Author Archives: Laura

Recipe: Breakfast Bread

A loaf of homemade breadInspired by “brown bread” ubiquitous in Ireland, where I’m told every family has their own variation based on their preferences

A vestige of this can be found in American grocery stores at St. Patrick’s Day called “Irish Soda Bread” which is white and smooth and full of dried fruit, losing the appeal of the rich brown color that the following recipe is going for. The most essential Brown Bread recipe is made of flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt. So you won’t go wrong with those, and what follows are my favorite embellishments…at this moment. This year I craved sweet in the winter and savory as the weather warmed up.

A dozen muffins

One week’s experiments…looks like in ratios of varieties of flour. I’ve really got to keep better notes if I want to be a scientist.

Brown Bread lends itself to endless variety and is truly democratic because it comes together as easy as cake mix – no kneading, no rising, just a few dishes to clean up. I’ve found the part that takes the most work (for a stressed-out person) is planning ahead to buy a pint of buttermilk (as once you’re in the habit, you’ll have all the other ingredients on hand), then completing 3 brief tasks in 2 hours: set out the refrigerated ingredients that need to come to room temperature, 1 hour later throw them all together and pop into the oven, 1 hour later be home to take the bread out of the oven and turn the oven off.

Overall, making brown bread is one of the few habits that I was able to hang onto during a whirlwind year when I got married, bought a house, and started a full-time job for the first time in two years. That’s because it was relatively low effort as a weekend to-do, definitely low cost (compared to buying cereal, for example), made me feel a little accomplished – especially when it filled the house with the smell of warm bread, as if I had my s*** together when I was really white-knuckling it – and it supplied an easy breakfast for the workweek that could come with me on the bus.

If I had extra time and energy, I would toast 1 of the cups of the whole wheat flour in a pan for 10 minutes, stirring constantly, to bring out wheat’s nutty flavor and darken the color of the bread – keeping an eye on whether this led to needing more buttermilk when combining the wet and dry ingredients. Like I said, endless variety. What follows just lays out the basics for success.

Kitchenware AKA stuff you’re going to have to clean up:

  • 2 mixing bowls
  • Butter knife
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Whisk
  • Mixing spoon
  • 12 count muffin tin or 9″ loaf pan
  • Parchment paper or cupcake papers
  • Tea towel – I got a set of 6 from the dollar store, it’s really just a piece of fabric you can dampen that will cover your baking dish. I store the clean ones with my loaf pan, so I don’t mix them up with the ones I’ve been wiping my dirty hands on, because it’s going to touch the food!


  • Let buttermilk and egg (and butter) come to room temperature (1 hour from fridge).
  • Line pan with parchment paper/muffin tin with papers, or else bread will stick
  • Preheat oven to 450°F.
  • Melt butter
  • Whisk wet ingredients for a minute, and stir together dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then combine, stirring with as few strokes as possible, as more stirring toughens the bread.
    • Dough should be almost too stiff to pour into the baking dish, but thoroughly moistened, no dry lumps. Add more buttermilk (or milk, in a pinch) if too dry.
  • Sprinkle dry oatmeal over the top for a pretty color contrast.
  • After putting baking dish in, lower heat to 375°F. Cook muffins 20 minutes, loaf 60 minutes.
  • After removing from oven (and having a sample!), place a damp tea towel over the top while bread cools. It is necessary to prevent thick crust (it gets hard, not nice and crunchy).
  • Refrigerate after first day. Microwave slice or muffin for 40 seconds to reheat. Top with fantastic butter, like Kerrygold, or just eat it on its own with a beverage nearby, since it goes down a little dry.

Sweet Loaf

Dry Ingredients

  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • One cup goodies
    • Cooked wheat berries or other un-ground grain
      • Re: oatmeal: though it creates an interesting voluptuous crumb, it weighs the whole loaf down so it doesn’t rise
    • Nuts
    • Fruit
      • Re: blueberries: if frozen, thaw completely – takes less than 8 hours – and drain, or else bread will collapse and be doughy moist around the fruit.
      • Re: dried fruit: I found sweetened dried fruit like golden raisins to be sickly sweet, didn’t match the brown bread flavor. Unsweetened dried fruit is fine.
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon or cardamom
  • 1 tsp instant rolled oatmeal for topping

Wet Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 0.5 cup melted jam (or 0.25 cup brown sugar, or 3 tbsp molasses)

Savory Loaf (This version is noticeably salty, you may want to use just 1 tsp salt.):

Dry Ingredients

  • 3 cups whole wheat flour or millet
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • 1 cup blanched almonds or other savory goody
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp instant rolled oatmeal for topping

Wet Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 (to 2.5) cup buttermilk

When I first began experimenting to find my preferred Brown Bread recipe, I found the following recipes focusing on authenticity, simplicity, and added molasses for sweetness and darkness useful for reference.

