On struggling to learn Arabic

When you’re learning a new language, you must associate everything in your world of experience, knowledge, and imagination–every object, every historical event, every fantastic creature–with unfamiliar sounds and visual signs.

When you learn a new language with a close historical connection to your native tongue(s), most of the new sounds and signs are at least partly unfamiliar, but there are also many similarities that help you link the new language with the one(s) you already know intimately. Take, for example, English (my native tongue) and Italian (a language I’ve studied). Italian and English use essentially the same alphabet, except that Italian doesn’t have the letters j, k, w, x, or y, and it sometimes puts one of two diacritical (accent) marks on vowels: è or é, ò or ó, and so on. Many Italian words look almost the same as, and sound very similar to, their English counterparts: for example, strano and strange. Many other Italian words do not at first appear similar to their English counterparts–for example, grazie and thank you–but are in fact similar to other English words with related meanings: for example, grazie and grateful. Once you get a feel for this system of resemblances, you can often get away with just “Italianizing” English words and expressions and find yourself speaking more or less correct Italian: is it possible? becomes è possibile?, excellent idea! becomes eccellente idea! (or, more idiomatically, ottima idea!ottima being cognate with English optimal), and so on.

Learning a new language well is never easy, even when it’s a close relative of one you already know. It takes years to achieve fluency; there are endless quirks, complications, irregularities, and unpredictable idioms. To learn a new language fully, one must master not only dictionaries and grammars but culture, literary history, regional accents and dialects, slang, and so on. Every similarity goes hand in hand with differences. The differences may be painfully obvious or maddeningly subtle, but they must all become intimately familiar if you want to achieve the holy grail of language learning: to be able to pass for a native speaker.

However, as I can now say from experience, the challenge of learning a new language with a close historical connection to your own pales in comparison with that of learning a new language without such a connection. (Instead of “pales” I might have said “seems like child’s play”, except that children are the undisputed masters of language learning, and play is their secret weapon.)

In the first blog post I wrote after arriving in Egypt, I spoke of being daunted by the task of learning the Arabic alphabet, which contains “28 letters, each with 4 different forms, many indicating previously unfamiliar sounds, written in cursive (never my strong suit) and from right to left.” I said that I hoped, in a spirit of gratitude, “to approach the Arabic alphabet, not as a stressful obligation, but as a gift.”

the Arabic alphabet

Since then I haven’t blogged about learning Arabic–not because I haven’t been trying to do so, or because I haven’t had time to blog, but rather, to be brutally honest, because I feared that if I blogged about it, I risked publicly exposing my stupidity and failure.

My current situation is nearly ideal for learning Arabic. I’m living full time, and permanently (in sha Allah), in an Arabic-speaking country. While many Egyptians speak English fluently or very well, and most speak at least a bit, as a foreigner you can’t help but find yourself in situations almost daily (like ordering food) where speaking no Arabic at all makes your life very difficult. The American University in Cairo, where I teach, kindly and responsibly provides Arabic tutoring as a benefit for faculty (historically, and I believe presently at least for tenure-track faculty, more or less as many hours per week as you think you can handle). I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have as my tutor Osama Sebaai (@os.sebaai on Instagram), whose praises I would need “ten tongues and ten mouths and a voice unwearying” (to borrow a phrase from Homer’s Iliad) to sing properly. Dr. Stephen Nimis, who previously held my position at AUC and studied for several years with Osama, concluded his glowing email recommending Osama by saying, “He’ll become your best friend.” And he did in fact quickly become my best friend in Egypt. Whether he remains so now is only difficult to say because during the past nine months I’ve met so very many friendly, warm, kind, tolerant, smart, hilarious Egyptians, all of whom have generously and enthusiastically helped me to learn and practice Arabic. Since November I’ve spent lots of time with one such Egyptian in particular, whose name is Mayara; rarely is there a time when I can’t practice Arabic with her, if I’m up for it.

So yeah, when it comes to learning Arabic, I’ve got just about every privilege, not to mention a PhD in ancient Greek and Latin.

But it’s still–excuse the millennial slang–hella hard.

Shit-your-pants hard.

Look-at-yourself-in-the-mirror-and-sob hard.

