“He’s Lebanese!” How Taking 10% of the Time to Learn 100% of a Language Led to the Conversation of a Lifetime in Bahrain

Alif Baa Arabic Language Instruction Book Cover

I went to Hebrew school when I was in elementary school, in preparation for my bar mitzvah, but all I ever did was memorize what I was reading, so I had no ability to comprehend anything else.

I took one year of Spanish in eighth grade, but learned my very limited conversational Spanish by working in restaurants in high school.

I took Latin, the unspoken language, in college and received straight A’s in the class, almost minoring in it.

By the time I was 27 years old, I had never really learned a spoken language, but I found myself in Baghdad, Iraq, taking one hour of Arabic class per week from a local Iraqi instructor who came to the US Embassy. I enjoyed it and found myself studying in some of my spare time. And even better, apparently, I was pretty good at it. It came to me easily, and, unlike other Americans, I was able to pronounce it very well.

When my assignment ended and I returned to work, I asked my management if I could attend Arabic training full-time, as there was funding available as part of a new push to get Arabic language speakers and readers in my office.

“No, we need you here at your desk,” they told me.

I persisted, however, and my management told me they would provide me funding for six hours per week of language training—two hours a day, three days per week, for six months. It was better than nothing, I thought, and maybe I could make something happen with it.

My goal was to pass the State Department’s Arabic language test. I had just come off a year-long assignment working for the State Department at the US Embassy in Baghdad and thought it would be a good idea to try to make it a lifelong career. I was successful and enjoyed the job, so I figured it was worth a shot.

But Arabic was a difficult language to learn. It had more letters than English, and its letters also changed forms if they appeared in the beginning, middle, or end of a word. There were vowel accents, dots, and guttural stops. The verbs appeared at the beginning of the sentence, and the subject would only appear at some point later, if at all.

The test would not be easy, and I knew from talking with friends what it was like. Two instructors on the phone had a conversation with you, asking you varieties of questions on a range of topics. If I could pass the test, I’d have a much easier time getting into the State Department because it was looking for Arabic speakers to work in embassies and consulates across the Middle East. They were short on personnel with qualified language abilities, so they gave hiring preferences to anyone who already had them.

While the test was graded pass/fail, I learned that to pass the test, I would need the equivalent of a “level two” language ability, according to the Federal Government’s five-point language grading scale:

  • 0 – No proficiency (No knowledge of a language)
  • 1 – Basic proficiency (survival language)
  • 2 – Elementary proficiency (Talking in basics about daily affairs, the past, present, and future, can describe surroundings, and basic ins and outs of life)
  • 3 – Working proficiency (Talks with ease about daily affairs, politics, the news, and can have conversations with strangers about most topics)
  • 4 – Professional proficiency (Can speak about professional issues including medicine, science, military operations, finance, etc)
  • 5 – Fluent/native speaker (Has spoken the language since birth or has a detailed working knowledge of linguistic and etymological issues of language like past present participles, future perfect tense, gerunds and gerundives, etc.)

* The grading scale also had “+” levels between each numerical level, indicating performance clearly above one level but below the next level. Scores included 0+, 1+, 2+, 3+, and 4+.

The reason I needed a level two was because, in all likelihood, the State Department would assign me to a consular section to conduct personal interviews with foreigners seeking visas to enter the United States. While I wouldn’t need to have heated debates on political issues, I had to easily converse with them, in their own language, about their daily affairs, families, jobs, income levels, and more.

That was my goal. Level two.

The thing was, most of the time, to get to a level two in Arabic, it took students a full year dedicated to the language. Usually, that consisted of five hours a day, five days a week, of in-class language training and three to four hours of studying at home, as well as more time spent studying on weekends. That totaled about 1,200 hours of classroom time and 1,000 hours of studying at home per year, a total of 2,200 hours. And for some people I knew, even 2,200 hours wasn’t enough to get to level two.