Tandiwe Ngwenya at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA

Interview: Hardcore Peace-Building with Tandiwe Ngwenya

 Tandiwe Ngwenya at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA

Tandiwe Ngwenya at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA

Want to learn what it takes to run refugee camps for an entire country? Listen:

Download audio. Creative Commons License Excerpts permitted, otherwise no derivatives, please.

For Tandiwe, a six-week civic leadership intensive 7000 miles from home is a bit of a vacation. That is because a normal day for her doesn’t end before midnight, when she’s up answering questions on Skype chat from her teams in Juba, Malakal, and other sites around South Sudan.

Tandi is the Programme Manager for Nonviolent Peaceforce [since this interview was recorded, she has been promoted to Deputy Head of Mission], which provides safe spaces for children, conflict resolution training for women, and security for folks stepping outside their United Nations Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps to run basic errands like getting water and firewood. Violence from civil war has been ongoing in South Sudan since 2013, with a shaky peace process now spanning years. Nevertheless Tandi’s teams invest in civilians’ physical and psychological well-being, and they’re making a difference.

Some people have taken notice and invested in Tandi too. She is a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow, a program started by President Obama to reach out to young African leaders and provide some support for them as they shape the future of the continent.

Out of 42,000 applicants, only 1000 were selected in 2016, and 25 of them came to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh to complete their classroom training. This group is on a tight schedule, with most of each day taken up with lectures from Pittsburgh civic leaders, then site visits, team-building activities, and networking events like Global Pittsburgh’s First Thursdays, which is where I met Tandi.

No stranger to traveling abroad, Tandi is originally from Zimbabwe. This was the comfort zone that she had to step outside of to advance her life in hardcore peace-building, as she describes her work. Tandi comes from the Ndebele tribe, which suffered an attempted genocide in the 1980s, authorized by then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. It would have been simple to take up a traditional, kitchen-bound gender role, and even a relief as an Ndebele survivor, but Tandi felt driven by the experience to promote peace in the world. She worked with Never Again Rwanda to build cohesion in their post-conflict society. That prepared her – as much as anything could – for the work she does now in South Sudan. She was drawn there after reading “What is the What” by Dave Eggers, the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy forced by the war to flee his home.

As Programme Manager, Tandi coordinates teams across the country day-in and day-out via Skype, WhatsApp, email, and satellite phone. She updates executive staff and donors, and she is the first point of contact for Human Resources challenges, such as when staff members are overcome with stress from the security risks or from the trauma of the civilians. The living conditions are that of oppressive heat, limited fresh produce, and periodic tent-dwelling when she’s working from the field. The clientele are hundreds of thousands of civilians who have lost their homes and are crammed into temporary camps. Tandi says of coming from Rwanda to South Sudan, “I thought I had seen the worst but I hadn’t seen anything.”

Tandi has developed a broad and deep skillset that allows her to function in this environment.  She has the cultural sensitivity to interact with people from different backgrounds – both inside and outside the organization. Her management skills allow her to keep track of which teams are running which initiatives where and how they’re progressing. She’s also skilled in procurement, security assessment to know when to pull teams out, and conflict resolution of her own, like how not to reciprocate when someone from the community that you’re serving slaps you in the face.

When I asked Tandi whether she could have learned peace-building in a classroom, she said no, “Theory and practice really never go hand in hand.” Through practice and mistakes, she’s built up the knowledge, resources, and instincts to make good decisions. Tandi’s career choices have served as stepping stones, preparing her professionally and personally for the challenges of what’s coming next.  “I don’t think I would be where I am right now in the field, in Nonviolent Peaceforce, if I hadn’t worked in Rwanda. It’s like it was a whole wealth of knowledge and skills that actually my employer picked [when they hired me].”

