Learning Arabic: Robert Lane Greene’s perspective

Arabic Books

It’s great to be back after a break, Ramadan is over, wishing everybody Eid mubarak (Happy Eid), a new academic year- so it’s back to the usual.  There are exciting things for me this year and for Arabizi too I hope. A warm welcome to the new readers, I hope that Arabizi will be a good resource for you and not rubbish in your inbox. And also thanks to all those who wrote emails and comments on the blog these are very much appreciated….. now to the post….

When I wrote the previous short post about Emarati Arabic being taught to expats in the UAE, it never occurred to me how a non-native speaker might feel about that. Nor did I ever know that as a result of one of the shortest posts I have ever written, that I would learn so much about the perceptions, feelings and frustrations of Arabic language learners. But that is exactly what happen in the form of a clear and constructive comment from Robert Lane Greene, journalist at the Economist and best-selling author of ‘You are what you speak- Grammar Grounches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity’.  A keen language learner and enthusiast of Arabic language himself (the number of languages he knows would put any linguist to shame), saw the beneficial side of the teaching of Emarati to non-Arabic speakers. The points he raised made me think not only about the challenges non-speakers face, but it also allowed me to see what I deemed as negative in a new way.  What his comment made me do was realise that given the diglossic situation of Arabic with its complicated grammar (not a negative thing) and many dialects, that perhaps an effort such as the teaching of Emarati Arabic was to be appreciated. And maybe should be looked at as a step towards strengthening Arabic learning on part of the non-native speaker as it would give them access to ‘real- spoken’ Arabic as opposed to textbook examples of ‘how’ things should be said. Following that comment and subsequent conversations he kindly agreed to honour Arabizi and write a guest post for us :-).

It is candid, detailed to the point and describes Arabic from a non-native learner’s point of view which is rarely read about. Most learners complain at the complicated nature of the grammar, the rules and the impossibility to converse in Arabic. Most students will relate to the struggles and challenges he mentions and I am sure even the funny parts. I also hope that Arabic teachers can take note of how non-native speakers feel about the learning of Arabic language and hopefully work towards making it easier for the students. Yes, I know it is only one person’s experience but, it is a consistent, sincere and continuous one therefore lessons need to learned from it.

I have added it below without editing from myself- thank you Lane, a real treat for us at Arabizi. Comments are most welcome and I am sure Lane will not mind answering or adding to any points readers will make.


Six years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate on learning Arabic. Since it’s still the second Google result for “learning Arabic”, people occasionally write me and ask me if I’ve made it past the problems I described there (with some attempt at humor, but no exaggeration). I’m happy to report that yes, I have made a lot of progress over the years, alhamdulillah.  I can read a newspaper with minor dictionary help, I can chat with cab drivers in Brooklyn who are usually amazed by the white American guy who speaks with them in decent colloquial, and I can follow, with some difficulty, a full-speed al-Jazeera broadcast on a familiar topic.  It’s been a long road, but fascinating.

When I started the journey, the hardest part was for me was the forbidding grammar of Modern Standard Arabic: ten verbal paradigms, reverse-gender agreement of numbers, the feminine singular for plural inanimate subjects, the litany of mind-bending quirks familiar to the student of the language. These are the things I focused on in that piece for Slate.

Since then, though, the single most frustrating thing about making progress is the polyglossia of the Arab world. Yes, we refer to diglossia most of the time, but that implies two varieties, high and low. For a journalist like me, who has followed the fascinating news from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to the Gulf in the past year, the problem isn’t just learning just one “high” for reading and another “low” for speaking, but picking one of several colloquial Arabics, maybe picking a sub-colloquial among them, finding good teaching materials, and sticking with it.

My first Arabic teacher was a very nice Moroccan, and a very bad teacher. He began by teaching us the letters, having a hard time explaining the emphatic consonants to his puzzled students (to him the difference between daad and daal was just obvious). But worse, he began teaching us to speak in Moroccon colloquial, while never telling us that that was what he was doing.  I learned ish taakul, “what are you eating?” or “what will you have to eat?”, with no idea that this was Moroccan dialect. What can I say? The class was free. You get what you pay for. I quit.

