additionally, he teaches methods and pedagogy, teaching others how to teach language.  It is beyond generous of him to take time out of his day to teach a gang of kids from the other side of the Greenwich Meridian how to say, “My name is ___.”

But, then again, I think I might just understand.

When one of the participants in my English class for TYO Staff came in sick, she and I went over the word for cough and other symptoms of a cold.  As the rest of the class filtered in, she announced, “Adam gave me words,” proudly showing off her new vocabulary.  All I did was identify her symptoms in English.  However, the delight shown on her face from being “given” new words reminded me in part why I am here and what I have to offer those hoping to learn a new language.

In the same way, I would imagine that the joy on our faces will not be lost on Dr. Fawaz when we arrive for our next class and introduce ourselves for the umpteenth time, proud to do it in Arabic.

“Ana Adam!”

- Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.

PS: TYO is looking for Summer 2011  interns--check out the application today!