Thursday, March 31, 2011

Arabic Lessons -- The Ups and Downs of Learning Arabic

I have signed up for Arabic lessons at FANAR, the Islamic Cultural Centre, and they start next week. It will be good for me to get back into it and hopefully improve to the point where I can engage in conversation. This set of lessons will be at least three months, and I have to take a test on my first day to figure out what level I'm at so they can place me in one of the five levels of classes.

I have taken Arabic lessons before and while my Arabic is still not particularly good I would definitely consider it above what a tourist might know. I can also read the letters, albeit slowly. I'm particularly good in ordering food at restaurants, I don't recall why but I remember a lot of food names.

For those of you trying to learn Arabic, or are interested in learning it, here is what I consider the major challenges:

1) reading the letters

This is obvious to anyone who knows a Latin language as Arabic does not use Latin letters but instead uses a completely different script full of curved lines and dots. It is also read right-to-left, to further confuse most learners. One exception however is that numbers are left-to-right like they are in Latin languages, which adds an extra bit of confusion.

Also letters can look different depending on whether they are at the beginning of a word, middle of the word, or end of the word -- but not always as it depends on the letter. Three letters have four different versions depending on where they are. It takes a lot of time and practice to get used to the letters. I've known the letters for about four years but because I don't read Arabic much my reading is still very slow and I still confuse the odd letter (such as ‘n’ and ‘b’, which differ by whether the dot is above or below the letter. I can now sympathize with English learners who confuse ‘p’, ‘d’, and ‘b’.)

On the positive side though there are no capital letters, so it doesn't matter if it's at the start of a sentence or a personal name you still use the same letter as you don't have to capitalize it.

2) “hidden” vowels

Arabic only has three vowels (a, i, o/u) but there is both a long version and a short version. Unlike English where a long and short vowel has a different sound (e.g. ā vs ă) in Arabic the long and short vowel is more a matter of how long you say it (e.g. ooo vs o). This wouldn't be an issue except for one thing, short vowels are not written down. Only in very formal Arabic are symbols included that would indicate what the short vowel is, in everyday writing you just have to know they are there from experience.

Imagine if you saw the word ‘dg’. Is that dig, dog or dug? You might know from the context of the sentence but for someone just learning the language how are they to know what it is? They may not even be familiar with the words. Unfortunately there is no easy way around it, you just have to recognize the word. This becomes a bit frustrating.

A good example is if you saw ‘mhmd’ is that Mohammed or Mahmoud? Only from experience do you realize that Mohammed is spelt ‘mhmd’ and Mahmoud ‘mhmud’, which interestingly means that while Mohammed is a longer word in English than Mahmoud it is shorter in Arabic. Oh and don't forget we are supposed to read the words right to left so actually they are spelt ‘dmhm’ and ‘dumhm’. AND using Arabic letters which you struggle to read in the first place. Now you may have an idea why Arabic becomes a tough language to learn.

It also makes spelling the word troublesome when someone says it verbally. I still have never figured out the difference between when someone speaks a long vowel or short vowel so when someone says a word and I can hear the vowels I don’t know whether I'm supposed to write the vowel or not. My spelling is thus pretty bad.

3) doubles of letters, letters they don't have in Arabic, and letters we don't have in English

Arabic does not have a ‘g’ or a ‘p’ so English words with ‘g’, like, oh, Glen, have to be spelt with some other letters. In my case, the first letter of my name I have seen spelt with four different letters: ‘j’ (Jlin), ‘k’ (Klin), ‘q’ (Qlin’), and ‘ghr’ (Ghrlin). I can live with that.

They do however have two ‘s’, two ‘t’, two ‘z’, and two ‘h’, with the difference being in the pronunciation. Say the letter wrong and you might be saying a completely different word, or a nonsense word, a problem I've run into occasionally trying to use my Arabic on Arabic speakers.

Finally Arabic has letters that aren't in English at all, the most difficult for me being a letter called ‘ayn’ which is somewhat like a short breath out. I hate this letter, I have a tough time picking it out when someone says it verbally, and it is a consonant so can be followed by vowels such as ‘a’ (try that, a short breath out followed by an ‘aah’, weird isn't it?). When translating Arabic we tend to use ‘a’ for the ayn as it kind of sounds like a short, faint ‘a’, such as ‘Adel’, but in reality a closer way to spell it would be to use an apostrophe ( ‘del).

