If you want to learn another language, Josie Delap recommends the struggles and pleasures of Arabic...
To a native English-speaker, searching for a language to learn and probably inexpert in the dark arts of grammar, the simple Romance languages with their common-sense syntax might seem obvious choices, perhaps even those of Scandinavia with their familiar-sounding, if oddly spelt, vocabulary. But instead, breathe deep, and plunge into Arabic.
It is hard. The first years of Arabic are frustrating, like doing a jigsaw of a cloudy night sky. While those studying Spanish gallop ahead, chattering about beers they want and sisters they have, you must master a new script; one whose dots and dashes blur before your eyes, whose vowels fade into nothingness, whose letters change shape depending on where they appear in the word. Arabic’s three-letter root system for creating words – adding suffixes, prefixes, midfixes, to trilateral building blocks – will seem utterly alien.
But the struggle is a worthy one, and the rewards start with your ego. Knowledge of Arabic, however slight, will impress not only the monoglots and dullards who plumped for Italian, but native speakers too. Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians, moved that you have troubled to do battle with their tongue, will shower you with praise.
When you understand how beautifully Arabic fits together – why the root meaning “west” leads to the words for “sunset” and “strange” – the sense of illumination is sublimely satisfying. No mere French subjunctive or Russian instrumental can do that. And the pleasure will never dim. Fluency may long elude you, but there will always be a fascination in picking your way through Arabic’s intricacies.
Josie Delap edits the Middle East and Africa pages for The Economist online