The Mandela Washington Fellowship wasn’t the first entity to see Tandi’s capacities and invest in her. She’s been mentored by supervisors in three countries: in Zimbabwe, where her boss taught her about management; in Rwanda, where her boss dedicated consistent attention to mentorship activities; and in South Sudan, where the current country director for Nonviolent Peaceforce is always available to help with making tough decisions. Tandi’s hero is her mom, a strong woman who rises to challenges and takes risks, who Tandi says, “embodies everything that I want to become.”

Tandi isn’t done growing, learning, or making a difference. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is just one step on her journey. Through her career path, she has connected with organizations that she sees making a difference, despite the increasing risks. But she hasn’t become an intimidating figure or taken on a towering personality – her work is serious, but chatting with her, she asks friendly questions and makes gently ironic jokes. There’s room for regular people to get involved in extraordinary work, so don’t let reading this article be the final step in your involvement in Tandi’s story.

Questions to build your action plan:

  • Where did you feel your mind wander or your heart reach for while reading this? Are you giving in to your desire to make a difference there or resisting it?
  • What was a mistake you made that taught you something you were able to use thereafter? How does your current situation enable you to try new things that might fail?
  • What organizations or individuals are making a difference in an area that concerns you? Are there ways to try and increase or improve your involvement with them?
  • Tandi said she wasn’t much of a soda drinker before this job, but now the simple act of drinking a Coke is part of her routine to de-stress. What are the big and little ways you are protecting yourself from burnout – not once in a while, but habitually every day?

The Mandela Washington Fellowship does not include financial support of Fellows or the organizations where they’re involved, so consider donating to Nonviolent Peaceforce to make sure that Tandi and her staff have what they need.

Listen to the full uncut recording of this interview. Creative Commons License Excerpts permitted, otherwise no derivatives, please.

Music credits: “Romantic West” by David Recoing, “We Will Always Be One” by the South Sudanese Women Association in Uganda, and “Ambient Ambulance” by Jingle Punks. Thanks to Barb Cathey, Susan Loucks, and Mike Sorg for providing feedback, and Yousef Jefferson and Rose Hilmara for encouragement.




3 Common English Verbs and their Synonyms: see, know, search for

A test tube is held up by a gloved hand to a color chart. The color of the contents of the tube are olive green, a match on the chart for pH 6.5 Slight Acid.

As I searched for ideal growing conditions, I needed to look at my soil to figure out if it was healthy. Photo by Laura Cathey, 2016. CC-BY-SA

Word choice can be the shibboleth that reveals an English learner’s intermediate level, even if the student is a hard worker well on their way to fluency.

Common verbs “see, know, and search for” can be a struggle to distinguish from their synonyms. The downloads at the end of this post contain sample sentences appropriate for intermediate English as a Second Language (ESL) students to work on improving in this area.

A Challenge for Beginners and Beyond

These three verb families are ones where I’ve heard both beginning and high intermediate students make mistakes. An intermediate student might know they’re making a mistake and be able to ask, “Did I ‘watch’ TV or ‘see’ it?” But students may also not notice when they’re on shaky ground and get themselves into trouble.

I worked with one beginning student who would tell me after any instruction I gave him, “I know.” For months I thought of him as somewhat arrogant – of course he didn’t know, we were spending our lessons correcting his mistakes. Finally I realized his intention was to say, “I understand” – conversationally, almost the opposite sentiment. But my perception of him even as his tutor had been swayed by this mistaken word choice.

Perception matters. When ESL students are interested in improving their employment opportunities, the bar is set higher than just being able to convey an idea. Their speech needs to be polished. A student’s aptitudes and professional accomplishments back home should earn them respect in an American professional setting, but mistakes in word choice have the potential to distract from that.

Improving Word Choice Between Synonyms

To build this skill, consulting the dictionary doesn’t help, as it often defines these words with one another. Intermediate print resources have a lot of ground to cover, and the ones available to me (I welcome any recommendations) avoided presenting anything close to hairsplitting that might trip up a student.

Sample sentences allow a student to examine and practice the differences between these verbs. These need to be sensitive to the way native English speakers use words across contexts, tones, and shades of meaning.

To practice, a student can read over the examples given, and then respond to a written or oral prompt to use all synonyms in a paragraph or short spoken answer. For example:

  • Use “watch, see, view, and look at” to describe going to the grand opening of a business or institution that interests you.
  • Use “know, understand, learn, find out, and figure out” to describe an aspect of American culture that was difficult for you at first.
  • Use “search for, seek, and look for” to describe collecting all the resources you need to complete a project at your work.

