Robert F. Worth has a nice essay about learning Arabic in this week’s NY Times Sunday Book Review. It starts:
One dark afternoon last winter, after too many hours spent studying Arabic verbs, I found myself staring uncomprehendingly at a video on my computer screen. An Arab man was holding forth tediously, his words half drowned by the rain outside. At first all I could make out was the usual farrago of angry consonants and strangled vowels. No progress there. Then, at last, the letters lighted up at the back of my brain.
“I understand what he’s saying!” I shrieked to the empty apartment, spinning backward in my desk chair. “I understand every word!”
I felt a warm rush of gratitude to the speaker, a bespectacled doctor. It made no difference that he was Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, or that he was threatening to slaughter large numbers of Americans. He spoke a slow, clear fusha, the formal version of Arabic I had been struggling to decipher on the page for 10 hours a day. Even better, his words matched my limited vocabulary: arsala, “to send”; jaish, “army”; raees, “president.” I was almost drunk with exhilaration.