What it’s like to know Arabic

 In Essays, Middle East

Beirut News Stand 2007Introduction

Over the years many people have asked me what it’s like knowing Arabic, but it’s not actually an easy question to answer or, at least, to give a simple short answer. My responses have varied depending on whether the questioner is monoglot or knows other languages; whether they already know Arabic, or are Muslim; and naturally how much time we have and whether they are genuinely interested or just making polite conversation. I should stress it is always nice to be asked.

This essay attempts to do a number of things in a very short space (about 3000 words). I want to answer the question of ‘what it’s like to know Arabic’ in a very personal way, and by using a number of the techniques and analogies I’ve practised over the years. I also want to position Arabic more accurately as a mass of dialects and accents within a single language group. Finally I want to explain how I came to retire from it quite recently after 24 years, and some of the lasting benefits. For this reason, the essay is in three parts: first about learning the language; second about using the language; and third my personal conclusions about my experiences.

I realise this essay could be twice as long and give more examples, and generally be more ‘academic’ and more detailed. Perhaps I will revise it in the future.

Part 1: Arabic doesn’t have to be taught badly, but often is

First I should point out that I started learning Arabic at a late age (19) and so I’m not ‘bilingual’ where someone learns two languages from birth. To use a computer analogy, acquiring Arabic by being taught – and I’ll come to the teaching next – requires greater processing power in the brain than growing up bilingual. I think this is due to inefficient storage.

Are the English bad at foreign languages?

I have lost count of articles and letters I’ve read in newspapers and magazines saying that English-speakers aren’t as good at languages as other people. Usually the writers have an agenda, which is to sneer at the British or Americans or Australians and accuse them of being lazy. For me, such views themselves are lazy.

A girl walks along the platform at Mit Qurashi station, Egypt, 2004Native English speakers face 3 major structural or institutional challenges in learning another language. First, which language do they choose? Second, having chosen the language they have to stick with it; they will inevitably start learning it relatively late in childhood and they won’t benefit from huge teaching resources because they are necessarily spread too thinly. Third, unless they become very good very quickly, and remain very dedicated, most people they encounter who speak the language they have learned will speak better English than they speak German or French or Portuguese. For anything more exotic you will probably have to wait until you go to university, by which time it is really too late to start (harder but not impossible).

Of course, because English is the lingua franca of the modern era, many non-English speakers benefit from English being one of the default second languages to which their education systems dedicate resources. They also benefit from huge ‘soft’ resources in English-language fiction and non-fiction, together with radio and television. This means that even if they are taught English from a book, they can pick up the rhythms, slang and cadences of spoken English from the television and films.

Arabic as a ‘dead’ rather than a living language

I was taught Arabic quite badly twice in my twenties, both times as a passive ‘book’ language to prove grammatical rules rather than communicate with anyone. It was a ‘book’ language not a spoken language both in the army and at Leeds University. As a result, I spent years being taught individual words, but not hearing the patterns of sentences: the kind of musical patterns that register as language with the brain much more naturally. Both these institutions wasted a lot of money, time and talent in their book-based approach to language-learning, and they were the norm rather than the exception. I would like to believe this has changed but my research has shown that it hasn’t changed nearly enough. After all, it is easier to measure written book-based knowledge than spoken knowledge, and universities live or die on measurement.

This meant in my early life, for all the huge effort I took to learn the language, I produced it incredibly inefficiently. Where most people, when they speak or hear, are coding or decoding thousands of musical patterns they have absorbed over the years, I started by having to bolt together individual words that may have been the ‘wrong’ words in the wrong order. This is the result of the inefficient storage I mentioned earlier.

When I was learning of course, there was no Arabic satellite tv to watch, nor radio, and the only few newspapers were repetitively formulaic and crushingly dull. Thankfully, having lived in many Arabic-speaking countries over the years, I’ve acquired more rhythmic natural Arabic.

As a final observation, I’ve noticed a number of university departments have shifted their emphasis from the secular to the religious in recent years, possibly due to their funding sources, or students’ interest. For example, what used to be the Arabic & Middle Eastern Studies Department at Leeds University is now the Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Department.

Qalyub to Damanhur Railway Ticket, Egypt 1991

Is there a reward for the dogged dedication?

Finding myself in this position in my twenties drove me to a dogged dedication to become ‘good’ at Arabic by pushing myself far outside comfortable areas in order to travel and speak to people, being self-reliant and relying on my wits and charm – such as they were, a broad smile usually sufficed – to stay out of trouble. I became an expert on the Nile Delta in Egypt. Through my life I have been privileged to meet other like-minded people who also persevered with Arabic in this way. Some travelled in Yemen, or Syria, but many of these countries are now impossible for Westerners to travel in independently. We pushed ourselves in spite of the overwhelming challenges of poor resources, poor teaching, and without achieving any real sense of accomplishment, or indeed praise from native speakers of Arabic. I have seen people spend years in this pursuit, only for the vast majority to give up. I myself ‘retired’ from Arabic a few years ago as I judged the maintenance cost was too high.