I was going to have nowhere near that amount of training. I had six hours of class time a week, plus personal studying, for six months. That was only 150 hours of classroom time and, at most, about 200 hours studying on my own. “Perfect,” I thought, “10% of the time to do 100% of the work.” Could I do it?

My Arabic instructor’s name was Fadwa. She was a short, dark-haired woman in her 50s who was born in Syria, growing up Damascus. She had become an American citizen many years before and loved to travel back to Syria to visit her family, as well as get medical attention, as she said it was cheaper to fly to Syria, get the medicine and appointments she needed, than do the same in the United States.

In our first class, I told Fadwa my goal: get to a level two in six months.

“If you work hard,” she said, “Inshallah.”

I had already learned this word when I was in Iraq. Its literal meaning is “by the will of God” or “God willing,” but as I also learned in Baghdad, the word had a second meaning, which comes from an idiom about Arab culture:

“How does an Arab say yes?”

He says “na’am.” (The literal translation for “yes” in the language).

“How does an Arab say no?”

He says “inshallah.”

While it was clear to me that Fadwa didn’t think I could do it, I was determined. “Stay positive until there is no reason to be positive,” I told myself.

I’ll never forget my first class with Fadwa in which she taught me eight preposition words, simple things like the Arabic words for on, under, beside, and near. Eight words should be simple. It was so difficult. At the end of my first lesson, my brain was fried. When I got home, I had the same thought I was sure everyone else had after their first classes: can I do this? This is so hard. If I can’t learn eight words, how am I going to learn the rest of the language?

One of the best things about the language school I attended is that they had each student prepay for the first two weeks of class, which was non-refundable. So even if my motivation waned early on, I had financial motivation to keep going, especially since my office was providing the funding.

At home later that evening, I made my eight flash cards for my eight new words. Card after card, I’d try to pummel the words into my brain. After almost two hours, I finally learned the eight words, their pronunciations, and their meanings. Two days later, I returned to class, and it was, again, drinking from the firehose. More words. More phrases. More everything. I had a goal, and I was going to get after it. A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step, I told myself. One day at a time, one class at a time, one word at a time.

As class progressed and I learned words for pronouns, basic verbs, and numbers, I started to find my groove. The language was becoming easier. To continue to aid in my development, I went to the local Staples and bought a whiteboard and a set of dry erase markers. I had done research and found that the brain better remembers things that are written down, in addition to being said. Because I didn’t want to waste reams of paper writing Arabic words over and over again, I figured I could write on the whiteboard, immediately wipe it away, and do it again. So there I was, in the evenings and on weekends, scribbling Arabic words onto my whiteboard repeatedly.

“Hey Parker, we’re going to watch football on Sunday. Wanna come?” a friend texted me.

“Nah, I gotta study,” I responded.

As February and March came along, things seemed to get easier. Instead of struggling to learn eight prepositions, I found that I was easily learning verb conjugations and able to learn and memorize 20 or so words per day. I’d arrive at my class about 15 minutes early and go over my notes and homework from the previous class, getting myself in the Arabic mindset. When Fadwa would arrive, we’d fly through the next two hours, practicing, learning, speaking, and reading. When I got home, I’d study more. On the weekends, it was more studying. Sure, I wanted to watch football with my friends, but I also wanted to pass this language test. Football will be around next year, my training and this test would not.

“Parker, you have such a good accent,” Fadwa told me. “You sound like me, Syrian or Lebanese. I think you might have Middle Eastern in your background.”

“Well, Fadwa, I was raised Jewish, so your ancestors and mine came from the same place, right?”

Either way, I was really proud of myself knowing that a native Arab told me I had a good accent. I wasn’t fluent, but at least I could speak what I did know very well.