After initially studying these lessons, a student may hesitate in using these words while they rack their brains to remember the distinctions between them. You can encourage a comfort level by incorporating these words into future lessons and repeating the examples. From my own experience as a language student, there’s something comforting about hearing a familiar phrase repeated when I’m first learning it. The versatility of its other uses will come quick and fast outside the classroom.

watch / see / view / look at

These verbs of vision have distinctions based on what is being observed: does it move? Is it text? For each verb, a sentence is included that deals with birds and one that deals with résumés, to show that the same things are being seen, but that we use different verbs to talk about them in different situations.

PDF file icon created by Chanut is Industries from Noun Projectwatch / see / view / look at

know / understand / learn / find out / figure out

These verbs differ based on how and when the knowledge was acquired – relative to the present moment. In a couple cases, I used two of the words in one sentence to show how they relate to each other or how they aren’t interchangeable.

PDF file icon created by Chanut is Industries from Noun Projectknow / understand / learn / find out / figure out

search for / seek / look for

These verbs come up often with new immigrant situations like moving and gaining employment. Which verbs take the preposition “for” is an additional challenge when choosing between these three – and a temptation to overuse “seek,” which is actually much less common.

PDF file icon created by Chanut is Industries from Noun Projectsearch for / seek / look for

ESL Architecture/Engineering/Construction vocabulary (Intermediate/Advanced)


Moon over the construction site” by Laura Cathey, 2016. CC-BY-SA

American jargon for Architecture, Engineering, and Construction fields can be tricky for a student of the English language to learn. HGTV provides a consumer’s perspective. Undergraduate study materials assume native English proficiency. Construction dictionaries list words without indicating how common or obscure they might be.

While teaching English as a Second (or in this case, Third) Language to an urban professional in this field, I wound up cobbling together vocab lists from various sources. This is not my professional background, but I think we covered a number of areas that will come up on-the-job in the student’s new English-speaking career path.

How was this list created?

As my contract supervisor said to me in her English Language Learning library, no one resource is enough to rely upon entirely, but good material from different sources can be combined. Using (free, online) visual dictionaries, I selected a fraction of the words listed and introduced those to the student as relevant vocabulary.

Additionally, a friend who has a civil engineering degree pointed out the importance of abbreviations and numeric references in fast-paced workplace conversations, and she directed me to the MasterFormat Division system referenced below.

Reinforcement and review

After reading through the list, the student practiced using the new terms and definitions with real world scenarios and especially images (as on Google Streetview). We discussed which vocabulary items were visible and the processes of how they might interact or need to be created.

This turned out to be more effective than using fill-in-the-blank questions describing the function or appearance of the items. The student was more engaged and recalled words more successfully with a visual to work from. I would have prompted discussion of the function of the pictured features, but the student I worked with initiated those conversations herself. We reviewed the vocabulary weeks afterward using the same technique, as well as by reading and discussing authentic documents that used the vocabulary.


Each text file below contains 5-10 vocab words, with links to pictures as often as possible. There are also suggestions for sites to use for review, practice, or real world examples for reading or listening.


What’s missing?

We did not cover materials, architectural styles or engineering systems, zoning/regulations, or nitty-gritty construction equipment (e.g. screws vs nails), but those could certainly be valuable lessons.

What would you add?

Arab Bloggers

Logitech Wave Arabic by flickr user Iwan Gabovitch CC BY

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch (Creative Commons: Attribution 2.0)

My latest post is up at FluentU, for which I combed through Arabic-language blogs and ranked them by skill level for language students to read.

The blogs that made the list are a colorful cross section of online Arab culture that – I think – would be of interest even if you’re not studying a right-to-left language…and I wrote the post in English, so that makes it pretty accessible too. 🙂 Scroll half-way down to skip the study tips and go straight for the blog roll.

The blogs in the list cover cultural ground, literary quotes, micro-ethnographies, politics, graphic design, the job market, and consumer technology. Writing that list just now, it occurs to me that a glaring omission was religion, but I’ll be offering up a little of that in the next post I have in the works for FluentU, which will point out the best places on the internet you can listen to the Quran, the Bible, and the Baha’i sacred text, al-Kitaab al-Aqdas, being read aloud, in addition to other “audiobooks”.

