I’m Trying To Learn Arabic — Why’s it taking so long?
December 1, 2017
Robert Lane Greene
When I walked into Arabic class last week, Karam, my teacher, cheerily asked me how I was doing. I said, “Tamaam, hamdulillah,” which means, “Fine, thanks be to God.” But I was lying. I’d just spent a full day at work and was sitting down at a desk for two hours of mind-bending grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. I knew it would be a long night.
I am not one of those people who dreads the thought of learning a foreign language. While everyone else was partying in high school, I was learning the Spanish past subjunctive and loving it. I studied German, French, and Portuguese in college. I speak decent Russian and have taught myself some half-decent rudimentary Japanese. Languages are usually fun. But Arabic is really killing me.
I’m one of a growing wave of people trying to come to grips with Arabic, a language long neglected by Americans in the years before Sept. 11. Since then, the CIA and the military have tried to recruit Arab-American “heritage speakers.” The federal government has spent tons of money, both teaching Arabic to spies and soldiers at its specialized schools and encouraging university students to study it. College enrollment in Arabic classes doubled between 1998 and 2002, with much of the increase coming in a patriotic spike after the World Trade Center attacks. As a foreign-affairs writer, I thought it would be good to give it a shot.
But these patriotic students are probably finding, as I am, that learning Arabic is complicated. The first challenge, the script, is a tough one. But it is by no means the biggest. Arabic has an alphabet, so it’s easier than, say, Chinese, which has a set of thousands of characters. There are just 28 letters, and it does not take long to get used to writing and reading right-to-left. (Though it still feels odd to open my book from what seems like the back.) Most of the letters have four different forms, depending on whether they stand alone or come at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Even then, so far so good. But in Arabic, as in Hebrew, people don’t include most vowels when writing. Maktab, or “office,” is just written mktb. Vowels are included as little marks above and below in beginning textbooks, but you soon have to get used to doing without them. Whn y knw th lngg wll ths s nt tht hrd. But when you’re struggling with comprehension to begin with, it’s pretty formidable.
Then there are the sounds those letters represent. I do not recommend chewing gum in Arabic class, because a host of noises articulated in the back of the throat makes it likely that the gum will end up in your lungs. Arabic has one “h” akin to ours, and another that has been described as the sound you would make trying to blow out a candle with air from your throat. That’s not to be confused with another sound, the fricative kh familiar to German-speakers as the sound in “Bach.” There’s also ’ayn, a “voiced pharyngeal fricative,” which is like the first sound in the hip-hop “a’ight.” Unwritten in Roman-alphabet transliterations, it’s actually a consonant that begins many common words and names, including “Arab,” “Iraq,” and “Arafat.”
The sounds are tough, but the words are tougher. An English-speaking student learning a European language will run across many familiar-looking words, but English-speaking Arabic students are not so lucky. Merav, an Israeli classmate, should have a leg up on us: Arabic and Hebrew both use a nifty, three-letter root system for word building. The three-letter root represents a general area of meaning, and different prefixes, vowel additions, and suffixes can make it into a person engaged in that activity, the place where it goes on, the general concept, and so on. Most famous is slm, which generally means “peace.” Salaam is the noun for “peace,” Islam is “surrender,” and a Muslim is “one who surrenders.” (In Hebrew, this can be seen in shalom.) Ktb functions similarly for writing: Kitaab is “book,” kaatib is “writer,” maktaba is “library.”
Merav is fine with this, though the rest of us are struggling. But the ferociously unfamiliar grammar sets us all adrift. Arabic is a VSO language, which means the verb usually comes before the subject and object. It has a dual number, so nouns and verbs must be learned in singular, dual, and plural. A present-tense verb has 13 forms. There are three noun cases and two genders. Some European languages have just as many forms to keep track of, but in Arabic the idiosyncrasies can be mind-boggling. When Karam explains that numbers are marked for gender—but most numbers take the opposite gender from the word they are modifying—we students stare at each other in slack-jawed solidarity. When we learn that adjectives modifying nonhuman plurals always have a feminine singular form—meaning that “the cars are new” comes out as “the cars, she are new”—I can hear heads banging on the desks around me. I want to do the same.
Karam sees the wear and tear on us, and so sometimes we pause and have a cultural chat. Arabic is peppered with a lot of God—even secular Arabs will append insha’allah, “God willing,” to almost any statement of intent, as in, “I’ll file my story by 3, God willing.” Sometimes Karam tries to teach us how to work various niceties like this into daily speech. “Thank you” is usually just shukran. “But,” Karam tells us, “that is sort of boring, so if someone gives you food it’s nicer to say, ‘May your hands be blessed,’ or …” This is way too much information for my skill level, so I squeeze my eyes shut and hope that Karam’s flourishes don’t enter my brain and dislodge something vital, like, “Where is the bathroom?”
The State Department reckons that it takes 80 to 88 weeks (roughly a year in the classroom full-time and a year in-country) to get to a level 3 on a 5-point scale in Modern Standard Arabic, the language I am learning. But there’s a twist. MSA has about the same role in the Arab world that Latin had in medieval Europe: It’s the language of writing, religion, and formal speeches, but it is no one’s native spoken language any more. Arabic has long since become a series of “dialects,” which are actually more like separate languages, as many varieties are mutually incomprehensible. Arabic spoken in Morocco is as different from Arabic spoken in Egypt and from Modern Standard as French is from Spanish and Latin. When Arabs from different regions talk to each other, they improvise a mix of Egyptian Arabic (which is understood widely because of Egypt’s movie industry), Modern Standard, and a bit of their own dialects.
So, if I go to Egypt or Lebanon in a year, having managed to get some near grip on my classroom language, I will be walking down the street asking people for a bite to eat in something that will sound almost as conversationally inappropriate to them as Shakespearean English would to us. Most literate Arabs know the Modern Standard from schooling, newspapers, television, sermons, and the like, though, so hopefully they will not laugh too hard as they help me out and respond in something I can almost understand. And that is if I work my tail off for the next year. Insha’allah.