Back to basics

“I’m sorry, excuse me.”

At least that’s what I thought I said. The look of surprise on the woman’s face suggested otherwise. A moment later she started laughing and once she recovered herself explained my mistake. Roughly transliterated, ana esef means ‘I’m sorry’. What I’d said though was ana sefr, which from her explanation I took to mean ‘I am immoral.’ Despite the fact that what I had actually said was probably as accurate (in her eyes at least) as what I’d intended to say, the experience served to remind me of how far I have to go in learning Arabic.

For the past month I have dedicated myself to Arabic; eighty hours of class time, language exchanges with Egyptian guys in cafes, aurally torturing shopkeepers and then some half-hearted study at home.

A tremendously useful language to learn, Arabic will take you from Morocco to Oman like some kind of linguistic magic carpet. At least that’s what I thought before I started studying. A misconception akin to thinking that learning latin will result in fluency in the romance languages as it turns out. Arabic is not a monolithic language.  There is Koranic Arabic, modern standard arabic (Fusha), then regional spoken dialects with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.

There is some solace to be taken in the existence of Fusha, used across the Arab world in the media. It means that Arabic is written the same everywhere, from the Levant to the Gulf, using the same alphabet and the same spellings. However the lack of vowels in most written arabic means that unless you know the word you will have to guess at its pronunciation, and the pronunciation varies according to the dialect you are speaking. As well as having different pronunciation of Arabic words, each dialect is composed of a mix of Arabic and other vocabulary assimilated from the various influencing cultures. I’m told these dialects vary so much they might functionally be considered different languages, as they can be as different as Spanish and Italian.

The first thing to master in class was the alphabet – new letters, written left to right – ok a bit different from learning French say but nothing mind blowing. At least the spelling seems to be largely phonetic, which is more than you could say for English. Then we got into some vocabularly. Unlike learning French or Spanish, you can’t simply take a guess at a word by adding a likely sounding ending to the English (or latin) root. So there’s a lot of new words to learn, made somewhat easier by three-letter roots which can be added to to create a number of words around a core concept. It’s adding bits these letters where things get tricky. With every lesson I realise a little more how extremely simplified the examples of the day before were. Often I would get confused by the presence of an extra phoneme in a word or sentence only to be told ‘don’t worry about that for now’. After a month I have only a faint outline of a very large set of complex grammar rules. Performing grammar analysis – I3raab – and all that linguistic stuff thatI’ve  never thought about before makes my head spin. I’m not sure what cases are but there are a lot of them – nominative, accusative, muDaaf ikyhi, genitive, it goes on.

Ken, a fellow class-mate and employee at the US Embassy, tells me that the US State department has a base level of language competency it requires in some roles. To get to this level in Spanish took Ken six months. He says that he expects to take 18 months to two years to get to this level in Arabic. I’ve heard Ken hack along in Spanish and it’s not flash, and this is coming from a non-Spanish speaker. It makes me despair of ever getting anywhere near fluent.

There is one source of constant encouragement though; no matter how bad my Arabic, I never fail to get a compliment from a taxi driver.


2 Comments on “Back to basics”

  1. Terence Hayden says:

    Never mind the Arabic, Campbell, you’ve certainly extended my English vocabularly. Thanks for that and good luck with the Arabic, Terry

  2. Come HIER! says:

    You don’t have to guess at the vowels once you learn the verb, plural, and vocab forms! Another consolation, Arabs have to study FusHa too.

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