What I’ve been making in the past 6 months


What a productive opportunity to create! During the past six months, I’ve been looking for local work that applies to my Arabic skills. Concurrently, I’ve been making things on a number of fronts.


fluentu-language-learning-videosI’m excited to be writing for FluentU, an online service that uses video captions to teach languages. I’m looking forward to incorporating their tool into my routine as soon as the Arabic content is live to subscribers. In the meanwhile, I write blog posts for them to attract search engine attention to this new tool, situating it in the world of Arabic learning resources.

My first two posts have covered Arab music and online language study.

Writing for my own Tumblr blog has been vehicle to express the best challenger to Islamophobia: hope. Hope often gets lost in the shuffle. Acts of bigotry are easy to discover – there’s even an academic journal of Islamophobia. Less attention is paid to the defiant creativity of Muslims and allies as they express the humanity of the victims of Islamophobia. There are so many people doing exactly that and with great energy! I compiled some of the most inspiring examples into two posts, oriented around finding role models that the reader can identify with and emulate: The Debater and The Organizer (many more to come!).

I also looked into whether Rumi, a household name more so than perhaps any other Muslim, is a successful ambassador for Islam, and – informed by some of my reading – I wrote a lineup of Muslims portrayed in mass media and the impact they are likely to have on public perceptions.


This spring, I volunteered around 50 hours at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, offering my communications skills to freshen up their brochures and to compile concepts in PowerPoint for redesigning their event flyer and annual report templates.

In Jordan last fall, as an Arabic student, I had to process and memorize a lot of information, almost exclusively in written formats. I have since been intrigued by students on Tumblr posting visual learning materials under the #studyblr tag. While reading a parallel-text abridged copy of Dracula in Arabic and English, I played around with drawing out purely written material into memorable visual representations.

I tried my hand at the Bullet Jornal system to practice Arabic vocab for daily tasks, and I did a little collaging.

Working across media lets me cover a lot of ground.


Thanks to those who helped me pick out a microphone – I went with one that’s supposed to be good for podcasting. To try it out, I recorded the birds that sing in our alley, a broom sweeping across a wooden floor, and Chris’ routine for making cold brew coffee. I think the sounds of home are so interesting – both complex and comforting at the same time. I posted them on Freesound so they’re available and easily searchable by folks looking for open source sound effects.

I’m also tiptoeing into interviewing folks about small (and big) ways they make a difference in the world. I had the supreme honor of interviewing Tandiwe Ngwenya, Programme Manager for Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan. I met Tandi because she’s one of the 25 Mandela Washington Fellows receiving training in Pittsburgh. I’m in the process of editing her soft-spoken experience and wisdom to share with you.


My professional life doesn’t seem to be taking me in a direction that calls for horticultural skills, but I have certainly been growing things (mainly from seed) and tasting the sweet (and bitter…) fruits of my labors.

Almost everything on the balcony grows in “self-watering” (aka sub-irrigated, aka reservoir) planters, made out of recycling. The herbs, tropicals, and succulents are thriving, but I’m happiest about the edibles: rail planter beets and strawberries, hanging peas.

I’m enjoying spectacular failures with flowers appropriate to my zone: chamomile, nasturtium, and borage.

Pattipan squashes and ginger are on track to harvest in the fall.


I would be remiss not to include my powerlifting stats in a list of things I’ve built. My glamor poses don’t look much different from January, but the proof is in the lifts.


  • was: empty bar (~45lb)
  • now: 45lb on the bar (doubled!)


  • was: 12lb dumbbells
  • now: 30lb dumbbells


  • was: 50lb
  • now: 125lb

My injuries prevent me from deadlifting, so I can’t give that figure. However, the injuries that hold me back the most are the ones I got from slouching in a cubicle, so I’m just glad to be in the gym.


Pittsburgh provides great networking opportunities that I’ve been able to attend through, Global Pittsburgh, the World Affairs Council, and the Center for Women. One thing I’m still hoping to make are more connections. If you’re interested in partnering with me, especially to develop any of the areas listed above, I’d love to hear from you.

Newspaper seedling planter

I tried a couple of the designs on the web and was not satisfied with their confusing design or their use of tape. This design is held in place when you put the potting mix in it, and lasts until you put it in the ground, when it starts to break down. I modified this origami pattern. If my instructions don’t work for you, they get the same result as, but I saw their instructions and didn’t understand them, so here’s instructions for brains like mine. 

