Saturday, September 30, 2017

Before you begin your Arabic learning journey...


When I was 14, two of my best friends were Egyptian and Moroccan. Our parents were strict, so we weren't allowed to go out much or stay out late, so we spent a lot of time at each other's houses where I was first exposed to the sounds of Arabic. At that time, I didn't know much about Arabic, the only thing that I noticed was that my Moroccan friend's family spoke much faster. I remember being invited to dinner for the first time at the Egyptian girl's house and as we sat down, I thought her parents were arguing. The language seemed strong and I was sure there was an argument in there somewhere.But in fact, they were discussing whether her mom should have made another dish for me to try. I liked the expressiveness of this language: I have heard my friend's dad say tender things to her mom, her grandmother sing to her baby sister, and I decided that I wanted to learn it. Unfortunately, there were no classes for me to take, so I started my journey of Arabic learning as an adult. At that time, I had no idea that Arabic had a formal language register which is only used for print, media, and other formalities, while each country (and even the regions within each country) had its own dialect. I wasn't aware that some of them were mutually unintelligible unless the speakers code-switched, that is, until they used more common language, without their local slang and specific local tendencies. So here are a few things that you should know before you start. Below is the map of different Arabic dialects. However, the official language, also known as the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or الفصحى is the official language in all Arabic countries, although interestingly enough, it is not natively spoken by anyone.

  By Rafy (File:Arab World-Large.PNG) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Confused?
When it comes to Arabic, there is a thing called diglossia, which the Oxford English dictionary defines as:
A situation in which two languages (or two varieties of the same language) are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers. The term is usually applied to languages with distinct ‘high’ and ‘low’ (colloquial) varieties, such as Arabic.
In practical terms, this means that the Arabs have a dialect spoken locally and another formal language register used in the media, the academia, the Qur'an and the Bible, in poetry, literature, and administration. Arabs will frequently say that they do not understand the Maghrebi dialects (as spoken in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria) but they code switch and can understand each other when they tone down the localisms and country-specific slang.It is said that the Egyptian dialect is the most widely understood because of Egypt being the Arab Hollywood, and because there are over a 100 million Egyptians who speak it. A lot of singers from other countries owe their success to the size of the Egyptian market, so many of them end up singing in the Egyptian dialect. Other major group of dialects include Shami/Levantine (each slightly different, but spoken in Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon) and Khaleeji/Gulf (spoken in the Gulf area). For other dialects, consult the image above.

So what should you do? Which one should you learn? 

The answer is, it depends. In my experience, these are the following types of people who learn Arabic:

1. Converts to Islam from countries where Arabic is not spoken. In this case, you will need to learn MSA. You will not be able to understand the Qur'an if you only learn a dialect.

2. You have a spouse who speaks Arabic. In this case, you don't need to learn learn MSA since nobody speaks it, but I won't advise against it. What if your beloved wants to read you poetry from the homeland? Tough luck, you need MSA. Generally, most dialectal resources are for the dialect spoken in a major city, such as Cairo or Damascus and you will hear some references to these dialects as "Cairene" or "Damascene".

3. You want to work in foreign affairs, for an NGO or for a large international organization. If your interest is working with the Syrian refugees or you care about the Palestinian cause, you will benefit from learning the Shami-Levantine dialect. As you get more into it, the differences between them will be more obvious. Or maybe you are interested in working in Iraq, so obviously you should learn the Iraqi dialect. If you will be dealing with any kind of administration, filling out forms, or writing reports in Arabic, you will additionally need to know MSA.

4. You want to be a translator and/or an interpreter. You need MSA and a dialect. Choose based on your region of interest. Recognition of several other dialectal forms highly recommended. In addition, specialize in a particular field, whether it is legal, medical or Arabic for STEM fields to make you more competitive.

5. You want to work in the Middle East and North Africa region. You will need the local dialect, and if your job will involve paperwork or writing, you will also need MSA. This is especially true if you are a journalist.

6. You are a university student and your field of study is Arabic or any other field relating to the Arabic-speaking world. Your desire to learn is motivated either by necessity or because you don't want to learn original works in translation, or both. You will absolutely need MSA. A dialect won't hurt.

7. You are a language lover and you want to learn Arabic. I am in this category, so I naturally chose MSA first because I want to read literature and understand the news, but I also choose the Egyptian dialect because I want to be understood by most people, be able to speak and not sound strange and formal by speaking MSA. I will share my learning of this process on this blog and I welcome your input.

8. You made a New Year's resolution to learn Arabic for fun. Arabic requires a huge effort. If you're not willing to put in a serious effort into it, you're wasting your time. (I recognize that every language requires a lot of effort for mastery, but the complexity of Arabic and it being different from your native language will give you quite a challenge).

Dialect or MSA first?

Again, it depends on what you want out of it and how urgent your need is. I always recommend learning both and starting with MSA first, but some people advocate the exact opposite. I liked starting with MSA first, and then it made dialect learning easier for me. Some major textbooks like the Al Kitaab series teach MSA, but also present Egyptian and Levantine dialects side by side. Some people will tell you it's a waste of time to learn one or the other, and I disagree. Learning both will take longer, but be aware of your reasons for learning it and take it from there. There will be times where Arabic will frustrate you, and maybe here you will want to quit. Keep going. Keep practicing. Keep writing. Keep reading. I promise it gets more amazing with each step. Share with me how your process has been so far, what you would have done differently, and if you have any advice for learners? Cheers!

This post was originally published on Wordpress here, but then I decided to move my blog to Blogger and it has been slightly modified.

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