It was clear that I was making a lot of progress, but I was also concerned that I wasn’t moving fast enough. I needed a level two by June, and it was already April. We were almost done with the first textbook, and it felt good knowing that I could breeze through a few lessons each week. But in the end, I knew that my limited time in class limited my growth. I knew that I needed more ways to get more Arabic in my brain for longer periods of time, so I did an assessment of my options and determined a few things I could do to help myself even more.

I used my personal network to meet with and have coffee and meals with other Arabic speakers, particularly ones who were better than me. They’d speak to me with new words, phrases, and grammatical constructions, and I’d take notes on what was said so I could try to incorporate them into my own vocabulary and dialogue. I asked my teacher for any other resources she had that could help, and she gave me a book of CDs to which I could listen in my car. As much as I love heavy metal and music in general, those Arabic CDs were just about all I listened to in April and May.

As the weeks passed, my language abilities continued to grow, and I found myself speaking about events in the past, present, and future. I could describe my surroundings, how I got to class, and my family, education, background, and military service. I was making real progress, and it felt good. Was I a level two? I didn’t know, but I knew I was getting closer each day.

When May ended, I had exactly 28 days until my language test, and it was time to turn on the afterburner and dig in for the last-ditch effort. I joined another speaking group, listened to Arabic videos on YouTube, and read Arabic news websites as best I could. While I couldn’t translate the articles word for word, I could piece them together and found that I was able to interpret articles on the plans of a new Arab politician, car bombs in Iraq, and other issues in the region. I wasn’t perfect, but I was getting the gist of them, and that was the point. By this time in my studies, I had learned that language was not about speaking perfectly all the time, but it was about speaking well enough that someone understood my point and I understood theirs. That was the basis of speaking another language, and I was doing quite well.

In the middle of June, I received some extra funding to attend language class for two full weeks before my test. Five hours a day, five days a week, for two weeks. As my two-week full-time session came to an end, Fadwa pulled in another Arabic instructor into our class to give me a mock test. Considering she didn’t know me very well, she could be unbiased.

She sat across from me and asked me questions, and she and Fadwa listened to my responses. We spoke only in Arabic for about 10 minutes, and I did my best to incorporate complex language where I could to show how much I had learned and grown.

“Parker, I’m very impressed,” the other instructor told me. “I’m not going to give you a numerical grade of how I think you did, but I will say that I’m amazed that you could come this far in only six months of part-time classroom learning.”

I smiled.

“Shukran jazeelan,” I told her. “Thank you very much,” in Arabic. I was proud, as well, and so was Fadwa, judging from the smile she had. It was a testament to her as well as myself for how far I had come. It was the hours upon hours of studying at home, listening to Arabic CDs in my car, watching videos, reading news articles, making every flash card imaginable, and flying through the textbook. It was all of it, the hundreds of hours I had put in during the past six months to get to this point.

But it all came down to the test, and I was scheduled for two of them the last week in June. My first test was on Tuesday, June 25th, and would be administered at work and based on the five-point grading scale. The second test, which was for the State Department, was scheduled three days later on that Friday. My birthday was right in the middle, on Wednesday.

What a birthday present, I thought to myself, if I passed both tests—the first with a level two and the second with a pass. It would be incredible. What a feat! What a journey! A real-life example of getting after it. Never stopping. Never quitting. Never giving up!

My test on Tuesday occurred on a computer and in-person with two testers. The computer test’s questions focused on reading comprehension and started off at a level three, adjusting accordingly depending on how I answered. If I didn’t answer some correctly, the questions would get easier, and vice versa. The in-person test assessed my ability to engage in conversation and speak and listen. I did the best I could and put everything out that I could.

“You’ll receive your test results in about a week,” the instructors told me at the end of the test. I was eager to see my results to see if I got the level two score I sought, but I was more focused on my test for Friday. So after a quick birthday celebration on Wednesday, I was back at the studying on Thursday and Friday morning. Then it was time for the test.

Friday afternoon, June 28th, 2013 at 2:30 p.m. This was it.