My next class was at New York University’s continuing education school, with Karam, a Palestinian. He was also a very nice guy, and the quality of the class was much higher.  But once again, diglossia was a problem. Karam was a big believer in colloquial, and so taught it alongside MSA from the start.  We had a big book (a bad one, in my opinion: Ahlan wa Sahlan from Yale University Press) for MSA, and Karam’s home-made handouts for the Palestinian colloquial. He would teach us something in MSA, and then give the colloquial straight away. It was too much. I simply shut my ears at the colloquial parts, trying to remember only one version of everything. MSA was hard enough on its own. 

With my third teacher, things improved. Ahmed was an Egyptian, but taught no-nonsense MSA. He was pot-bellied, loud and funny, and it was hard not to enjoy just being in his classroom. The only Egyptian we got was in the form of songs, which he would occasionally teach, and positively insist we sing along. Looking back, I think it was a good pedagogical technique; it was painful for everyone, but so it was funny, and everyone relaxed as we got back into the MSA.  And I still remember one song:  Salma, ya salama, ruhna w giina b-salaama. I never learned any Egyptian colloquial beyond that, though I remember Ahmed’s typically Egyptian stress pattern:  al-qaa-HI-ra, not al-QAA-hi-ra.

After Ahmed, I was on my own, with no time for classes. I kept the much better books he used in his class, the Al-Kitaab series, and worked my way through them on my own. As I started putting fairly fine finishing touches on my knowledge of MSA, I began to want to learn a colloquial properly. I had met two Egyptians at a bar in South Africa who didn’t speak English, and the only thing I had been able to resort to was MSA, very weird for all of us.  I wanted to start speaking the way Arabs speak for real.

But which dialect?  My biggest interest was in the Levantine countries, I decided. So simple: I’ll learn “Levantine colloquial.” I was loth to have to pick one, but that’s what I chose, with silent apologies to the Iraqis, Saudis and Algerians. Only to discover, as I gathered materials, there were coursebooks on Syrian Arabic, on Lebanese Arabic, on Palestinian Arabic… and these were far more different from each other than I wanted them to be!  And this was Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem Arabic.  Imagine my annoyance on learning that if I traveled to a small village in the Levant, much less talked to a Bedouin, I’d probably encounter yet another Arabic I couldn’t understand.

I flitted aimlessly between my three books. There really is such a thing as a Levantine continuum, and I understand that Syrians and Palestinians understand each other well. But there were all these choices I had to make, and didn’t want to: –kum or –kon for the 2ndperson plural attached pronoun?  Final taa-marbuta becomes –e, or no? (Hiyya or hiyye?)  In my own book, I write with joy about the messy real world of language. In learning Arabic, I wanted there to be one right variety, or by God, at least only two clear-cut varieties I had to learn.  But the universe didn’t offer me a simple solution.  Today I speak a sort of mishmash Levantine, probably mostly Palestinian.  (I re-hired Karam as a private tutor for a few hours of practice.)

 All of this has made me wonder about how Arabs feel about all this.  I have encountered opinions from 

– denial (“this isn’t an issue—everyone speaks one language, really”), to 

– scorn of the dialects (“the Bedouins are the only ones who speak real Arabic”—the belief that Bedouins basically speak Classical Arabic, but most children have to go to school to learn “real Arabic”), to 

– embrace of the dialects (“we speak the nicest Arabic in [my home country], which is incidentally closest to fusha”).  

Opinions seem as varied as the linguistic map itself.  

Pragmatically, it would be fabulous if the much-mooted “Middle Arabic”—combining the most common dialect features with a simplified MSA grammar—would appear as a kind of koine. But there is no one to bring it into existence.  So the result is many different “Middle Arabics” improvised by speakers from different regions trying to talk to each other, or by educated speakers on television trying to sound serious (classical) and real (dialect) at the same time by mixing elements of the two ad-hoc.