4) plurals

Arabic has a ton of different ways for pluralizing nouns and again for the beginner it is just a matter of knowing what the plural of a particular word is. There is no easy way to determine how to plural a noun. ‘Car’ is ‘sayyara’ and ‘cars’ is ‘sayyarat’ but the plural of ‘madina’ is ‘mudun’. I have no idea why. It isn't the case where there is a common way to plural a word and there are some "irregular" nouns -- there are simply numerous types of plurals and only through experience do you know which way to plural which noun. I always joke with my Arabic-speaking friends, "just add an ‘s’ dammit”, they just laugh, they realize that in English it is generally easier to plural a noun.

5) different words in different regions

You know how British-English differs a bit from North American English? Well, Arabic has been around a lot longer and covered a vast area before there was quick ways of travel. As a result the local Arabic can vary widely from region to region, to the point where speakers from one country struggle to understand a speaker from another country. Egyptian-Arabic appears to be the common standard that almost all Arabic speakers can understand because Egypt produces most of the Arabic movies and films, but it is well known that speakers from other North African countries such as Morocco or Algeria are nearly incomprehensible if they speak their regional dialect. Many Arabic speakers who aren't from the Gulf also struggle to understand Gulf Arabic.

So what is typically taught to the new Arabic learner? Well, maybe Egyptian Arabic if you are in Egypt, otherwise you will be taught classical Arabic.

Classical Arabic is a formal Arabic that is used in the Qur’an and religious texts. It is an older version of Arabic, analogous to someone speaking Middle English. The upside is that because almost all Arabic speakers are Muslim they will understand this form of Arabic, although it is not generally spoken in day-to-day conversation. The downside is that if you are taught classical Arabic you will never understand the local dialect if someone decides to speak that. Sometimes native Arabic speakers pause and have to "switch" their minds to classical Arabic when someone speaks it. Still, people generally understand what I say even though it is very different from how they might say it. For example:

“What” is “ma/matha” in classical Arabic but "shu/shinu” in Qatari Arabic.
"Why" is “lematha” in classical Arabic but “leysh” in Qatari Arabic.
“Aruz” is "rice" in both classical and Qatari Arabic but I believe in Egyptian Arabic it may also be used to refer to bread. Qataris tend to use “khubz” for bread.

I am going to assume that FANAR will also teach classical Arabic since they also do a lot of courses in Islam and Islamic studies. We'll see how it goes over the next few months and if I like the classes I will try to complete them all the way to the end of level 5.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

On The Troubles in the Middle East and North Africa

I'm sure some people have thought that, with all of the issues in the Middle East occurring recently, why am I not covering it more in my blog? Unrest in Bahrain, Syria, war in Libya, overthrow of governments in Egypt and Tunisia, and here I am discussing educational standards and marks on a recent test. Isn't there bigger things happening around me?

Sure there are but you know what, I don't really know much about it. Touring the old city of Damascus for a few days does not exactly make me an expert on Syrian politics, and a few business trips in Bahrain has not given me detailed firsthand knowledge of Shia - Sunni relations. I chat about the issue sometimes with my Qatari friends but with the exception of Bahrain they have about as much experience in these countries as I do.

My observations have been straightforward and rudimentary, countries where there is significant poverty, oppression, or both are typically where you see the most unrest and problems. The wealthier countries like Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar have had fewer to no problems. Interest in the Middle East has made the media jump on anything that smacks of protest against a country's government, whereas in the grand scale of things the protest might not be significant. A few hundred people protesting in one country is not a "revolution", and yet no one sees the hundreds of thousands of protesters in London as signifying a potential overthrow of the UK Government. Would you believe major news organizations covered the formation of a Facebook page calling for a mass protest in Qatar on March 16. A Facebook page?? If some guy setting up a Facebook page is evidence of regime change then the US must be in complete anarchy right now -- how many anti-Obama Facebook pages must there be?

Big surprise, nothing happened March 16. You can look at a blog post from a couple weeks ago where I discuss why there won't be any trouble here.This lady does a good job discussing it as well.

Qatar is a small country, maybe 250,000 citizens, and the old Arab ways of challenging power and making changes still prevail, mostly in backroom discussions, alliances and political maneuvering. The current Emir took over from his father in a bloodless coup, and his father took over from his brother (the Emir’s uncle) in a bloodless(?) coup, and now many members/factions of the clan have been vying for power whilst also ensuring that other clans do not gain to much power themselves. I'm sure the Crown Prince was chosen more for his political ability than for his age (he is not the eldest son of His Highness). A weak Emir will quickly fall to a faction within his own clan.

