Learning Arabic

Here’s a fun essay from the New York Times Book Review that’s almost a year old. These are just excerpts, the whole thing is over here:

Learning Arabic has been like that: moments of elation alternating with grim, soul-churning despair. The language is not so much hard as it is vast, with dozens of ways to form the plural and words that vary from region to region, town to town. With every sign of progress it seems to deepen beneath you like a coastal shelf.

For anyone who knows only European languages, to wade into Arabic is to discover an endlessly strange and yet oddly ordered lexical universe. Some words have definitions that go on for pages and seem to encompass all possible meanings; others are outlandishly precise. Paging through the dictionary one night, I found a word that means “to cut off the upper end of an okra.” There are lovely verbs like sara, “to set out at night”; comical ones like tabaadawa, “to pose as a Bedouin”; and simply bizarre ones like dabiba, “to abound in lizards.”

The language can also be surprisingly vague to a Western ear. I was always troubled by Arabic’s tendency to elide the distinction between “a lot” and “too much.” I will never forget hearing an Iraqi friend, as we walked down a crowded Brooklyn street together, say loudly in English, “There are too many black people here.”

One of the pleasures of learning Arabic is hearing long-familiar words in their natural context, shorn of the poisonous ideological garb they often bear in this country. Once you begin to do that, American attitudes toward the language itself, along with all things Arab and Muslim, can begin to seem jarringly hostile and suspicious.

To take a recent example: Last winter, New York City announced plans for a new Arabic-language public secondary school in Brooklyn. An aggressive campaign against the school soon sprang up, despite the uncontroversial presence of Chinese, Russian, Spanish and other dual-language schools in the city. Opponents and local newspaper columnists began branding the (as yet unopened) school a “jihad recruiting center” and a “madrassa” and demanding it be closed. For Arabic speakers, the very title of the “Stop the Madrassa” campaign — now national in scope — is bound to have an uncomfortable ring. Madrassa is the Arabic word for “school”; it could not be more wholesome. But as the school’s opponents know, in this country it has taken on a far more sinister valence, thanks to press reports about religious schools in Pakistan that are said to teach Taliban-style militancy. The school’s principal was later replaced after a fracas over another Arabic word, intifada, that has taken on a meaning here entirely different from the one it has among Arabs.

One has to wonder whether these attitudes have inhibited our ability to train more Arabic speakers. Although enrollments in postsecondary Arabic study more than doubled from 2002 to 2006, the attrition rate is high, and the number of students who persist and become truly proficient — much harder to measure — is very small. The government and military are still struggling to find the translators they need.

The reasons for this failure are many, and inseparable from the Arab world’s long history of troubled relations with the West. But alongside them is the simple fact that even with the best of teachers — like mine — the language requires a degree of patience and commitment that verges on the absurd. “Don’t worry,” one of my teachers told me half-jokingly. “Arabic is only hard for the first 10 years. After that it gets easier.”

It’s true. It does.


Filed under arabic, language, translation

5 responses to “Learning Arabic

  1. jtothemo

    Hello! My name is Jenny and I just found your blog- I love it. I am also a student of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. I remember reading this piece in the NYT and totally relating to it. I’m not past the first ten years yet, though, perhaps I’ll have a party after I hit that landmark!

  2. Welcome, Jenny. If you’re not daunted by imagining ten years of this, that’s a good sign.
    I particularly liked this article because it made me feel less guilty about saying,”It’s a pleasure to listen to Ayman al-Zawahiri.” Because of the MSA! That’s all.

  3. dev

    Try the following site for classical Arabic


  4. Pingback: Learning Arabic (via Anonymous Arabist وين الناس) | learning quran online blog

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