I sat at my bar height table in my living room, closed my laptop, and plugged my earphones into my phone. I dialed the number, entered my special code into the phone system, and was connected through to the testers.

“Hello. Are we speaking with Parker Schaffel?”

“Na’am! Ismee Parker Schaffel! Kaif al-hahl?” I responded in Arabic. (Yes. My name is Parker Schaffel. How are you?)

“Parker, the test has not begun yet, we’ll speak in English until the test begins,” one of them responded. Slightly embarrassed for jumping the gun, I apologized in English trying to play it off. The testers explained to me that there were two testers on the line and both would be listening and asking questions. They told me to use as much different vocabulary I could to demonstrate my mastery of the language.

“If you don’t speak it, we won’t know it,” they said.

The test began with simple questions about my day, my education, and military background. Then they started to really test my abilities, asking about geopolitical situations and international affairs. I closed my eyes and tried to key in on words I knew, while not getting hung up on ones I didn’t know, just as Fadwa had suggested to me. My mind was racing, shifting back and forth between the words that came naturally in Arabic, which were only a few, and the words I had to think about and translate from English into Arabic. My brain was on overdrive. I answered the best I could, in as much detail as possible.

After about 20 minutes, they ended the phone interview, and I thanked them for their time.

“You’ll receive an email with the grade of your test, which will only be reported as pass/fail.”

Did I pass? I had no idea, but I wouldn’t give up hope as long as there was a reason to hold on. I stayed positive. Assuming I failed and then finding out I passed was an emotional rollercoaster I didn’t want or need to ride. Stay positive and hopeful, and wait for the test score.

I took the weekend off to relax and let my brain rest, the first weekend I had done so in six months. The following week was the 4th of July and I had taken the entire week off of work to relax, as well as get ready for an upcoming deployment with the US Navy. As a reservist, it was my time to serve and had received orders in May to report to Manama, Bahrain, the home of the US Navy’s Naval Central Forces Command, in late July.

The following week, on Tuesday July 2nd, as I was driving to visit my parents, I heard my phone beep. At the next red light, about two blocks from their place, I looked at my phone and saw that I had an email from the State Department testing center. I tapped the email and opened it up.

“Mr. Schaffel,

You did not pass the BEX Arabic (Formal Standard) language test on 6/28/2013. This test was administered on a pass/fail basis, no other grade is provided. You may retest again in six months.”

There it was.

I failed. Plain and simple.

I put the phone back down and proceeded the remaining two blocks. I parked my car and looked at my phone again.

“Did not pass.”

Fail. The failure meant that I would not get the language bonus, and it cut me even more knowing that the score I had from passing the Oral Assessment probably wasn’t good enough to get me in on its own. I needed the language bonus. I did everything I could, studied as hard as I could, listened to every CD I could, but it just didn’t work out as I wanted it to. And while I was proud of what I had accomplished and thought about the praise that Fadwa and the other Arabic instructor at my school had given me, pride, in the end, was all I had.

And that was ok.

I did my best. I had no regrets. I did everything I could. I couldn’t do anymore.

A few weeks later I flew to Manama, Bahrain for my assignment with the navy. While having a conversation with another officer, we were both discussing some lingering issues we had regarding some sports injuries. He had a herniated disc in his back, and I had tendonitis in my foot.

“Check out the hospital,” he told me. “I get physical therapy there, twice a week.” He told me about how great it was, how much he had gotten better, and how nice the facilities were. I had never been to a Middle Eastern hospital before, but I was willing to give it a try.

I called the hospital and scheduled six appointments with a physical therapist, twice a week for three weeks. When I showed up for my appointment, I was escorted to the physiotherapy room and the receptionist introduced to the therapist.

“Hello, my name is Jamil,” he said as he stuck out his hand.

