So I’m studying Arabic, just not very well. After many hours and countless hundreds of dollars (well clearly, I could count them, but I’m a little in denial here), I’ve got to a level where I can say “Hi, how are you?” — but won’t know what you’re saying when you answer me. Luckily, my Arabic-speaking friends have progressed much faster with their English than I have with my Arabic, to the point where we can have long and specific conversations in English about how difficult Arabic is.
My first round of lessons was subsidized by my employer (again, best workplace ever!) on the grounds that learning a new language would foster empathy in me as a language teacher. My initial response was “Been there: done that already; empathied up, thanks! Going to cash that cheque anyway though.”
I thought that I was through with empathy. It is true that I have had the experience of being immersed in a different language, suffered the disorientation, the anomie, the social disintegration — so I thought, “Ok, got it — being a linguistic outsider sucks.” However, I was a little surprised to discover that I’ve reached a new empathy level — it just took almost a year for me to get to it.
So let me talk to you about case endings. Actually no, I’m not going to really talk about them because either you speak Arabic and I’m going go to sound like a noob or you don’t and you’re not going to know what I’m talking about. Let’s just say that in Arabic, nouns and adjectives have case endings: nominative, genitive and accusative, which are indicated by diacritics that may or may not be accompanied by pronunciation changes.
I don’t really have a problem with learning them. After all, they are fairly simple and I learned Latin as a young person. I don’t retain much of the language, but the study did open my mind to the realization that for any possible relationship between words, there can be a formal grammar structure to express it (Somehow in my mind there’s a connection between this and Internet porn, but I’m not going to go there.). So absorbing the information that nouns and adjectives can change their sounds in fairly predictable ways — that’s not a stretch.
The thing is, I can’t do them. When I’m faced with a sentence to write, or even to read, I just can’t. I’m already managing the alphabet with its fluid characters and random dots, and maybe I do need a pair of glasses. And then there’s the pronunciation, which is actually not too bad when you eliminate all the sounds I actually cannot say. And remembering what the words mean. And the verb conjugations I’ve pretty well nailed down, although they are a little counterintuitive as most of the action happens at the beginning of the word, and there’s also the problem of my feminist brain piping up about the fact that there is no third person feminine form because women literally don’t have agency and I have to say “Shut up for a while! I’ll take you to a pinkhat march later, ok?”
So when I get to the case endings, I just stop. I know they exist, but my brain says, “Nope. I’m done.”
It’s not that I’m not motivated. i really want to do them. I want to be the kind of student that can navigate smoothly through all this. There’s a woman in my class who loves case endings. She asks frequent questions to confirm their rationale, and suggests hypothetical situations where the endings would be different. To me, she is a kind of language acquisition superhero. I would really like to be her — I just can’t: my nope-y brain won’t let me.
This makes me think of my ifp students. A recurring problem with their compositions is incorrect verb tense inflections. We know that they have studied the tenses, but they frequently miss the tense markers when writing. Now I understand what might be going on with them: maybe they are already occupied with all the other linguistic and semantic activity — maybe their brains are just saying “Nope.”*
Knowing this doesn’t solve the problem. We can’t just have a big group hug and forget about the grammar. They will have to learn to throw a few s s and d s onto the ends of words so as not to totally annoy their Biology profs next year. Similarly, I’m eventually going to have to get beyond this case-ending hurdle somehow.
Still, perhaps this has taught me a little about blaming and about timing. Experiencing the problem myself has given me a sense of the shape of the problem. I can feel its weight — the overwhelming sense of powerlessness. But I can also trace the origin of the problem, and perhaps I can follow that thread through to a solution.
So I’m not going to see this “carelessness” as a moral failure, on my part or my students’. I know that once the sense of paralysis sets in, there’s no negotiating with it. With all the good will in the world, I am unable to perform that particular task at that particular moment. It must be the same for them, when they try to add that final layer of proficiency to their writing.
But what about the other piece of the insight? Maybe now that I understand where this problem comes from, I can shift the narrative a little. What if I remove some of the extraneous sources of stress? I’m going to sit down with my old homework assignments and go over just the case endings. I won’t have to think about the other language elements so much, so that should free up some space. Perhaps I can figure out a way to transfer this to my teaching practice. How can I show the students a way to free up a similar space in their brains?
So, that moment of empathy is helping me to reshape the narrative of how I learn, and how I teach; this gives me pause because I have an interesting relationship with empathy.
I’ve written about it before here and also here and a little bit here. I recently read Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy and I agree with a lot of what he has to say. I think we have to be wary about throwing the word around.
Still, I don’t think we should be dismissing empathy entirely. In this situation, empathy did supply something that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. This feeling of the brain being full — we knew about it intellectually, saw evidence of it, but when I experienced it myself, I learned something. Something about my own powerlessness, but also about the seeds of a solution.
Empathy then, like a little flash of creativity, takes us somewhere our conscious mind on its own will not. We should value that. But we cannot expect rely exclusively on empathy.We have to remember that the flash of inspiration takes hours and maybe years of hard work before it becomes a poem or a symphony or a computer game. In the same way, that epiphany was valuable, but it’s going to take work and inquiry and teachercraft to apply that information to my teaching practice. By the end of the process, it may look completely different from what it started out as. And by then, I’ll probably be able to manage my Arabic nouns a little better.
*I just happened on this post by Joy Gakonga. She also writes about experiencing a sense of paralysis when a situation becomes overwhelming — in a slightly different context. She has some great insights into how empathy fits into a teacher’s toolset, too.