It’s Not Enough to be Bilingual

quranic arabic

I can read the Qu’ran & that’s it

As most people know, I’m currently learning Korean. I’ll get into the myriad reasons later, but it amazes me when people–especially those who only speak English–ask me why I’m learning Korean. As if it’s a waste of time. No matter where you live or your target language, it’s never a waste of time to learn. Even though some people from all around the world are able to speak English, often there are not enough resources or high enough demand to translate media to English. There is also the shortcoming of missing out on key details of the language when translating. People like to say words or phrases just can not translate, but humans aren’t all that different and I’m sure there’s a matching colloquialism in the foreign language.

I started learning my first foreign language when I was 8 years old. It was Arabic; our Sunday school classes spent one hour on grammar and vocabulary, with the 2nd hour focused on Qur’anic studies. Learning the alphabet was a wondrous thing. I remember being fascinated by the distinction of the hard ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds compared to the soft ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds. The swoops and curves of the Arabic letters and the way they changed on how they connected to each other, appealed the 4th grader just learning cursive writing. My first Arabic teacher was a young woman from Egypt and I loved going to class to hear her sing-song voice. The way she spoke Arabic, especially when reciting suras was something I craved to imitate. In Los Angeles, my Arabic teachers were Lebanese, Pakistani, Iranian and Mexican. Each one had their own distinct way of teaching us the language. No matter how different they sounded during the language portion of class, they all sounded the same when it came to Qur’an recitation. It wasn’t enough to just being able to remember the suras or the content. We had to be perfect in our recitation as if becoming an imam was the ultimate goal. Considering I spent nearly 12 years learning Arabic every week, you’d assume that I could speak it fluently today.


My second foreign language–and my most broad one–is Spanish. When I got to HS, I had the chance to learn Spanish, French or German. I went to school in La Puente, CA, a small suburb 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Most of my friends spoke Spanish. In the 80s, my mother worked in the garment industry and the sweatshops in Los Angeles were staffed with Spanish-speaking immigrants.  If my mother needed to explain a detail of what her company wanted, she needed Spanish. There was a nearly 20 year gap between when she first learned Spanish as a youth, and her new job in a new state. My sister and I watched her study and she did all that she could to become conversational in Spanish. It was only obvious that I would learn Spanish. Since I was such a goody-goody overachiever, I took Spanish I the summer before my freshman year of high school. After the six weeks were over, I understood why I didn’t know more Arabic.

Our Spanish Reference Books

Our Spanish Reference Books (image credit)

Grades and habits were powerful forces. I had 6 weeks to cover material and I had to get a good grade so I could move onto Spanish II once school started. I studied as hard as I watched my mother study. I used her reference books and practiced with her. In other words, it was exactly the opposite of how I learned Arabic. In Sunday school, we rarely got homework. To be real about it, my language base was solely for reading the Qur’an. I didn’t need to know the English translations because 1) They’re already in my Qur’an and 2) the teacher would go over that anyway. Any activity for the wider mosque community had all Arabic transliterated, so even then it felt like learning to read Arabic wasn’t fully needed. I still remember my first Sunday school class at the Islamic Center of Southern California. My language teacher gave us a paper with 6 pictures. We had to trace and write the word for that item. That was the only time I got non-religious work at the mosque. As long as I could read the words and make the correct sounds, my Arabic teachers weren’t much for enforcing we actually knew anything.

Arabic has influenced many languages around the globe throughout its history; some of the most influenced languages are Urdu, Persian, Kurdish, Turkish, Somali, Swahili, Bosnian,Kazakh, Bengali, Hindi, Malay, Indonesian, Tigrinya, Pashto, Punjabi, Tagalog, Sindhi and Hausa. During the Middle Ages, Literary Arabic was a major vehicle of culture in Europe, especially in science, mathematics and philosophy. As a result, many European languages have also borrowed many words from it. Many words of Arabic origin are also found in ancient languages like Latin and Greek. Arabic influence, mainly in vocabulary, is seen in Romance languages, particularly Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, and Sicilian, owing to both the proximity of Christian European and Muslim Arab civilizations and 800 years of Arabic culture and language in the Iberian Peninsula referred to in Arabic as al-Andalus. [Wikipedia]

I have always loved words. As a child, reading the dictionary was a great pleasure. Seeing word origins, archaic uses and new definitions seemed to open the world a little wider for me. I understood old-timey jokes and references in period dramas, plays and movies because of my love of reading the dictionary. My teachers always seemed a little shocked when I could give them a reference for a word or phrase that was older than our grandparents. When I started learning Arabic the formations of letters and numbers in relationship to their English counterparts was like cracking open a code. I used to drive Señor Celaya mad asking if this word or that word in Spanish were of Arabic origin because whatever little vocabulary I managed to remember.

In college, I continued with Spanish, but I also tried to learn Japanese. I’m not sure how Japanese people learn to read Japanese. I’ve never had such a terrible time of learning anything before. It could’ve just been the situation I was in, but retaining Japanese was just not happening. That made me so sad. In the early 90s, I was listening to a lot of j-pop. It was also hard to find professional English translations of manga and anime. Kids these days have it easy, let me tell ya. I use Hulu, Netflix and FUNimation to catch up on anime I had to forgo watching 1o+ years ago.

By the end of the 90s, DVDs were coming out and Bollywood was leading the charge. I used to borrow VHS tapes of Indian movies from friends at the mosque. If there were no subtitles, I’d visit while the grandmother usually translated for us. Of course, there are hundreds of languages in India and not everyone could speak Hindi. Punjabi and Tamil language movies were becoming a bigger selection at video stores. Netflix had hundreds of them to rent and it seems like I watched all of them by 2002. I kept trying to learn Hindi, but pregnancy was not conducive to learning anything. By 2007, I really knuckled down, but like Japanese, it was just daunting. Not to mention, that even if I couldn’t speak or read Hindi, I could understand enough that I didn’t necessarily need subtitles. Besides, learning Hindi wasn’t going to help me with Tamil and Punjabi movies, anyway.

My Korean study books

My Korean study books

This all leads to Korean being my third language. I could be greedy and say 5th language, but I don’t need to stroke my own ego that much. I already talked about how I started watching Korean entertainment. Back then, there weren’t many sites to find translated shows. You had to look around for ‘[tv show] eng subs’. If you wanted to watch earlier years of variety shows, this was your only option. Occasionally, the major stations would have entire translated series pulled from YouTube. Sometimes, that didn’t matter since Viki was bumping up their offerings. Then Dramafever happened. Everything…I mean, everything I watched was pulled from the internet. Shows Dramafever don’t even offer were pulled offline. That was when I decided that I needed to learn enough Korean to understand what was going on.

As of today, 3 years into my journey, my speaking Korean is only slightly worse than my speaking Spanish, which is to say it’s utter crap, but I can read–slowly–and understand most of what’s going on in dramas. My variety shows are another matter. With so many dialects and people talking over each other, I’m gonna need my subs.