I returned the handshake and introduced myself. Jamil was in his late 50s, was from Jordan, and had been living in Bahrain for the last 20 years, he told me. I told him that I was working at the base and had been in Bahrain only a few weeks. As we sat down in the exam room, he had me take off my shoe and sock and asked me to describe the pain in my foot from the tendonitis.

“Laysa ‘alm fee q’dmee, alan, leken qublah yomain, ‘alm katheeran,” I said. telling Jamil, in Arabic, that I didn’t have any pain in my foot right now, but two days ago I had a lot of pain.

He looked up at me and furrowed his brow.

“What did you just say?” he asked me in English.

I repeated what I said in Arabic.

“Anta tetekellum al-lugah al-arabiyah??!?!” (You speak the Arabic language??!?!)

I responded in Arabic that I had studied for six months before this assignment and that, while I had a lot more to learn, I was happy of what I had learned in that short time before coming to Bahrain.

Jamil responded to me in Arabic and our conversation continued as much as I could before I needed to revert to English because his speaking became too advanced for me. Nevertheless, we spoke in Arabic when I could.

Returning a few days later for my next appointment, I walked into the exam room, passing a few people on my way. I greeted Jamil and struck up a conversation with him in Arabic, as we did before. The curtain to our room hadn’t been pulled all the way shut so people could see into the exercises I was doing as they walked by. We continued speaking in Arabic until Jamil asked me to go into the exercise room to begin strength training exercises.

When I began my exercises, Jamil was nowhere to be found, but appeared after about a minute.

“Matha fa’alta?” I asked him. “What did you do?”

Jamil spoke to me in English.

“I just had a man walk up to me and ask who you were and why you were here in the hospital,” he said. “He asked why there was a Lebanese man in a hospital in Bahrain. I told him that you were an American and weren’t from Lebanon. He said, ‘I saw him and heard him speak Arabic. He’s Lebanese!’”

I smiled.

Sure, I hadn’t passed the phone test, and I had only earned a level 1+ on my work language test, but none of that mattered. I spoke well enough that another Arab thought I was Arab.

There was no test that could assess that. That was left up to a stranger in Bahrain, who would forever remind me that, while tests mattered, real life mattered more. I could rest knowing that I had passed the true test: speaking a foreign language in another country and passing for a local.

While the task seemed daunting, when I broke it down into smaller pieces, it was much more palatable. One day at a time, one lesson at a time, one word at a time, or sometimes, even one letter at a time. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and is made up of thousands of those steps along the way. My learning Arabic was exactly that—one step at a time, over and over and over again, on a six-month journey.

I found that short-term sacrifices were necessary for long-term gains. I didn’t watch football games with my friends, I didn’t date any girls, and I didn’t do much on weekends. For that six-month period, I worked, exercised, and studied, and after my training was over, I got back to doing other things. I’m confident that if I didn’t study as hard as I did, I never would have been a successful conversational Arabic speaker. It would have been completely wasted effort.

It was also clear to me that I had a knack for the language, and that provided a lot of motivation to keep going. If I had been studying, perhaps, another language or another subject where the innate ability wasn’t there, I would not have been as successful. It’s important to ensure that my efforts are put toward something about which I am motivated and confident, so my preparation and training will be easier and more effective.

Asking for a lot and negotiating for less got me the training I wanted, albeit not all of it, but enough. If I had asked for a few hours of training per week, I might have gotten nothing, but I asked for full-time training and got six-hours per week. That class time, along with my intense self-study, got me the recognition I got in Bahrain.

Failing the test was a door closed, but allowed for other windows to be opened for future opportunities. If I had passed the exam and earned a spot, I wouldn’t have written this story and this book, I wouldn’t have married the wonderful woman I did, I wouldn’t have had the time to start a solo music project, I wouldn’t be in the area to teach inner-city children how to play guitar, and I wouldn’t have had the time to do the myriad other things I’ve done since 2013.

In the end, I got after it. I never quit. I never gave up. I never stopped. I had made it. I was Lebanese.


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