Caleb came home from his third day at his new school and said “look, mommy, I can write my name in Arabic!”  And he did:

It occurs to me that he may have actually written “suck it,” and I will never know. But still…he did it in Arabic.

Linguists talk about a “critical age” for language acquisition: to become truly fluent in a non-native language, you need to start at about age six. Caleb just turned seven. Every day, he comes home from school with new words: ketab, kaluam, bata, baqara, mimha, and of course that quintessential Arabic word, sabudra, whiteboard.  (I just asked him to say all these words to me and as I typed them, going by sheer phonetics, he was correcting me: “no, that’s not a “k,” it’s a “q,” no it’s not an “e” it’s an “i.”  So that’s nice. Now in addition to kicking my ass in Monopoly, he can correct my Arabic spelling.)

Liam is also taking Arabic and it delights him. His baroque nature finds great satisfaction in the flourishes and curlicues, in figuring out that the shape of letters change depending on where the letter occurs in the word.

Yes, you heard that correctly. The letters don’t look quite the same, depending on where they occur in the word. Oh, and another thing? Vowels aren’t so much included in the word. They get added afterwards, above, if you want to. There are 14 extra-alphabetical symbols that I’m supposed to remember on top of the 28 consonants.

Liam and Caleb think it’s all fascinating, like learning a new code.  Studying a new language works for them because they have brains like this:

My brain, unfortunately, looks like this:

And just like my kids, I’m also taking Arabic. But with a rock brain instead of a sponge brain. Letters that change depending on where they’re positioned? No vowels written down? An entire second layer of meaning floating in the symbols above and below the word?  It makes my rock brain hurt.  On the first day, I didn’t even open the book the right way. Which is to say that I opened it from left to right. Fail. It’s right to left, people, right to left. The workbook is written in English, thank god, and comes with a DVD that I’m supposed to watch in order to learn an entirely new system of mouth moves. Which sounds like a porn movie but won’t be as much fun.

I’d forgotten how hard it is to learn something new. I’m not sure I even remember the last time I deliberately set out to learn some new brain thing. Learning physical stuff—kick-boxing, karate, surfing—that’s hard too, but I think that brain calisthenics are even harder, because with physical stuff, someone can at least watch you and say you’re leaning too far to the right, or that you’re doing some weird torque with your hips which is why you’re falling over.

A few weeks ago, I went to the gym for a session with a personal trainer.  He said that it was important to do different exercise routines during each workout to “confuse the body,” because then your muscles have to work harder and you see better results.  After a few sessions with him, I wasn’t magically thinner or stronger (dammit!) but my aches and pains showed me that new muscles were emerging.

It occurs to me, as I make this analogy, that my brain isn’t as fit as my body. Who knew it was possible to have swags of back fat and poochy love handles on one’s brain? It’s a medical miracle. Someone call Dr. Oz.

My brain may not know it yet, but it’s just been put on a new fitness regimen that goes from right to left. I’m going to confuse that gray matter muscle and make my brain all perky and renewed, the brain equivalent of a midwestern gymnast. Who knows. Maybe the process will, inshallah, ward off Alzheimer’s: being temporarily confused as a way to ward off further, more permanent confusion.

The second Arabic class is on Sunday.  Maybe I can get my kids to help me with my homework.


brain coral in the photo above was a gift from Nancy Horwich to Caleb, who treasures it (not knowing that it’s a metaphor for his mommy’s brain)