Mourn-the-pointless-of-a-dumbass-like-you-even-existing hard.

Most foreign faculty who come to AUC start Arabic tutoring soon after they arrive. Many if not most prolong the pretense that they are continuing to learn Arabic, but ultimately they achieve, to put it kindly, less than they might have hoped. I was once with some new Egyptian acquaintances and began, as I often do, to relate some amusing anecdote about “my Arabic tutor”. “Why is it,” said one of the Egyptians, “that every expat who teaches at AUC is always talking about their Arabic tutor?”–“and yet” another Egyptian broke in, unable to contain their amusement at the irony, “doesn’t speak any Arabic?”

I’ll tell you why: because AUC employs wonderful Arabic tutors (or else Osama really gets around), but Arabic is hella hard for those of us with no background in it or a related language.

(No doubt it’s also the case that expats don’t always invest as much time and energy as they should in learning the language of the place where they live and work. But I also know I’m not the only foreign AUC professor–or Arabic student of any kind, for that matter–who has begun studying Arabic with high hopes and strong commitment, yet quickly become discouraged.)

It’s not just the alphabet that is difficult. There is also the fact (which every English-speaking Arabic student quickly discovers, to their great dismay) that Arabic contains numerous sounds that differ significantly from any sounds present in English:

Arabic has six individual phonemes that are not found in the English language. It’s one of the reasons why Arabic to English translation is difficult. English speakers find it hard to vocalize Arabic sounds because of the different way these are produced. Arabic speakers are used to contracting their epiglottis when they speak, something that English speakers are not used to.

Bernadine Racoma, “Arabic Interpreting: Major Differences Between English and Arabic”

Not only do the vast majority of Arabic words sound absolutely nothing like their English counterparts, they sound different using sounds that English speakers are not used to hearing or producing.

Oh, another thing. The Arabic that you find written in books (hitherto the main focus of my foreign language study, ancient Greek and Latin being today–with apologies to all y’all spoken Latin and Greek enthusiasts out there–essentially book languages), documents, websites, signs, packaging–that is to say, any written Arabic–and the Arabic spoken by officials, newscasters, or anyone wishing to be understood and respected by Arabic speakers outside Egypt, is most likely Modern Standard Arabic. The Arabic that Egyptians actually speak to each other, however, is Egyptian Arabic. Egyptian Arabic can of course be written down, using the same Arabic alphabet as Modern Standard Arabic, and it is sometimes written (on signs, in novels, and so on). But it is overwhelmingly a spoken language, not a written one.

Egyptian Arabic differs significantly from Modern Standard Arabic. The differences are such that Arabic teachers strongly advise beginners against attempting to learn both simultaneously (to anyone who disregards this advice: good luck). You have to choose one to start with, then learn the other one later (if you make it that far). If you start with Modern Standard Arabic, say because you dream of reading Arabic literature or scholarly articles (as literature professors are wont to do), you can use it to say things to people you meet in Egypt, and if you’ve done it right, they will probably understand you. But you are most unlikely to understand their reply, which will be in Egyptian Arabic. It’s like speaking Modern Standard Italian to a rural Sicilian, except that Sicilian is spoken fluently by a dwindling percentage of Sicily’s 5 million inhabitants, whereas Egyptian Arabic is spoken by the vast majority of Egypt’s 100 million inhabitants and understood across the Arab world (primarily due to the popularity of Egyptian cinema).

Communication is a two-way street. If you can’t understand what anyone says to you in Arabic, you can’t use Arabic to communicate. For this reason, Osama strongly advises students like me to begin with Egyptian Arabic. I took his advice, and I’m glad I did.

Once you’ve chosen to start with Egyptian Arabic, you must decide whether you’re going to learn the Arabic alphabet from the get-go, or whether you’ll start by working with transcriptions. For while your main goal is to speak Egyptian Arabic, you can hardly learn to do this if you can’t write flash cards, use a dictionary, read a grammatical explanation, or do some written exercises.

