Friday, November 30, 2007

Language #8

I have varying degrees of competence and experience in seven languages, and I've purposely avoided starting any new ones for quite some time as I struggle to maintain and improve the ones I have amidst all my other obligations and hobbies. From time to time I've thought about what the next one might be: French or Italian, which I love and which would be easiest given my history of Latin and Spanish studies? Japanese or Korean, which would be most valuable in my current high-tech career? Russian, which I'm attracted to for its history, literature, and culture? Actually, I've decided (and already begun) language number eight, and it is none of the above.

It's Arabic.

Early this month I carpooled to a concert in Fresno with a very casual friend, someone I met online and have encountered from time to time but with whom I've never had a deep conversation. She is Iranian, a devout Muslim, and over a decade younger than I am. It is not often that one gets an opportunity to make a profound connection with someone so different, and even less often that one takes advantage of that opportunity. I feel immensely privileged that during our five-hour round trip we talked, and talked, and talked, and I came away with a glimmer of true understanding of her values, beliefs, and upbringing. Genuine understanding, not the simplistic picture of Islam and the Middle East that we are fed by politicians and media in an effort to gain popularity by feeding on people's natural fear for the unknown.

Different people have different ways of acquiring knowledge of a culture, different paths to making it accessible. Some are attracted to food, or literature, or art; some do it when they begin dating someone of that culture. For me, the link is language. I could write a book on the secondary effects that my studies of Spanish have had on me, from my appreciation of Latin pop music to my views on immigration. I've mentioned before that the study of foreign languages has opened my mind and broadened my horizons far more than anything else I've done, including travel. Thus, it is through the study of Arabic that I shall seek to fill this huge gap in my understanding of the world.

Some of my friends and acquaintances have already expressed surprise at my decision, convinced that Arabic is a far less "useful" language than, say, French. A few months ago, I would have agreed with them. In fact, Arabic is the fourth to sixth (depending on exact criteria) most commonly spoken native language in the world, far ahead of all the languages I listed above. I believe that my previous notions of what languages qualify as "useful" were heavily influenced by growing up in an educational system that highly overemphasizes Western culture and history, and a economic system that equates importance with wealth. I consider my ignorance of Middle Eastern language, culture, and religion an embarrassment, and I will delay no longer in trying to remedy it.

Good intentions are only that, however, and it's proving to be quite a challenge. Although I consider myself an experienced language learner with a natural gift, for the first time I'm tackling one that is substantially different from English, without the benefit of ethnic heritage and connections (Taiwanese and Mandarin) or previous familiarity with the alphabet (Greek). After a month, I'm still trying to master the abjad---the term for a consonantal alphabet---connecting all the letters (which can take up to four forms!) to their sounds. It's a slow process, but as with all new language acquisition, a deeply rewarding one for me.

My only hope is that I maintain my energy and motivation for this work, for passion and a lofty purpose can often be defeated by a healthy dose of reality; I remember several classmates in my Ancient Greek class who took it with the worthy goal of reading the New Testament in its original language, only to drop out when faced with the devilishly difficult grammar. My friends and fellow language lovers, I'm counting on you to hold me to my word.


MuPu said...

An excellent choice!

Does your Iranian friend speak Arabic (other than the Qur'anic quotes and greetings that most Muslims know, no matter what their native language is)? Also, it would be easy enough for you to learn her Farsi alphabet and other ones based on the Arabic model. That would help you get the gist of things written in even more languages, by helping you pick out names, places, etc. Variations of the script are used also in some of the former Soviet republics and elsewhere in the region.

I taught Arabic at the Defense Language Institute many years ago, and I can still recall a few things about the language. You've got my e-mail address and phone number from a message I sent you last month, so let me know if there's anything I can do to help.

When you're ready to move on to the other languages you mentioned, give me a call. My wife speaks Russian and some Japanese. And for Korean, you should be able to teach yourself to read and write it with no problem, but you'll need a live native to help with speaking and listening.

Language Lover said...