The final stumbling block for learners of Arabic (especially non-Arabs) is that there is almost zero direct economic benefit from knowing the language. Unless there are security considerations, employers will prefer to employ native Arabic speakers who know reasonable English rather than native English speakers who know reasonable Arabic. This is also related to the fact that technical knowledge – and thus the linguistic traffic – has for decades been from English to Arabic not vice versa. It might be a ‘nice-to-have’ but there is usually no extra money for knowing Arabic. In this neoliberal age, all the mental riches amassed by learning Arabic do not translate into riches that pay for mortgages or families. As a non-Muslim, there is also no religious quest for me to read the Koran and the Hadith (although I have done so).

I might be wrong but I don’t think learners of European languages struggle to this extent. Learners of other languages, such as Mandarin, probably do but I can’t speak for them.

Victory over America Palace Baghdad Arabic DedicationComprehension delay

When we’re listening to someone in our native English, there is a 3-second lag of comprehension, sufficiently short and natural for us not to notice. Everything in Arabic compared to English is reversed: the language runs right-to-left and the word order is verb-subject-adjective-object-adjective (written) when in English it is adjective-subject-verb-adjective-object. So there is a mechanical, grammatical gulf between the languages.

To render something from Arabic in intelligible English can often mean a 6-second comprehension lag and not unusually 12 seconds. As this is double or treble the standard time, the delay can puzzle and irritate non-linguists (who have never had to consider comprehension delay in their lives). I have known one or two people walk away during this short period. These are generally the same people who don’t know the difference between ‘translate’ (for written work) and ‘interpret’ (for spoken work).

Part 2: Arabic, the Middle East and Islam are terms that conceal huge differences

We seem to live in a busy age that seeks to generalise; to simplify quickly and move on immediately. For that reason, most of what we know from the media is banal generalisation and crass simplification. Detailed knowledge and nuance is lost. This of course leads to ignorance, and then to appalling decisions. When these are matters of life or death they can have tragic long-lasting consequences, as in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq; and recently in Libya and Syria.

Arabic has been shaped by one religion (Islam), its geography (the Middle East) and its complex cultural history of invasion and absorption. The three are related, but what I should stress at the outset is that none of these is monolithic. There is not a single version of Islam but differing – even competing – branches, sects and schools of Islamic jurisprudence. There is no ultimate arbiter of what is ‘correct’.

What we call ‘the Middle East’ is a geographical simplification from the time of the British Empire. Eastern Europe (the Balkans) was the ‘Near East’. India and beyond was the ‘Far East’. The Middle East (and North Africa) comprise thousands of ancient communities, tribes, cities, villages, oases, sometimes rainy, desert and fertile, coastal and interior, flat and mountainous, and with different cultural histories and traditions. These are often in a state of flux, particularly as a result of their unstable arbitrary borders (again a British intervention). They stretch from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and their populations are growing rapidly.

The shape and scope of Arabic

The geographical spread, which has incorporated and bordered many other language groups including Egyptian (Coptic), Greek, Persian (Farsi), Berber, Turkish, French and English, has necessarily had varying degrees of impact on the language. So there is not a single monolithic ‘Arabic’. Instead, there are hundreds of dialects that feed into the national languages and the interspersing levels of language. Many can understand the ‘standard’ Arabic but few can speak it fluently. Most Arabic-speakers can only speak what is rather snobbishly referred to as the ‘colloquial’ or ‘vernacular’ versions.

Mark at Siwa Oasis 1992The reason for such snobbery is that Islam was revealed in Arabic and the Koran is written in Arabic (as the literal revelation of Allah). The unity of the global Muslim community (the ‘umma’) therefore depends in large part on a core understanding of this ‘purest’ level of Koranic Arabic, which sits above the workaday and profane versions of the language.

I use two analogies in describing this situation to outsiders. First it is similar to how Latin broke down after the Roman Empire’s collapse into the European ‘Romance’ languages of Romanian, Italian, Portuguese, French and Spanish. Pure Koranic Arabic has broken down into the vernaculars but exists above them, stronger than a mere liturgical language (as Latin to the Roman Catholics). My second analogy is to imagine the region not as a single land mass but as an archipelago of islands separated by sand desert instead of water. Here, each city and its hinterland is a separate ‘island’ whose dialect has evolved over centuries with little reference to its neighbours, let alone other Arabic-speaking communities.

