Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The true meaning of “intensive” or, “why I have been slacking on writing my blog.”

Let me just say that I really, really have been meaning to write on this blog the last few days. It feels like I’ve been here a month already. I have moved in with a lovely host family and have finished day three of my eight-week intensive Arabic language program. I have a million stories to tell.

Alas, I failed to anticipate the true meaning of the word “intensive.” Let me explain by providing a brief outline of my schedule today:
1) 6-8:30am: wake up, review homework, walk 1.5 miles to class
2) 8:30am-1pm: Class (Modern Standard Arabic- so far learning the alphabet and basic vocab)
3) 1-5pm: Snarf down a baguette sandwich or panini at a local shop, then study like mad and do homework; maybe sneak a peek at my email and the New York Times online
4) 5-6pm: Class (Tunisian Arabic dialect – vocab/grammer/expressions)
5) 6-8pm: “Language Socialization” (once a week we spend 2 hours with one of our Tunisian tutors, going around the city and practicing our Tunisian Arabic by engaging in everyday affairs; today we went to a stunning café on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and practiced ordering drinks and making small conversation in Tunisian dialect.
6) 8-8:30pm: walk home
7) 9-12am: Finish homework and prepare for tomorrow’s assignments. (and maybe even sneak in a blog post…?)
Three days a week or so we have evening activities. Besides the language socialization I had today, I am also in the “dance club” and will begin learning Oriental dance (belly dancing) starting tomorrow every Thursday. Should be fun and amusing. We also have “traditional breakfast” Friday mornings at 8am where we arrive to school early to have traditional breakfast (not sure yet what that entails) and practice conversational Arabic. Add into the mix weekly essays on “critical incidents” (personal essays on encounters or situations or revelations we have while here) and numerous other assignments (such as last night’s one which I actually really enjoyed – having our family explain to us the literal and metaphorical meaning of four well-known Tunisian proverbs) and you get the general idea. If you are tired from reading this then you may be able to forgive me for my lack of communication.
We will spend four of the weekends on planned excursions to different parts of Tunisia that will be incredible. The other four weekends will be free, but I’m guessing I will want to lie on the beach (ten minutes from our school but a million miles away with our schedule) like a log and not move a muscle, synapse or finger.
Okay, what else can I try and quickly explain (I’m feeling guilty already for writing this instead of memorizing vocab and the bizarre intricacies of the Arabic script)?

1) My family: Wonderful. I have a father who is a retired TunisiaAir steward now managing a hotel in Tunis – he makes me a great café au lait every morning; a doting yet easy-going mother who is very relaxed on house rules (no curfew and I can actually buy wine and drink it in our house- [but she can’t touch the glasses or anything else the alcohol touches because of her Islamic faith], a sister named Mouna (Mona) who is 22 and half way through getting her pilot license; and another sister my age who is living in Paris and getting her Masters in virology. The family reminds me a lot of an average American one: they are Muslim, but very relaxed in their practice – I believe only my mother does the 5 daily prayers, and there is no sort of dress code my sister or I am to follow. All in all I consider myself extremely lucky to be part of this family. **A funny fact: The last student they hosted just so happens to be from Missoula, MT (I don’t know her so there) and we both gave them the same gift of huckleberry jam.

2) Learning Arabic: Difficult but very fun. It has been wonderful to force my brain to switch over from writing theses to learning the alphabet like a 4 year-old. Today we finished learning the alphabet, although tomorrow we still have to learn all the additional characters that affect the sounds and meaning of the primary characters. I think having already learned another foreign script (Korean hangul) has helped me not be so overwhelmed. However, we are going through a week’s worth of Arabic class PER DAY, which is exhausting. The 32 of us are split in to three classes. Our morning is broken up by a small break and we have two teachers for each section – all of our teachers are Tunisian and have lived in the States teaching Foreign Service Officers Arabic before they go on assignment. They are excellent. I’m struggling with getting back into the hang of memorizing, but I know it will come. We actually are covering so much in one day that it is impossible to become overwhelmed – rather, we just remain in “learning shock,” cramming our brains with as much Arabic as possible, and then adding more “crumbs” when we think we can’t feed our brain any more. It is wonderful, overwhelming, intense. One of the best parts is the variety of learning methods we are being exposed to, which is new this year. We have three different online programs including the great DVD’s that accompany or workbooks. Our day and homework is thus split between writing, listening and speaking. We also have a language program we’ve downloaded onto our I-pods so we can listen to it in the few seconds we have walking to and from lunch or our houses.

Okay, that's all I got for now, time to cram in a few more words before I sleep for an eternity.

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