Only a fellow language lover would respond to a post like "I'm starting language number eight" to "Great! And when you're ready for nine, ten, and eleven..." :)

Yes, yes, and yes, to everything you wrote in your first paragraph. My friend's Arabic is mostly that of the Qur'an, but I believe she has more than basic competence. And yes, one thing I learned from her is that Arabic is a gateway to Farsi and many other related languages, which contributed to my enthusiasm for it.

How did you come to learn Arabic? As I mentioned in my post, it's just not something emphasized in our Western educational system, although that's changing slowly. I appreciate your offer for help and will definitely take you up on it when I feel the need.

MuPu said...

Your comment that "Arabic is a gateway to Farsi and many other related languages" caught my eye. Other than their script and some minimal (mostly religious) overlapping of terminology, Arabic and Farsi don't share much in common at all. Arabic is a Semitic language; Farsi is Indo-European.

I started learning Arabic in 1986 and intensively studied it for several years. There had been a series of hijackings and other terrorist activities in the Middle East in 1985, so this seemed like a relevant thing to do. I worked as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government and mainly did "preventive maintenance," doing missions that contributed in some small part to stopping bad things from happening. In 1993, I started teaching the language at DLI.

As more and more Westerners study the language these days (due to current events), I think that the cultural misunderstandings between Muslims and non-Muslims will begin to break down more. That'll be one less thing to get in the way of people getting along.

How are your studies going so far? Here are a few tips:

Beginning: To make your Arabic script look great, use a chisel-tip marker or a calligraphy pen, and write with the tip at a 45-degree angle (/). Also, don't try to do too much too quickly, or you'll just learn to hate the language before it has a chance to reveal its incredibly logical structure. There are hundreds of dialects of Arabic, and each native speaker believes that his or hers is the best or easiest to learn; but stick to Modern Standard Arabic -- it's the most widely understood, and the dialects can be tackled later.

Intermediate: Once you've got the basics of the language down, learn the 15 triliteral "measures" and the 4 quadriliteral ones. That'll help you to deduce the meanings of words you've never seen before (and even to create your own that native speakers will understand); the best-kept secret is that Arabic is almost as simple as Esperanto, but that many students abandon their efforts before this awareness can happen. Also, get a shortwave radio, and continually listen to Arabic news broadcasts; eventually, you'll get the rhythm of the language inside your head, and you'll feel comfortable talking with a native speaker (which you should do as often as possible).

Advanced: Read Volume I of "A Grammar of the Arabic Language," by Karl Paul Caspari (in the version greatly improved and translated from German into English by William Wright), and then read it again and again, until you have no more questions. At this point, you'll notice that you're thinking and dreaming in Arabic frequently, and you'll know that fluency is within reach.

Language Lover said...

I guess that by "gateway" I was referring to the similarities in script (although I did think there was more shared vocabulary than you suggest). Perhaps that's too strong a word, but learning the alphabet will at least be a step up. That is, in fact, where I'm still working; my language study is only about the fifth highest priority in my life, so progress is slow---but steady, which is the important part. I'm really enjoying getting familiar with a consonantal alphabet, and I did indeed realize early on that I should practice with a calligraphic pen!

Thank you very much for the tips! I have little trouble learning languages for which I have a strong foundation (Spanish after Latin, for example), but Arabic and its structure are like a strange new world to me. If you know of any good resources for spoken Arabic (other than a native speaker, of course!), please let me know. I do plan to listen to newscasts for ear training, but it'll be a while before the content is accessible.

MuPu said...

You'll find that listening to (and later picking apart and mimicking) news broadcasts is a great way to become comfortable with the language. These programs follow a predictable format, and, since they'll usually be talking about current events, you'll have plenty of context to give you a clue.

News in all media is delivered almost exclusively in Modern Standard Arabic.

A few months from now, you may want to start taping these newscasts; then you can transcribe and translate them. Parsing the language in this way can help you learn what makes the language tick. You'll also acquire a lot of stock phrases that can be strung together to carry on a coherent conversation.

Marve said...

Haha, I was going to be more surprised if you didn't get around to Arabic at some point. :)