Arabic is transcribed into the English (Latin) alphabet through a system that uses numbers for letters that English lacks. The letter ع, for example, becomes the number 3. Its name, transcribed, is “3ayn”. To pronounce 3ayn, you basically constrict the back of your throat as if you were about to cough and (at the same time) say “ane” as in “lane”. (In the first draft of this post I wrote “ein” as in “Einstein”, but Mayara said that “ane” as in “lane” better represents the Egyptian pronunciation. Even after nine months, I have not mastered 3ayn.) Here is how it sounds when a native Egyptian Arabic speaker says 3ayn:

Mayara says ع

Starting with transcription is generally considered easier than learning the actual Arabic alphabet. While the use of numbers as letters looks weird and disconcerting at first, they are at least familiar numbers; there are no new visual symbols to learn. Plus, transcribed Arabic is written from left to right, like English, whereas the Arabic alphabet can only be written from right to left.

Osama is keenly aware of his students’ limitations and for the most part takes an incremental approach: “baby steps”, as we say in English; wahda wahda (or more correctly wa7da wa7da, “slowly, slowly”), as we say in Arabic. In this instance, however, he recommended I bite the bullet and start learning the Arabic alphabet from day one. I endorsed this plan wholeheartedly, mainly because I feared Egypt would continue to feel distressingly alien until I could decipher at least sounds, if not meaning, from the Arabic writing I saw all around me.

I knew it would be difficult to learn the Arabic alphabet (again, see my August 17, 2020 blog post), but just how difficult proved an unpleasant surprise. Osama provided excellent instruction, constant encouragement, and plenty of comic relief. I tried my best to be a good student. I did exercises and wrote flashcards; I attempted to insert the few Arabic words I managed to remember into texts with Egyptians I met. For the first couple months, there were really were only two words I could reliably remember how to write without checking my notes: شكرًا (shukran), which means “thank you”, and ممتاز (mumtaaz), which means “excellent” or “awesome”. So I knew the seven letters these two words employ, in the positions they occupy in these words, very well, but otherwise remained functionally illiterate without an alphabet chart to refer to.

Next I managed to learn صباح الخير (sabaah al-khair), which means “good morning”, and صباح النور (sabaah al-nour), which also means “good morning”–literally, “morning the light” (sabaah al-khair = “morning the good”), or “morning of light”. When two Egyptians greet each other before noon, the first typically says sabaah al-khair and the other replies sabaah al-nour, though there are other possible responses, for example, sabaah al-foll, “morning of foll“, foll being this flower:

فل (foll)

(It turns out I was not entirely correct when I wrote, last August, that I knew how to say two things in Arabic, one of which was “hello: merhaba“. Marhaban is “hello” in Modern Standard Arabic, but Egyptians never say this. Instead, they typically say sabaah al-khair, etc., when greeting each other in the morning, and masaa al-khair, “good afternoon”–to which the replies are masaa al-nour, masaa al-foll, etc.–in the afternoon or evening.)

This was about all I could reliably remember for the next two months or so: some of the positional forms of 16 of Arabic’s 28 letters.

Oh, I forgot to mention: Arabic doesn’t use letters to indicate short vowel sounds. Instead it uses diacritical marks. For example, the first a in sabaah al-khair may be indicated by writing a small slanted line above the s (ص): صَباح الخير. The attentive reader will note that I did not include this diacritic (called fatha) when I typed this phrase above. This was not mere forgetfulness on my part. Egyptians typically don’t bother including these short vowel diacritics, because if you’re a native speaker of Egyptian Arabic, you can recognize and differentiate words just fine without them.

If you’re trying to learn Egyptian Arabic from scratch, however, the invisibility of all short vowel sounds poses major problems. My textbook is at best inconsistent in its inclusion/omission of short vowel diacritics, appearing to regard them as a cumbersome formality to be dropped as soon as possible. It frequently omits them even in its vocabulary lists and glossaries. Following the textbook’s lead (sometimes because I just couldn’t figure out what the correct diacritics were without asking Osama), I took, and still take, a cavalier approach to them in my notes and flashcards. Unfortunately, what that means is that I frequently find myself making wild and incorrect guesses about the short vowel sounds a given word contains. When reviewing my flashcards without a native Arabic speaker present to help, I’m distressingly prone to teach myself sounds that no Egyptian will be able to decipher.

