By Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

03 October 2014 - 14:34

'Though the script may look like loopy squiggles to an untrained eye, learning to read and write isn't as huge a challenge as most people expect.' (Photo of Arabic calligraphy by Mark under Creative Commons licence)
'Learning to read and write Arabic isn't as huge a challenge as most people expect.' Photo ©

Mark, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

In our weekly series on the ten most important languages for the UK’s future, as identified by the British Council’s Languages the Future report, we asked teacher and translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp a few questions about the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world, Arabic.

Arabic is in great demand and there’s a shortage of well-qualified speakers

Ten years ago last week, I started my first graduate job in the UK civil service, where I began studying Arabic on a 15-month intensive course for translators. This was my dream job: studying another language full-time and being paid a decent salary, too. Now, in my freelance work translating and teaching Arabic, I aim to give English speakers access to an unfamiliar world, a vibrant culture, and a perspective on history and politics that we rarely see in our western media.

My experience shows that not only is Arabic much more accessible than many people think, but it is also in great demand. The fact that several government departments, the armed forces and many businesses are prepared to pay for their employees to study it to an advanced level because of the severe shortage of Arabic graduates, shows that for schools and students alike, there are many good reasons to choose Arabic. This is all the more true now that the Qatar Foundation and the British Council are offering grants to support schools wishing to introduce Arabic.

As one of the six official UN languages, Arabic can be a real boost for careers in international organisations and diplomacy, as well as journalism, tourism and international trade, particularly the energy industry. Ten universities in the UK have Arabic departments: if you’re considering your future career, a joint honours degree with Arabic is an excellent choice if you want to develop skills that set you apart.

One common written language, countless spoken varieties

Arabic is not the language of one country, of course, but of 26 nations across North Africa and the Middle East. It is a language that unites at least 400 million native speakers in the Arab world, as well as being something of a lingua franca of Muslims worldwide. However, I tend to warn my beginner students that there isn’t really one language called Arabic, and if you want to get anywhere, you’re actually going to need to dabble in two languages side by side: the standard written language, known as fus-ha (الفصحى, literally: ‘the purest’), and one of the local spoken dialects, which vary a lot more in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical structures from one region to another than tends to be the case with other languages.

Written Arabic is revered as the language of the Quran and therefore of the Islamic faith, and as such it has changed remarkably little since the Middle Ages. Arabic students can enjoy seventh-century poetry without too much exertion, which is impressive considering the challenge that even 17th-century writers such as Shakespeare pose to English speakers.

Literacy is important, but don’t neglect the spoken dialect

It is the rather stiff-sounding fusha, aka Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), that is the starting point for most students of Arabic as a foreign language. You need it to develop academically, to read, to write, and use a dictionary. But if you want to speak Arabic on holiday or do business beyond simple pleasantries, you also need to learn a local dialect. If you try speaking fusha in the souq, unless you can throw in the odd bit of colloquial Arabic to pitch yourself at the right register, you risk coming across as the old Etonian spy in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in Greece, who tries chatting to the locals in Ancient Greek. Your haggling will get you a much better bargain, and probably make you a friend for life, if you can show that you’ve tried to learn at least a smattering of the local lingo. Films and pop music are the best ways to train your ear to the dialect of your choosing. The Arabic Music Translation blog is a treasure trove I plundered heavily when I had the pleasure of teaching an introductory Egyptian Arabic course to a troupe of English bellydancers!

In fusha, to ask someone their name you’d say ‘maa ismuka?’ whereas Syrians would ask ‘shoo ismak?’ and for Egyptians it’s ‘ismak ay?’ This example demonstrates how keywords such as ‘what’ differ between dialects, and how the grammatical endings are simplified in spoken Arabic, making it much easier to learn than written MSA. For that reason, I’d always recommend to dip into spoken Arabic first, with material such as the Michel Thomas audio course for Egyptian or BBC Talk Arabic for colloquial Levantine.

The pronunciation of certain letters varies between dialects. For example, camel (جمل) in MSA and Eastern Arabic is ‘jamal’, but in Egypt it’s ‘gamal’. But because of the cross-border pervasiveness of exports such as Lebanese pop music, Egyptian films and the Qatari news channel Al Jazeera, Arabs tend to be familiar with the rudiments of each other’s dialects, just as people in the UK understand US English. Imagine a heavily accented Glaswegian talking to someone from The Wire (the gritty American television drama) – challenging, but not impossible. While we’re talking about camels, incidentally, the cliché that Arabic has a thousand words for camel might be a slight exaggeration, but this list of related words is staggering all the same.