I heard a story once, I'm not sure how true it is or not, that reports circulated through the Qatari grapevine that His Highness was severely ill. Apparently almost any Qatari of any importance who was out of the country immediately flew back, to prepare for the possible clandestine “battle” for secession should His Highness pass away. I've often wondered about the truth of this. I do believe though that because of the incredible transformations that have occurred in the country in the last 15 years, and the winning of the World Cup bid, His Highness's position is secure for a good long time. As long as he maintains his health things should remain stable. But backroom politics appears to be the Qatari way of life.

It's a shame we don't have more history or information on this, it would make a great soap opera, reminiscent of the backroom dramas of Machiavellian Italian families during the Renaissance.

There won't be any rebellions in Qatar. For insight into what is going on in the other countries you should search for articles from people from those countries who will provide excellent insight into the troubles and problems. That's what I do.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Qatar and the PISA test -- further analysis

Back when the PISA 2009 results came out one commenter pointed out that while Qatar's marks were still low they had made significant improvements from 2006, which indicates that the reform measures taken by the Supreme Council of Education are making an impact. I'll reserve judgment on that until we analyze marks from a number of countries. The test changes from year to year so if countries at the bottom improved then it could indicate that the test was easier than the previous one. If all the countries improved than the test was definitely easier.

Unfortunately not a lot of countries in the bottom range had taken the test in 2000 or 2003, and some aspects of the test changed over the period, so I will only take the 2006 and 2009 results:

(Sorry about the mess, the table formatting didn't carry forward, the last number in the line is the change from 2006 to 2009)

Reading: 2006 2009 difference

Canada 527 524 -3
Japan 498 520 22
UK 495 494 -1
USA na 500 na
OECD avg 492 493 1
Portugal 472 489 17
Mexico 410 425 15
Tunisia 380 404 24
Uruguay 413 426 13
Qatar 312 372 60
Kyrgystan 285 314 29

Math: 2006 2009 difference

Canada 527 527 0
Japan 523 529 6
UK 495 492 -3
USA 474 487 13
OECD avg 499 496 -3
Portugal 466 487 21
Mexico 406 419 13
Tunisia 365 371 6
Uruguay 427 427 0
Qatar 318 368 50
Kyrgystan 311 331 20

Science: 2006 2009 difference

Canada 534 529 -5
Japan 531 539 8
UK 515 514 -1
USA 489 502 13
OECD avg 500 501 1
Portugal 474 493 19
Mexico 410 416 6
Tunisia 386 401 15
Uruguay 428 427 -1
Qatar 349 379 30
Kyrgystan 322 330 8

The results definitely support the view of the commentator, Qatar had easily the best improvements of the countries selected, in all three categories. Even countries near Qatar in terms of 2006 results had mixed improvements, although all of the bottom six improved to some degree in almost all categories.

Qatar still has a long way to go though. Scores below 400 are pretty bad, and as I noted in my previous post Qatar had a number of good performing schools which means there were a lot of schools performing even below the low-300s.

If you're not sure what exactly a score means I recommend you take a couple of the sample questions, which can be found here:,3746,en_32252351_32236191_41942687_1_1_1_1,00.html

Science question 12.2 was pretty enlightening, and one of the worst results for Qatar. (Summary the question: in an experiment on corn scientists chose 200 different fields to have the experiment in, why did they use so many fields?). 74% of 15-year-olds in the OECD got the question right, in Qatar it was 30%. Yet the question was multiple-choice with only four different answers, so even by random guessing you'd expect 25% to get it right. Yikes.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Qatar and the PISA test

Less than a week ago Qatar held a ceremony to recognize the schools that did the best on the recent PISA test. That in and of itself was nice as it publicly announced those schools whose students did well on the test but even more impressively at the website for the Supreme Council of Education they actually reported the scores that those schools had on the test.

So before we take a look at that lets recap some of the scores from the PISA results:

Shanghai 556
Korea 539
Finland 536
Hong Kong 533
United States 500
OECD average 493
Qatar 372

Shanghai 600
Singapore 562
Hong Kong 555
Korea 546
OECD average 496
United States 487
Qatar 368

Shanghai 575
Finland 554
Hong Kong 549
Singapore 542
United States 502
OECD average 501
Qatar 379

Ready for how some of the local schools did?