The situation is difficult enough for Arabs; it is harder still for the learner. But nobody promised it would be easy. I’m glad I’ve learned as much as I have, but I know that I’ll be adding piecemeal to that knowledge of Arabic—Arabics, really—for the rest of my life.

‘Say it in Arabic, please’: Arabic language rights restored?

The year is moving fast it’s already July and I am becoming busier and busier by the day, the more writing I do the more there is to do…well can’t complain at least it doesn’t put me off linguistics. Just means that I don’t have time to write longer posts. I have an Arabic article I will translate about language and the human need to talk- will do it as soon as I can. It would be wrong of me to put it up if I am not happy that would be a true injustice to the author.  Ramadhan (fasting month) is due next month very excited as always and looking forward to the spiritual experience as usual.

 It was refereshing the other day to come across an article in the Gulf News about the experience of a non-Arabic speaker learning Arabic in the Gulf. I say refreshing because I usually quote native Arabic speakers and their feelings, anxieties and fears about the current and future situation of the Arabic language. What struck me about this article was his insistence that since the Gulf states have Arabic as their native tongue it then becomes incumbent upon non-native speakers living there to learn the Arabic.

He also notes and outlines the current situation of the Arabic language, in that English is preferred over Arabic and that perhaps the Arabs might lose their language one day. Of course he then goes through the importance of Arabic language, and what it would mean to lose that language. In talking about his experience of learning Arabic, he writes a description of Arabic language that I have not read in a long while. It shows his true admiration for the Arabic language and his appreciation of what it would mean were we to lose this language.

The article ends with his reflection on the danger of Arabic being lost, I chose to put this article here because I felt that it was up to date, from the ground and seems authentic in all that he writes. Have a read below as usual no changes to the original.  

————— without editing

Ancient languages are part of collective human heritage and a testament to mankind’s long journey. Don’t let them die.Language is perhaps the most precious, most beautiful gift after intellect that God granted man. In fact, language is the medium of expression of our intellect. Language is perhaps the most significant invention of our ancestors, even more important than the wheel that was invented nearly 6,000 years ago in ancient Iraq and is considered the beginning of human civilisation. For the wheel couldn’t have come about without man’s ability to think and express himself.

Languages have always and endlessly fascinated me. How they come into being, how they evolve with their speakers and how they relate to each other. How babies form pictures of people, things and places in their embryonic minds and express them in incomprehensible sounds is an endlessly fascinating process. Those incomprehensible sounds though must have formed building blocks of our languages.

One of the first things I wanted to do after landing in Dubai, besides buying my own car, was to learn Arabic. But it’s one of those pious resolutions that are easy to make and hard to follow for one reason or another.

Still, having lived and worked in the Gulf for so many years, it’s a real shame if our understanding of the Arabs doesn’t go beyond shawarma (Arabic sandwich wrap), shisha (hubble-bubble or hookah) and shopping malls.

The trouble is, you could live and work in the UAE for years and decades without ever bothering or requiring to learn the local language. Which is what most expatriates do. They live, work and move all their lives in limited spheres of their own communities without ever trying to understand the host country or society.

That is no excuse for not learning Arabic though. So when an opportunity to do so presented itself recently, I gratefully grabbed it. Given the lazy hours of my current job, I couldn’t have hoped for a better chance to quench a lifelong thirst for the glorious language that the Arabs believe — and many linguists agree — to be the mother of all languages.

The past couple of months learning the basics of Arabic with the help of my irrepressibly cheerful Egyptian teacher have been an enriching experience. In a class of 40, most ‘students’ are from Europe and increasingly remind me of that classic BBC comedy, Mind Your Language. And it’s immensely instructive to see Europeans go to great pains to master a language that is so different from theirs.