Arabic is deeply entwined with our European heritage

The language of the Arabs spread outwards from the Hijaz, modern Saudi Arabia, with the conquests by the Islamic Empire. The heritage of Moorish Andalusia still lingers in many Spanish words and place names, and indeed British ones: Gibraltar is a name that evolved from ‘Jabal Tariq’ (جبل طارق) or ‘Tariq’s mountain’. Portugal’s Algarve comes from ‘al-gharb’ (الغرب) meaning ‘the west’ – literally the western-most point of the Islamic Caliphate. It was this rich era of cultural trade alongside the trade of spices and exotic goods that brought the English the words ‘saffron’ (fromأصفر, asfar, yellow), ‘cotton’ (قطن, qutn), ‘coffee’ (from قهوة, qahwa), ‘magazine’ (from مخازن, makhazin, storerooms), and algebra (الجبر, al-jabr) and alcohol (الكحول, al-kuhool), which include ‘al’, the Arabic prefix meaning ‘the’. But the trade of words isn’t all one way, of course. An orange is a ‘burtuqaal’ (برتقال) after Portugal, not unlike our word tangerine from Tangiers. Students are often relieved to find a wealth of English and French words in Arabic, with slight mutations as neither ‘p’ nor ‘v’ exist as sounds in Arabic.

Culturally speaking, modern Europe wouldn’t be what it is today without the impact of medieval Arab civilisation, which had preserved, translated and expanded on texts in various science and humanities disciplines. For example, it is largely due to the scholars of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom that much of Aristotle survived to be reintroduced in Europe.

Arabic is very unlike Indo-European languages, but easier to learn than you’d think

Like Hebrew, Arabic is a Semitic language and calls on European learners to step outside some of their Indo-European assumptions about how a language should fit together. That said, at a beginner’s level it is an unusually accessible language, with a very simple grammar.

Arabic only has two tenses (past and present) and it dispenses with the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense, as it is understood without being said. I couldn’t believe my luck once when I realised there was an Esme and an Anna in one of my beginners’ groups. Cue much hilarity when they learnt their first two phrases: ‘ismee Esme’ (اسمي ismee = ‘my name’ or ‘my name is’) and “Ana Anna” (أنا ana = ‘I’ or ‘I am’). If only we’d had a Heather too and could say ‘haatha Heather!’ (هذا, haatha = ‘this’ or ‘this is’).

There is also an organic beauty to be found in the language’s highly logical root letter system. Almost every Arabic verb has three core letters from which a multitude of related nouns and adjectives are derived. So, from the letters ‘k’, ‘t’ and ‘b’ (ك ت ب), you get the verb to write (kataba, كتَبَ), and the nouns book (kitaab, كِتَاب), office (maktab, مَكتَب), library (maktabah, مَكتَبة), and writer (kaatib, كاتِب). This gives Arabic learners a real boost: if you know one word from a certain root, you have a short cut to recognising and deciphering new vocabulary which is related (albeit sometimes at a deep and murky philosophical level).

The Arabic alphabet is easier to grasp than it looks

Arabic is written from right to left, and a book begins at what looks like the back for us. Though the script may look like loopy squiggles to an untrained eye, my experience of teaching it is that learning to read and write isn’t as huge a challenge as most people expect. The bit that really messes with your brain is when you encounter numbers in an Arabic text, because they are read from left to right, like English! The alphabet begins in familiar territory with the letters alif (أ), ba (ب) ta (ت), just like the Greek ‘alpha beta’. There are 28 letters, but in fact, there are half as many distinct letter shapes to learn, because many shapes form the basis for two or three different letters, with the number of dots above or below the letter being the distinguishing feature, as is the case with the ‘ba’ and ‘ta’ above.

There are no capital letters and there’s no need to write down short vowels, just as you might use only consonants when texting the word ‘tmrw’. If you really need to display the short vowels, you use little markers above and below the consonants. These feature in children’s books and textbooks for foreigners, but with time it is presumed that you recognise words from the context and no longer need these helping vowel markers. They are only used to remove ambiguity, such as on Twitter to distinguish between ‘follower’ (متابِع mutaabi’) and ‘followee’ ( متابَع mutaaba’).

So many reasons to learn Arabic and so many ways to approach it

The largest group of Arabic learners worldwide are Muslims seeking to understand their holy text, the Quran. But with ever-increasing numbers taking it up for business, personal or academic reasons, there is a flourishing market of teaching materials focusing on communicative language. Many present a fusion of spoken fusha and more colloquial phrases, such as this excellent EU course for business, tourism and schools, and the loveable ArabicPod podcasts.

For a taste of Arabic literature, look to the blog ArabLit (in English) and Banipal Magazine of Modern Arabic Literature as your guides, and to the online journals Words without Borders and Asymptote to read stories and extracts of novels with the Arabic original alongside the English translation. These sites often include an audio recording of the Arabic, too. The Arab British Centre’s annual Safar film fest, London’s Shubbak Arabic arts festival and the Liverpool Arab Arts festival all make fantastic routes into the cinema, music and cuisine of this rich and diverse part of the world.

Arabic is a written language and a cultural identity that unites a somewhat disparate group of nations. Though local dialects vary, standard Arabic is the foundation on which all these colloquial variants are based, and learning it opens a window onto an incredible range of places and cultures. With so many reasons to learn and so many ways to approach it, why not give it a go? أهلاً وسهلاً Ahlan wa sahlan! Welcome to the family, and may your path be a smooth one.

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is an Arabic translator, teacher and co-founder of Babel Babies, a company promoting language-learning in families. She has also translated for Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature, mentioned above.

Teachers, if you teach children aged seven to 11, you can access our Arabic schools pack for lesson plans and activities.

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