In first place was Al-Khur International School (Indian stream, they also have a British stream)
Reading 603.77, Mathematics 591.73, Science 565.98

Take a look at those scores again, and compare them to the country averages.

Wow!! Those are some very impressive scores! The reading score absolutely destroyed any country average.

The reading and math score was what propelled the school to the top of the Qatar chart, believe it or not despite their great science score there were a few schools that scored better than they did in science with the best of them, Birla Public-School, scoring 586.

Ultimately 14 schools in Qatar had scores that exceeded the OECD average, for which they were honored in the ceremony. Another 16 schools were also given certificates for high achievement. A number of the schools in the top 14 were Indian or South Asian. I wish that India and other countries in that region would also sign up to do the PISA test as it would be interesting to see what the overall country scores in that region would be.

It is great that the Supreme Council for Education is really embracing the PISA test and not trying to hide what are clearly difficult results in terms of country average. Hopefully they will continue to implement reforms in order to improve education for students.

Now for the tough question: according to the article students in 153 schools were tested and the average for all categories was in the 360 to 380 range, which is a pretty poor score (search for PISA on this blog to get an idea of what countries were below that score). If Qatar has a number of schools that perform really well on this test, what does that say about the state of education in many of the other schools who participated? By the time you got to the 30th school the scores were still in the mid-400 range yet the average was a lot lower. This means there are a lot of schools who likely scored in the high 200s-low 300s, and if the SCE is not asking what the heck kids in those schools are learning during their time there -- they should. Children are either:

1) Not be getting an adequate education; or
2) there is some significant external factors affecting the scores (language difficulties?)

In either event a thorough investigation is needed.

No, I don't want to hear any excuses about how some of them are religious schools that focus on Islam, that does not excuse abysmal scores in reading and mathematics, especially reading. In fact one would think a religious school would score pretty high in reading given the focus on the Qur’an, Sunnahs and Hadiths. No, those schools are in need of significant reform of some sort and I hope the SCE are looking at these schools carefully.

In my next blog post we will compare how Qatar has scored in the 2009 test with the previous tests that it wrote to see if there have been any improvements. I recall a couple of comments on this blog pointing out that Qatar had improved, but had it improved significantly compared to its peers?

For the article and the list of schools please go to the link below:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bahrain unrest – what about Qatar?

It appears that things are starting to get more out of control in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has sent troops in, and possibly the UAE as well. The protesters say this amounts to an “invasion”. Al Jazeera reports hundreds have been injured in clashes and at least two people have died (one protester, one Saudi soldier).

I was at a conference today in Qatar. Many people planning to attend from Bahrain could not make it, and at least one person I know who lives in Bahrain left early to go back to help his family. There is talk of some companies moving their staff out of Bahrain, and travel warnings have been issued by some governments.

I will reiterate from an earlier post -- there has been no unrest in Qatar, nor will there be (see my post from a couple of weeks ago for why). Despite their close proximity they are two very different countries and the Qatari population does not have the kinds of problems with poverty, unemployment, and sectarian discrimination that one finds in Bahrain. There is no widespread discontent in Qatar with the ruling family.

While Bahrain was in the midst of unrest I was having a nice buffet lunch at a hotel with insurance executives from around the GCC and Europe. Yesterday the Minister of Finance himself was at the conference giving a speech. There was no extra police or security, and no metal detectors suddenly installed at the door of the hotel. En route to the conference we drove past the Emiri Diwan (where the Ministers and foreign dignitaries meet with His Highness) and there were no police cordons or extra security. Traffic at the airport is on schedule. Everything’s cool here.

Don't worry about me, don't worry about Qatar.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Happiness amidst tragedy -- traditional Japanese entertainments

A while ago the Japanese embassy here in Qatar announced an evening that featured traditional Japanese performance art, to be held at the Museum of Islamic art this evening. I definitely signed up because while I am a bit familiar with some types of Japanese performances (Noh, Kabuki, tea ceremonies, etc) I had not heard of either of the types that would be performed this evening. With the current tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan there was talk of canceling the event but in the end the Japanese ambassador decided that it should go on. In his opening speech he pointed out that the purpose of these entertainments was to entertain and bring laughter, something that was sorely needed in these sad times. We did observe a minute of silence for the victims of the disaster.