  1. Start with a small newspaper, like the ones full of ads that you mysteriously can’t unsubscribe from. Take one leaf from it and tear it in half, so you just have 1 page.  
  2. Fold in half down the midline (horizontally). 
  3. Open it back up and fold in half along the other midline (vertically).
  4. Open it back up and fold all the corners to the center, which is where your previous folds meet. 
  5. Starting with the bottom right corner, fold the outer edge to the center. 
  6. Then fold the resulting edge to the corner as well. 
  7. Open your last 2 folds back up and repeat steps 5 and 6 with the other three edges. It is pretty crumply now, but you will use these folds as guides. 
  8. Open two of the opposite flaps. 
  9. You should see a small square in the very center, made from the creases we’ve been making. This is the bottom of the box. We’re going to be folding up around this square. 
  10. To bring two sides of the box together, we’re going to fold the corner in. The green lines represent “valley” folds (go away from you) and the pink is a “mountain” fold (comes toward you). If you look on the outside of the box, you’ll see how you brought the two valley folds together and they meet at a point. 
    mountain valley 20160319_230931
  11. Lay that corner along the opened flap side. You can see where your pink corner should be.
     corner crease
  12. Fold the other corner in by making two valley folds and a mountain fold again. 
    mountain valley2
  13. Now we’ve got two out of four corners in place. Tuck the flap inside to hold our corners in place.
    20160319_231023 20160319_231057
  14. Using the littlest crease square as your guide, repeat on the other side to complete the last two corners. 

You did it! Happy planting. 

4 Reasons Not to Be Intimidated by Arabic

I’ve been studying Arabic for six years, and while it’s a slow process, there are plenty of reasons to scale this mountain. The following four footholds will steady you along the way.

فكرو يا شعب "Think, people" Photo by Laura Cathey. CC BY-SA 2.0

فكرو يا شعب
“Think, people”
Photo by Laura Cathey. CC BY-SA 2.0

  1. You may have been scared off hearing  that contemporary Arabic has two registers of speech: formal (Modern Standard Arabic – MSA – or fuṣḥa فصحى) and informal (dialect orʿaamia عامية) and that the dialects differ between regions and sometimes even cities. How will you transition your BBC News listening skills to the streets?

    Here’s the trick: All native Arabic speakers with even an elementary education (so, most people you will meet in the Arab world) have always been able to tell me, “that’s MSA, this is dialect.” They all speak their dialect but listen to/read the news and books in MSA. If you learn a word in one register, people will help you fill in your gaps in the other. Language is social! You can’t learn it in a vacuum – you can’t learn Arabic without meeting Arabs – so plan to depend on others in your development.

    • Example: In MSA, What is your name? is ما اسمُكَ؟ When I got off the plane in Amman, I asked my driver, اسمَك أي؟  And he said to me, You’re speaking Egyptian dialect. Here in Jordan we say شو اسمَك؟ He knew the different registers, and was able to set me straight. Plenty of people who don’t have the job title of Teacher can (and will) teach you.

Who doesn't love a shelf full of Agatha Christie?  Photo by Laura Cathey. CC BY-SA 2.0

Who doesn’t love a shelf full of Agatha Christie?
Photo by Laura Cathey. CC BY-SA 2.0

  1. It’s true that Arabic Dictionaries are not organized by the spelling of the word – they’re ordered by the root. However, because parts of speech follow set spelling patterns, roots are easier to derive in Arabic than in English.Once you learn the alphabet, you’ll be able to correctly guess the root of a new word (or narrow it down to 2-3 options). When you know the root, you’ll roughly know the meaning. Also, when you crack open a (good) dictionary, each root entry is a treasure trove of new meanings and subtleties.

    • Example:جمع  is a verb that means to gather. اجتماع means a meeting. مجموع means a group.  جامعة means a university. In the dictionary, they’re all under the heading for the root ج-م-ع.

It's going to be hard to order that delicious Yemeni dish next time if you can't remember what it's called (not really, just point at the picture). Photo by Laura Cathey. CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s going to be hard to order that delicious Yemeni dish next time if you can’t remember what it’s called (not really, just point at the picture). Photo by Laura Cathey. CC BY-SA 2.0

  1. You may have heard there are no short vowels written in most Arabic texts, but I say to you that you do not need them. Because meaning comes from the root and form, sounding out an unknown word is not going to help you (except for “starbks kafh”  or “kmbyutr”). Words that you know, you’ll recognize without their short vowels written in.