Different shades

I kind of believed I had a thing for languages and convinced myself that picking up Arabic would be as easy as learning English or Urdu. Especially when I am already familiar with the Arabic script, the language of the Quran, as most Muslims are. Besides, my mother tongue, Urdu, is based on the same script and is heavily indebted to Arabic, just as it is to Persian and Sanskrit, in terms of vocabulary. So I thought I could pick up Arabic in no time, if not master it. Boy, was I wrong!

Arabic is not just an ancient, rich language, it is easily the most complex and nuanced one I’ve ever come across. Every new lesson has been humbling, illuminating the distant boundaries of my infinite ignorance.Unlike in English, in Arabic every object and everything, living or inanimate, has a gender and sentences are formed accordingly. The whole sentence structure changes with each pronoun and helping verb.

More important, the written and spoken Arabic are totally different species. It’s not just the dialect that changes from region to region but words acquire totally different shades of meaning and interpretation.Then there’s its rich repertoire of vocabulary built and accumulated over thousands of years in a region that has been the cradle of world civilization. No other language, with the exception of Sanskrit perhaps, can boast of a literary heritage as great as that of Arabic. The Arabic language and literature have directly or indirectly contributed to all great literature in languages around the world.

It is a shame then like so many great languages from the East, Arabic has been in a steady decline. As much as I love Queen’s English, I have to say this: The growth of English as global lingua franca has come at the expense of great languages like Arabic.

Thanks to the ascendency of Western civilisation and Mac cultural invasion, more and more people are abandoning their ancestral languages for English.As a result, ancient languages have been dying at an unprecedented rate. Indeed, we may be living in a century that could prove decisive for the future of hundreds of languages. It’s feared that by the end of this century or the next, seven thousand of world’s languages could be reduced to just about 600.

It’s all the more alarming in ancient societies of Asia, Latin America and Africa. In America, most languages of native Indians, its original inhabitants, are already dead. Last year, with the death of Boa Senior in India’s Andaman Islands, the last surviving speaker of Bo, one of Asia’s oldest languages, died an unwept death. And there are many others out there that face a similar fate.

Languages are part of our collective heritage and a testament to and chronicle of mankind’s long journey. They must not be allowed to die, especially not by those who have inherited it and are born with it. Especially not a divine language like Arabic. 

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published commentator. Follow him on twitter/aijazzakasyed.


Very thorough despite the fact that he is not a linguist, he understands what we call language conservation and maintenance, happy reading!

Source: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/say-it-in-arabic-please-1.830807

Reading Arabic ‘Different’ for the Brain, New Study Suggests

Well it’s been a few nice days and the weather is getting warmer here, which is always nice considering the amount of work I have to do! I came across a link to this post from a tweet earlier today and as usual thought I’d share it. The article is based on the findings of a PhD student (this year 2011 still fresh) who was investigating the areas of the brain used by Arabic readers….the findings are fascinating read on to see what they were..

——- Article without editing

ScienceDaily (May 19, 2011) — Arabic readers recognise words in a different way from readers of other languages, a new study suggests.

This doctoral research at the University of Leicester is analysing the reading differences of individuals as well as across languages — and has shown dissimilarities in how Arabic readers recognise words. Conducted by Abubaker Almabruk from the School of Psychology, the study has shown there are clear differences in how the right and left sides of the brain recognise Arabic words. Almabruk’s study is one of the first to examine the cognitive and physiological processes underlying word recognition and reading in Arabic, providing important insight into the effects of direction of reading, the form of the script and the construction of the language. His research reveals the intricacies of an everyday behaviour that most people find relatively easy and will help explain why some people find it difficult to read and provide insights into how these difficulties might be remedied. Almabruk commented: “Differences in left and right brain function influence the recognition of words each side of where a reader is looking on a page but only when these words are outside of central vision — this reveals both left/right brain specialisation for reading and evidence that the two halves of the brain collaborate when making sense of words in central vision. Native Arabic readers recognise Arabic words most efficiently when they fixate these words at their very centre.” “This shows that where we look in a word is very important for reading and the findings for Arabic are different from findings for English and other western languages, which are read most efficiently by looking at a location between the beginning and middle of the word.” On the possible causes for the reading differences, he said that “this might have happened because Arabic is read from right to left and words are formed from cursive text (i.e., the letters in Arabic naturally join together, even in printed formats, much like hand-written text in English).” Dr Kevin Paterson from the School of Psychology added: “Arabic is one of the oldest and most beautiful languages, and the second-most widely used language in the world, yet how it is read and understood has received surprisingly little attention. The experimental approach that Abubaker has taken in his research promises to reveal a huge amount about how this language and other languages are read and understood.” This research is being presented at the Festival of Postgraduate Research on Thursday, June 16. The annual one-day exhibition of postgraduate research offers organisations and the public the opportunity to meet the next generation of innovators and cutting-edge researchers. More than 50 University of Leicester students will explain the real world implications of their research in an engaging and accessible way. The event is open to the public and free to attend. More information at http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ssds/sd/pgrd/fpgr.