Radio and TV saved Arabic in the 20th century from completely disintegrating into mutual unintelligibility thanks to the creation of the artificial ‘Modern Standard Arabic’ (MSA): a medium similar to the old BBC-English. The technical term for the current state of Arabic is triglossia, where there are 3 interrelated levels of the same language: Koranic at the top, then MSA in the middle, then the ‘colloquials’ and ‘vernaculars’ at the bottom. Most languages have two levels (diglossia), for example English has the ‘vernaculars’ and received pronunciation. I have read much of the Koran in Arabic (and in English) but won’t dwell on meaning here as space is short.

A language of ‘near synonyms’ that quickly identifies outsiders

For the learner, this situation leads to a number of challenges. Accent is one; the richness of the language(s) another; then the interplay of the levels and finally judging the education of the person you are speaking with (the ‘interlocutor’ to use a technical term). Personally too, there are also insurmountable differences in skin and hair colouring, so I could never pass for an Arab, perhaps a Circassian. As a foreigner I am not part of the elaborate and far-reaching mesh of extended families and tribes. I am not a Muslim, so found many doors shut to me. Last but not least I am a man, so have found it almost impossible to speak normally to Arabic-speaking women. In 5 years in Iraq, I never used the feminine form once, because I never spoke to a woman in Arabic. This is less difficult in certain parts of the Middle East such as Lebanon and Cairo, but has – perversely – become harder as the cultures have become less liberal and more segregated.

It is good to have an accent, so people can root you somewhere even if you are speaking MSA. I find it interesting when I hear Arabic spoken with an English accent, which was almost unheard-of when I began. Most learners don’t think about the accents until it is too late. I spent a long time in Egypt and naturally acquired an Egyptian accent, which is about as distinctive as you can get in Arabic, and generally denigrated by the Arabians and Levantines. Even after living in other Arab countries, including a few years in Iraq, people can still hear the Egyptian in my accent and judge me accordingly. Many of the teaching materials available turn out to be teaching Egyptian Arabic, so learners should consider this aspect carefully before beginning.

There are two aspects I’ve come to understand about the accent and contents of Arabic. First, accents in the Arabic world make it very easy to spot linguistic outsiders and where they come from. This is quite important for control of conservative communities that are often structured along tribal and family lines. Second, Arabic can be bafflingly imprecise, even vague. I’ve puzzled this with colleagues, and the best way we thought to describe it was as a language of ‘near synonyms’. There are a lot of words that mean nearly the same thing, but not quite, so two speakers using the same word can come away with different impressions from the same conversation. This causes problems for non-Arabs who think a word means something when it is actually interpreted differently.

Baghdad InsightPart 3: My conclusions

So what conclusions do I draw from so many years pursuing fluency in Arabic? There are many benefits. Like a knowledge of any other language, particularly one so far removed from my native culture and language, it has given me a ‘second soul’: a huge insight into the formation of thought and culture, from individuals up to national and transnational societies.

It has given me a route to understand Islam, directly from what is written in the Koran, so I don’t have to rely on interpretations from third parties. As some of these interpretations might be lacking in scholarship or wilfully misinterpreted by these third parties, this gives me the ability to assess whose judgment to trust in these serious matters. In secular matters too, I have heard politicians say one thing in Arabic but another in English, because they are dishonestly playing to two different audiences whom they correctly judge to be mutually exclusive. Never the twain shall meet.

Because of its cultural and geographical spread, Arabic has given me an entry into other languages, such as Turkish and Farsi (Persian) where many terms of governance, law and religion are borrowed in both directions. Knowing the cursive Arabic script means I can read Urdu (an italicised form of Arabic script), and can enjoy the Arabic art of calligraphy. I have also been able to gain an insight into other Semitic languages, importantly Hebrew the language of Israel, but also insights into historic Semitic languages such as Aramaic and Akkadian.

Yet, in retrospect, I wish I had pursued a European language such as Italian, Spanish, German or Russian. My life might have been more ‘normal’, involved in fewer wars, meeting more women, engaged in language as a means of human culture and society instead of mostly being an outsider: an object of suspicion; and a source of advancement through tips or influence.

A final positive accomplishment

I retired from Arabic and the Middle East in 2013, 24 years after beginning. I wrestled with this decision, as it is not easy to jettison something that has been such a major part of my life for so long. I shall never completely forget it, partly because I believe the brain stores everything; partly because it has shaped me over the years; and partly because it is following me by impinging to a larger extent on Europe through migration and globalisation.

I used my language skills for 5 long years in Iraq alongside a tiny number of dedicated colleagues to try and ‘unscramble the eggs’ caused by the US-led invasion in 2003. We succeeded in saving lives through our work, and that gives the long years of seemingly fruitless, thankless dedication a noble gloss. It makes me proud, and perhaps gives me the sense of accomplishment I had sought for so long. It is that accomplishment that also gives me the excuse to retire and pursue other interests for the next half of my life. Arabic will always remain a hobby, and an old friend.

My home from 2008 until 2011


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