With less than six months left in my Ottawa tour, I confess to be spending a lot of my time thinking about what’s next. That little piece of obsessive-compulsiveness has limited my reading list to only Pakistan-related titles, both fiction and non. I get my daily news feeds, follow the internal communications, and have my Google Alerts set to let me know when something of import happens in that part of the world.
I have my Ottawa departure date and follow-on training schedule set. Although I still have my regular Canadian-focused full-time consular duties, there are not many additional extra projects on the near-term schedule. In search of a project, I saw that State offers a distance learning program for Urdu. My one-year post in Lahore does not require any language training as English is also an official language of Pakistan, but learning Urdu sounded like a good idea.
I should have realized what I was getting into when my first reaction mimicked John Candy in Stripes:
Instead of Ox’s 6-8 week training program, the Urdu distance learning program is 14 weeks. I’d agree to spend 8-10 hours a week working on my own and then do an hour a week on the phone with the tutor. That sounded perfect for me. I’d dutifully work the software program as the evenings grow cold, review a few flash cards, chat on the phone, and hit my formal training with a working knowledge of Urdu.
I then received the software and started working on the alphabet. It’s difficult. Really difficult.
Urdu is Pakistan’s national language. The word Urdu means ‘foreign’ in Turkish and traces its origins to the combination of foreign influences in South Asia. The grammar is very similar to Hindi, but it merges various elements of Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit. Urdu is typically written in the Nastaliq calligraphy style of script but the characters are not entirely uniform, depending on who is writing and for what audience. Needless to say, I’ve been struggling.
Read right to left, Urdu has a mix of characters from the Arabic and Persian alphabets. As a result, there are multiple letters for most sounds. There are, for example, three different letters for the sound of an S, five Z’s, 3 H’s, etc. Each of the sound family letters sound identical but look completely different. Oh, and just to make it more interesting, each letter has four different looks: the independent character (when you want to make a list of the letters but not actually make a word), the Initial (when the character is the first letter in a word), the Medial (when the letter is somewhere in the middle of a word), and the Final (when the letter ends a word). Some letters connect together and some don’t.
I took Russian in college and learning Cyrillic was challenging, but I didn’t find it that difficult. The characters are easy to distinguish and, once I learned what character makes what sound, I found it easy to sound out words and start reading. Russian grammar is a whole different story, but that came later. The first year moved quickly and, although languages are not my academic strength, it felt like I made great progress. Urdu, not so much.
Last Friday was the final day to drop the course without penalty. By Tuesday, I was beyond frustrated. I just could not imagine getting to the point of reading a paragraph in Urdu out loud — forget about understanding it. I just want to be able to recognize the characters and voice them correctly. I’m ashamed to report that I gave up. I wrote an email to the language department with some lame excuse that I just wasn’t going to have time to do it justice.
It didn’t sit well. I’ve certainly quit things before, but usually on my terms for good reasons. Not because it was too hard. With some prodding from the department and lots of encouragement from my tutor on Wednesday, I started really drilling. I still have no clue how one gets to the point of reading fluidly. Words still look like an amalgam of beautiful lines and dots, but specific letters and sounds are not jumping out at me.
It’s clear to me that I’m going to have to double the 8-10 hours a week they recommend just to keep up. Despite my better judgment, I retracted my drop notice on Friday, installed a software-based Urdu keyboard on my mac, and started memorizing numbers (which also have different characters), colors, and greetings. My next tutorial is on Wednesday and its already weighing on me.
On the bright side, Ox made it through basic training.