————– end

Sometimes people imagine PhD students do crazy unimportant research well it seems this PhD student found a huge gap in the psychology of reading and filled it with excellent knowledge that was needed. Although Arabic language is popular for research students there are still so many areas to look into apart from literature, translations and politics. This new research, is one that gave attention to a neglected area in Arabic language studies; it claims that readers of Arabic read differently from readers of English or other western languages (i.e: Romanized orthography) and that this finding can determine for other researchers how people with reading difficulties can be helped. Researchers in fields such as speech therapy or those working with children/adults who suffer from dyslexia are always looking for specific real research and findings to help them to assist readers/speakers of languages other than English. As always I am wondering what it might mean for reading of Arabizi, reading Arabic words through Latin script mmm?! I am hoping to follow this research and hopefully get a copy of the thesis I am sure it will make good reading when I become less busy.

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110518080109.htm

Does language shape thought? The results are in

A man of many language symbols

Image by Eyesplash via Flickr

A few posts ago I mentioned that The economist was running a live debate asking us, its readers to vote on whether we thought language shapes the way we think or not. After that over the next few days different scholars and linguists debated for or against the claim,  and we had the chance to agree or disagree with their view. Well now the results are in and all the arguments for both for and against are available to be read 🙂 so if you are interested please go ahead and read about it here:http://www.economist.com/debate/debates/overview/190.

Apologies for the short post I am away at the moment but someone just showed this to me and I thought I had to post it- happy break and I hope the new year will be good for everyone.


Does language shape your thought? Join the debate

The Economist

Image via Wikipedia

Once again the debate has resurfaced- does language shape thought? I think it will always be a question and each time both sides of the argument have some type of evidence. This time it is  The Economist who are currently running a live debate on this question. They allow for readers to vote on the website asking for people’s view on this somewhat complicated question. Two brilliant scholars represent each side, Dr. Lera Boroditsky [whom I have mentioned before on this blog] and she is for the motion that yes language does shape thought. In opposition is Prof. Mike Liberman a linguist at Pennsylvania, who sees that we shape language to a certain extent, and that language cannot shape the way we think.

I thought I’d share this with the readers as the voting ends tonight and the results will be announced on Thursday. If Linguistic Relativity interests you, this is where you need to go as there are recommendations on what to read, and a summary of the whole idea from both the linguistic and psychological perspectives.  Go and read and vote- enjoy.

The link- http://www.economist.com/debate/days/view/626

The power of words- a lesson from Taylor Mali

Taylor Mali

The power of words? Yes, words have power, power to move our emotions, power to make us think differently, and even to shape the way we see the world {in the loose sense or if you like in the Linguistic Relativity sense}. All through? Yes, you got it, through language. Which begs the question, what would we lose if we had no language? Apart from culture, ways of doing things or seeing the world, we’ll lose the power to influence others {positively of course} in an easy and natural way.

