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.


Anonymous said...

my name starts with the dreaded letter 'ayn' lol

btw, classical arabic is used in all written text, not just the Quran, and its used in news and formal speeches!

I think it's amazing that you are learning arabic! I wish you all the luck! =D

Anonymous said...

Hi...I've been reading your blog and I find it fun and informative!

I am here in Qatar for abt a year now, and find it an amazing to be in...

Good luck with studying Arabic...I was a student at Fanar, myself and, yes, they do teach classical Arabic, or more appropriately, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA for short), also known as Fushaa (pron. foos-haa)

Anonymous said...

Aysh is rice in Qatari not aruz and aysh refers to bread in egypt

Aysh or 'ysh