    • Example: When I’m speaking, I need to pronounce the differences between رَجُل (/rajul/ man) and رِجْل (/rijl/ leg), but when I’m writing, it’s clear from context which one I mean just by writing رجل. (Some Arab linguists even argue there’s no such thing as homonyms in Arabic, just shades of a single meaning. So that argument would go like: if I wasn’t sure whether “رجل طويل” meant “long leg” or “tall man” ultimately I don’t need to answer that question because a tall man has long legs, so the two meanings are congruent.)

A set list. Photo by Laura Cathey. CC BY-SA 2.0

A band’s set list.
Photo by Laura Cathey. CC BY-SA 2.0

  1. To me, the biggest reason to not be afraid of choosing Arabic – in spite of how hard it is for English speakers to learn – is that native speakers don’t swallow their letters in Arabic, like they do in Spanish and French and English. Take the sentence, “Does your apartment have internet yet?” A native speaker will say, “Duzhur apar’men’ havin’erne’ ye’?” Not a single T gets pronounced! In Arabic, every letter is pronounced, even in informal contexts. This gives you a fighting chance to actually hear words you know in context and put your knowledge to use.

    • Example: Even accounting for regional pronunciations, once you learn that Egyptians say ز for ذ and ء for ق, you’ll still hear them consistently pronounce all those letters. يا أستاذ – قلمي مش معي in MSA is /ya ustadh, qalami miš maʿai/ whereas Egyptians would say /ya ʾustaz, ʾalami miš maʿai/. The ذ and the ق are pronounced albeit differently – they’re not dropped.

I hope these points have made Arabic seem a little less impossible to you. You probably already know the benefits of learning Arabic: accessing hospitable and affectionate cultures, heartbreaking music and poetry, soulful religious teachings, corny slapstick movies, a cuisine full of delicious herbs and spices (even in their sweets, drinks, and tobacco), and a depth of politics you’ll never exhaust. Arabs seem to love their language as enthusiastically as Arabic 101 students still in the “it’s so pretty” honeymoon stage – they decorate with calligraphy and they cannot get enough of puns and word play. Yes, it will take you years to achieve in Arabic what took you months in Spanish, but remember these four aspects of the language that will help you along rather than trip you up.

Why you will never master Arabic

"slow my mind" by Joseph Gilbert (CC by-nc-sa)

“slow my mind” by Joseph Gilbert (CC by-nc-sa)

Cognates are why you learned pretty good Spanish quickly and will never ever speak passable Arabic. System is “sistema” en Español and “niTHaam” bilArabie. Circle is “circulo” en Español and “diwaar” bilArabie. You are never going to guess right.

And there’s a strike against you in the other direction. Arabic has a lot of the same short vowel sounds as English, so in the street in Amman I keep thinking I’m hearing words I know, which in actuality have nothing to do with English. Sometimes I pause and reflect that all the native Arabic speakers around me just understood me to say, “What? Where?” while a part of my mind is laughing at myself because it sounded like, “Shoe? Wayne?” These are false cognates. They sound like they might be close to an word in English – in reality, it’s just a funny coincidence.

The very best false cognate of all time is that “embarazado” in Spanish does not mean “embarrassed” – it means “pregnant”. There are some good ones in Arabic presented here for your enjoyment.

Arabic word Arabic pronunciation (sounds like…) Actual Meaning in English
جاف “Jeff” Dry
نوع “Noah” Variety
مجلة “Miguel, ah” Magazine (Egypt)
فني “Fanny” Artistic
طعم “Tom” Flavor
وين “Wayne” Where? (Jordan)
شو “Shoe” What? (Jordan)
مسؤولين “Masculine” Those responsible
لون “Loan” Color
كافين “Caffeine” Enough of them
طرد “Turd” Eviction
نقل “Knuckle” Translation
نضج “Nudge” Maturity
رمز “Rams” Symbol
فساد “Façade” Corruption
حرية “Hooray, ya!” Freedom
حكم “Hook ’em” Governing
تفضيل “Tough deal” Preference
عسكري “Ice cream” Military
منشور “Mmm, unsure” Publication
النوم “A gnome” Sleeping
فجأةً “Fudge, a ton” Suddenly…

There’s some juicy material here for mnemonic devices, but otherwise, false cognates are just going to mess with you.

Bonus: Animal vs. enamel

To someone studying English, the difference is subtle. To a native speaker of English, there’s no reason to ever confuse these. To me, I’m not sure which one to associate with انامل (click to open Google Translate, then the speaker icon on the Arabic side to hear the pronunciation), which means “fingers” in Arabic.