I like poetry and one type that really fascinates me is spoken word, and one of my favourites is one by Taylor Mali called ‘what teachers make’. Recently, I came across a CNN clip that shows how through Taylor’s poetry, many people have become teachers [to be precise 499]. So the question that came to mind for me was, how did he do it? Did he describe the excellent financial reward of being a teacher? Or maybe the glorious praise and respect from students? NO, all he did was show the passion he had for being a teacher, and showed the true nature of how important teachers are even though society does not acknowledge it. All this was done through the use of words, through the use of language, he moved people to change their lives forever- the true power of words and it doesn’t get better than this. He in effect not only changed the life of those 499 individuals but the also the lives of their many thousand students, because these teachers have passion, and when you have that anything you do will be no less than excellent. Here is the CNN clip.

Once we acknowledge the power of words and hence the importance of language preservation then we will understand why language ecologists are running and working hard to save languages from extinction- without words and language we are quite literally- nothing. That’s why the proper use and learning of Arabic is very important because if future generations lose the ability to understand and use language, they cannot therefore be affected by its power or influence others through it. Without language we could not function, we could not make our points clear, you would not be reading this post and digesting its meaning, negotiations could not take place, peace talks could never happen…..and the list continues.  Arabic may not be dying but it might one day and if it does so much will go with it and so much will be lost without it, or any other language for that matter. Language is power- a power we underestimate.

 Below I have put the original poem Taylor read at the Def poetry for HBO- enjoy and your comments are always welcome.


Al Qasmy: “Arabic is key to identity” the fight to revive Arabic in the UAE

Another post showing the importance the rulers in the UAE are putting into reviving Arabic language among their people. Below is a post about showing that, slightly different from the previous post about Jordan. —————————–

SHARJAH // Arab parents should encourage their children to express “joys, sadness, defeats and victories” in Arabic, or risk separating their young ones from a rich cultural heritage, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah, said yesterday. Celebrating Arabic Language Day at the Cultural Palace in Sharjah, he said, “It is very important for Arabs to learn Arabic as it is part of their identity.”

A study by Zayed University last year showed 80 per cent of young Emiratis believed the Arabic language defines their identity. The study was conducted among 200 students at the university. However, it also revealed that 53 per cent of the respondents preferred to watch television shows in English. “Regrettably, focus on the Arabic language is waning despite being the major component of the Arab identity and the strong preserver of our heritage,” the state news agency WAM quoted Dr Sheikh Sultan as saying.

“Increasing care of the Arab communities about the foreign languages to communicate with the world should not eclipse our attention about our Arabic language”, he said, citing common Arabic language errors and frequent use of foreign languages among youth. “The language we use to express our joys, sadness, defeats and victories is inseparable part of our own selves.” The UAE was among several countries that celebrated their language as part of the global Mother Language Day, initiated by Unesco.

Dr Sheikh Sultan has written several books and plays aimed at protecting the Arabic language. He promised financial and moral support to help Arabic language projects in the emirate.As part of the celebration, the Sharjah Museum organised an exhibition, “Calligraphy as an Art”, in which tools used in Arabic calligraphy were displayed.

“The Arabic language with its distinguished linguistics holds the strength to promote nation building and strengthening cultural ties,” said Manal Ataya, director general of the department. “Arabic is also the language of the Holy Quran, the basis of our unity, and the mirror of our present and future.”————————————- END

The study at Sheikh Zayed university is interesting in that 80% of the students felt Arabic defined their identity and yet they preferred watching tv in English. It might be because there is no good tv in Arabic? That’s an uneducated statement with over 100 satellite channels can one really not find something to watch? Mind you maybe that’s the problem?!  It might be because the education system does not encourage or support them to use Arabic and instead rewards the use of English? All these factors play a role in determining how a person views their language in reference to other languages. At least Sultan al Qasmy is taking serious steps to address this problem that he and his fellow rulers find disturbing. So maybe in the future Arabic language will re-flourish once again in the Emirates…who knows? Thanks for reading!  

source: http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100222/NATIONAL/702219846/1342/FRONTIERS