There were three performers, doing two different types of traditional Japanese art:

Two of the performers demonstrated Rakugo (Japanese comedic storytelling). The storyteller sits on a small stage and tells a long comedic tale with many characters, using changes in facial expression and voice to switch from character to character. Traditionally he is only allowed two props -- a fan and a small piece of cloth. The first performer, Shumptei Shoumatsu, gave a demonstration of Rakugo, the props, the basics of the art, and then performed a dance doing first a male and then a female dancer, putting the small cloth on his head to represent the switch to the female dancer. You didn't really need the cloth the change in the dance style and his moves clearly indicated the gender. The second Rakugo performer, Sanshotei Charaku, told a tale of a boatman, who is not very good at his craft, taking two passengers across a river. The story was in English and he was quite good. We were surprised at the end when during a Q&A we found out he didn't know much English at all. He had memorized the story in English for the performance!

If you would like to see a Rakugo performance just search for it on YouTube, I believe there are a few videos including some performances done in English.

The other performance was Japanese paper-cutting, called kamikiri. The performer takes a sheet of paper and cuts intricate designs and characters out of the paper while chatting to entertain the crowd. It is common to do requests (various animals, etc) and the kamikiri artist performing for us, Mr Hayashiya Imamaru, could also do portraits of people and detailed scenes. Every time the final product typically took a minute or less yet the intricacy of a lot of the shapes were astounding. Some people in the audience were gasping at what he managed to cut out of a piece of paper so quickly (e.g. three men drinking sake under a cherry tree). He had also previously cut out a number of smaller figures which he handed out to children in the audience. There also were examples of his work outside the performance hall, these were more intricate and done with many different colors of paper. Some of them looked like Japanese paintings.

The Internet is a wonderful thing and I was able to find a video of a kamikiri performance, and it turned out to be Mr. Imamaru! Watch and enjoy:

Monday, March 07, 2011

Moving Apartments

So last week the main thing taking up my time was that I moved apartments. For the past year I've been living in an expensive part of town (West Bay) and I found that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. For one thing that neighborhood is very sterile; nothing but skyscrapers surrounded by parking lots and one mall. Your whole neighborhood life pretty much revolved around going to the mall, or possibly one of the really expensive hotels where you can have an overpriced drink. You didn't have lots of people milling around, small businesses, cheap little restaurants, just skyscrapers. I needed to move somewhere that had more soul.

But one of the issues that had me move last year to West Bay, near to the office, was the traffic. Traffic in Doha can be pretty bad at times and for a while there the morning commute was getting to be 45 minutes. It was pretty annoying given on a weekend you could do the same commute in 15 minutes. So I needed a balance, a place in the neighborhood with a bit more soul but with a short commute.

Thankfully a friend of mine was living in an apartment complex in the neighborhood near the Diwan (essentially the palace where the Emir works from). He and his wife had a one-bedroom apartment and since I'd been there before realized that it was more spacious than the one I was living in. They said there weren't any real issues with maintenance or anything like that, and the building had a gym and a small pool. It was in the neighborhood with a bit more life, and since it was on the edge of the city close to West Bay the commute is only been 15 minutes, which was a big selling point to me. That and being about half the price of what I was paying didn't hurt either. Thankfully an apartment was available so I took it.

Now price wasn't a huge issue as prices have really started to come down in West Bay. In the past year I've seen prices in some buildings go down over 30%. Looks like supply and demand finally caught up to that neighborhood. Since a couple more apartment towers are opening up in that neighborhood I expect prices to go down even more. If anyone is looking to move to West Bay I really suggest looking at all the towers to see what prices they offer -- it's a renters market now.

I didn't have much stuff to move but in 2010 I purchased a couple of bookcases. Thankfully I knew someone with a truck who was willing to help me move and a couple of other buddies pitched in with moving boxes. One trip with the truck and a couple with my car and I was done.

I've nearly finished unpacking now I have to get maintenance up your to work on a few things, and I need to sort out how I'm going to juggle the lack of plugs. There seemed to be an adequate number in the living room and bedroom but I never bothered to look at the kitchen -- there is only one plug there! So one plug has to do for the microwave, kettle, and all other small appliances. Weird.

Anyway I've been settling in okay, I think I like it here.