Why Going to Pronunciation Lessons is Like Visiting the Dentist

You know that feeling of dread you get when you know it’s coming? You are about to be told you need to floss. Someone you don’t know well is expecting you to show up to your appointment, make contented small talk and than answer questions about whether you have been regularly engaging in proper dental hygiene. You will sit in a chair with your mouth open and attempt to answer the questions you are asked acquiescently, but end up making garbled sounds while attempting to string together coherent sounding words. Disregarding the matter of dental hygiene, this is an accurate description of my bi-weekly Tajweek lessons.

In addition to my Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) and Ammiya (Colloquial Jordanian Arabic) classes, I also take Tajweed classes here at Qasid Institute twice a week. Tajweed means pronunciation, which is vitally important when speaking Arabic, as a simple mispronunciation could lead you to saying an entirely different word. (You really don’t want to mix up the words for “elections” and “terrorism”.) I made many assumptions about my Tajweed lessons before I began them. My first assumption was that they would be group lessons, as my other classes are. My second was that we would be working on practicing my pronunciation of vocabulary I am currently learning and using in my Modern Standard Arabic class. The third was that through these lessons, I would feel some grand sense of accomplishment at the end of my lesson. Instead, twice a week, I sit in a room with a professor who requests for me to repeat the alphabet to him and occasionally instructs for me to move my mouth or tongue in a certain way to achieve the desired results. I can’t always tell what these results are, but I know that he has something in mind. I don’t feel accomplishment. I mostly feel silly.

Like every dentist appointment, in which I naively assume that my dentist will praise me for finally brushing well and flossing enough. When my professor frowns deeply and says “No, that’s wrong,” emphatically, embarrassment sinks in unapologetically, like I am back in kindergarten and am being scolded for not flossing regularly. Only now, I am just discovering that I haven’t been practicing my letters correctly, and must start again from the beginning. My Tajweed professor repeats the alphabet slowly and carefully, and I am distinctly reminded of a man in rubber gloves with stickers on his lab coat holding up a toothbrush and floss for me to bring home, and directing me to pick a toy from the bin in the corner of the room. In the small classroom with my professor, the only physically tangible prize is the elegant Qur’an sitting on the corner of my desk next to my intermediate level textbook, reminding me that I have a long way to go before I am able to read any kind of classical Arabic text.

Correctly pronouncing the words my Tajweed professors asks me to often feels as difficult and confusing as trying to act complicit in my role in my personal dental care. The language my professor uses to explain what I need to improve sounds as foreign as the terms my dentist uses to describe all the things I need to be doing to care for my teeth. My learning curve is slow. You aren’t taught the word for “tongue” in Modern Standard Arabic class, just as they don’t teach you the word “bicuspid” in elementary school. At least my dentist gives me instructions in English.

Every dentist visit and Tajweed lesson, I think, “This is it. This time, I will be good enough. Today I won’t be told I need to floss more. Today I won’t have to practice the alphabet again.” But I forgot that these are the most important aspects of health and success, respectively. Like in dentistry, the details are the foundation for everything else in Tajweed, and I too eager to move past them, which I think will make me feel like an accomplished adult. However, without daily bushing and flossing and regular doses of flouride, we would get cavities and struggle to maintain our oral hygiene. And in Tajweed, proper pronunciation of the alphabet and basic letter combinations facilitate accurate pronunciation of all words.

If you visit the dentist regularly, they can check to make sure you are brushing and flossing properly in order to prevent cavities, and to prevent you from having to visit the dentist for more than semi-annual cleanings. In Arabic, if you receive regular Tajweed instruction, your linguistic base will never falter and you will never forget how certain letters sound or are formed by the mouth. You will not have to regularly ask your professor how a certain word is pronounced when any given letters are combined, and your Arabic studies will continue more rapidly and smoothly.

Maybe I feel silly sitting in front of an intellectual, accomplished adult piecing together their instructions, making funny sounding noises and doing things I consider myself too advanced for. But the basics are important, and are worth spending more time on. Like any college student, I don’t enjoy being treated as if I am just a kid in elementary school. But I try to remember that my dentist and my Tajweed professor don’t think of me as a child and aren’t making fun of me for my lack of perfection. They are only there to help me achieve my full potential, which I should try to appreciate more often.

 

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The Arabic alphabet and the pronunciation of the letters.

 

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Where the sound for each letter is supposed to be formed in your mouth.

 

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A copy of the pronunciation chart my Tajweed professor has on the classroom wall.

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