Ode to Arabic: Language Learning + Long-Term Relationships


The notorious Al-Kitaab textbook for Arabic students. Image by Lucy Copp.

How it began…

I believe that languages are living, breathing things, and that it’s possible for any girl of an adventurous and romantic persuasion to fall in love with one!

For me, that language is Arabic.

In 2009 I studied abroad in Morocco. Though I went to study French, it was the Arabic language I fell for. I love French, I always will, but in those months abroad I moved on. I didn’t take another semester of French in college but instead enrolled in First-Year Arabic as soon as I returned home. And the rest is a long, complicated history.

There are some obvious parallels between long-term language study and long-term relationships (like, normal human ones). This is how I break it down.

Honeymoon phase

I never saw you coming, I swear. I wasn’t even looking for a language relationship!

I’m trying to remember if it was the illustrious calligraphic script or the spoken charm that first hooked me. It doesn’t matter. Regardless, you are a language like no other I’ve tried to learn before.

We walk through the old Medina together in Fez, and I barter for scarves using my new slang. We have a table for two at the café. I order a mint tea and hal-we-yaat (sweets). Everyone’s eyes twinkle when they see us together. They know it’s new, and our stark differences seem to warm their hearts.

This isn’t fun anymore

It’s the spring of 2010. We’re home now, and I have to study you in class. I learn that you have singular, dual, and plural forms. I still love you, but I like you a little less.

The demands started piling on, and I think, Must I learn everything there is to know about you? Now this feels like a chore that I must tend to everyday, and I start to resent it. Fortunately for us, the memories are strong, and you are already etched. I just want to pull my hair out sometimes because your diglossia makes me wonder which side of you I’m getting today.

Couples therapy

Four years is a long time considering how challenging you can be. One of our biggest obstacles is not having a support system since I graduated from college. People don’t seem to understand my love for you, and that’s okay. Once I come to know your complexities and, with that, your vast and generous vocabulary, I begin to understand why so many leave you behind after a few semesters. But because you feel like an extension of my own self, I must offer more of my time (and $$) to working through this rut, the real cause of which has much to do with our situation. There is no structure, no excitement. Sometimes I rehearse old vocab at coffee shops in Brooklyn or order dejaj (chicken) from the halal cart.

The wedge between us wasn’t created by us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t close it! So off I go to summer school at Middlebury College for eight weeks of intensive Arabic study.

IMG_3558 A great day to study Arabic vocab! Image by Lucy Copp.

IMG_4366Building my vocab bank on a calm afternoon. Image by Lucy Copp.

Renewing our vows

I am not totally sure of how vow renewals work, but I have a general idea. We reaffirm that our love stands stronger and taller than it did when we first met. I say to Arabic, “If I could do it all over again, I would.”

So in January 2014 I fly back to Morocco for three weeks of intensive Arabic study. But instead of returning home after three weeks, I stay. I go back to the old Medina in Fez and barter in slang for scarves. I sit on a rooftop in Tangier and feel the breeze and Call to Prayer moving by, entangled as one.

IMG_3233Tangier, Morocco — where French, Spanish, Arabic, and Berber are weaved together. Lucy’s selfie.


I return home in May, after staying in Morocco for four extra and unexpected months.

We could call what we have now a long-distance language relationship, but that implies a degree of separation, and I refuse to accept that. I can find Arabic everywhere, even here in Los Angeles. Just because Arabic lives and breathes in its most comfortable and colloquial states in other countries doesn’t mean that I cannot find it here, at home. It just takes a little more patience.

That’s the beauty of relationships, I guess. There’s a constant struggle to make it work, but, if it makes us smile from the heart outwards, why wouldn’t we keep learning?


A cup of nus nus (half half) and a stack of flashcards. Image by Lucy Copp.

 What are some of your most embarrassing, most accomplished, or most romantic encounters with a foreign language? If you want to start a new encounter, visit my Ears to Arabic Facebook page!



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