Ok, so we’ve established that Arabic is hard. Hella hard. At least for me.

So hard that, by January, I had become deeply discouraged. I had intended to use the January break from teaching to focus on two things, Arabic and research. I ended up doing a respectable amount of research but very little Arabic. I stopped texting in Arabic, even the few words and phrases I could type quite well. I found many excuses to delay my scheduled Arabic lesson to bokra (“tomorrow”). Having arrived in Egypt regarding with self-righteous contempt those expats who don’t bother to learn the local language, and feeling thrilled that I finally had the perfect opportunity to learn a modern language other than English fluently–one spoken by some 420 million people worldwide, which is about 350 million more than the total number of Italian and modern Greek speakers combined–I began to question whether I would ever even learn enough Arabic to be able to help a delivery person find my apartment.

But here’s the good news: over the past month, my enthusiasm for Arabic has come roaring back, and with it fresh confidence. It may have taken 9 months, but I can finally write and sound out Arabic words involving any letters or diacritics at a respectable pace, without recourse to an alphabet chart. The stack of flashcards containing my working Egyptian Arabic vocabulary is at least 7 or 8 centimeters thick (for my fellow Americans, that’s about 3 inches–yeah, I’ve also had to learn metric units), with at least two words on each card, and growing steadily. When I hear Egyptians speaking to each other, I can’t really follow the conversation, but I do recognize some words, and I can sometimes make out the basic gist or at least the topic of the conversation. A few days ago, I managed to use Arabic to help a delivery guy bring me my Indian food. Thanks to Osama, I know a number of peculiar local expressions that, when said by a foreigner, inevitably delight and amuse Egyptians.

While I haven’t blogged about Arabic since August, I have posted a number of photos and videos of my Arabic work on Instagram. I’ve found it helpful to make such posts: it’s a way of documenting my progress, and it gives me an emotional boost in the form of praise and encouragement from family, friends, kind strangers, and especially my wonderfully supportive students at AUC. From now on, in addition to posting on Instagram, I intend to blog more frequently about my quest to learn Arabic. I will begin, in sha Allah, with a series of posts about the most delightfully unexpected Egyptian Arabic expressions I’ve learned.

Yalla bina!

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

5 thoughts on “On struggling to learn Arabic

  1. Sam – thanks for making yourself vulnerable this way – I am sure your experience has been harder than usual because of the pandemic, but I guess also because you work at AUC, almost everyone you would deal with on a regular basis for work speaks good English, so you have to make an extra effort to speak Arabic regularly. I imagine new phonetic sounds can be even harder to hear with a mask on, right? In an offline context…

    The Egyptian approach to dropping diacritics often (but not ALWAYS) frustrates me, too… because most of my Arabic reading is in the Quran which ALWAYS includes diacritics. And I learned Arabic reading in Kuwait not Egypt, so I was exposed to an Arabic colloquial language closer to MSA (Kuwaiti/Gulf Arabic is much closer to MSA) + they used diacritics until we were old enough to drop them. In Egypt, they drop the diacritics early, and I discovered that my daughter, who is not a very good reader of MSA, has figured out how to read without diacritics (unfortunately to the extent that she might sometimes NOT notice the diacritics even when they’re there… which is BAD, right?). The thing is – how can you KNOW how a word is supposed to be pronounced without diacritics if you’ve never seen the word before? There is *literally no way*. And also, native speakers can make mistakes there is they’re reading aloud and then realize after finishing the sentence that the context is different and have to re-read. It happens.

    Arabic for native speakers of a Latin-based language is hella hard… totally understand… I guess like learning Chinese or Japanese would feel to me, right? There is actually a table of level of difficulty for learning languages depending on what your native language is — e.g. for English. Spanish and Italian are easiest, then French, then German (though I think German is close to English honestly, it’s just a difficult grammar) and then Arabic and Chinese are among the hardest, most distant. May I share this post with my students who are language teachers, some of whom teach Arabic, and some are EFL teachers who are learning Arabic?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Maha, for this really informative comment! Yes, I thought about the added difficulties due to the pandemic at some point while writing the post, but I didn’t address them because it was already going to be plenty long without them 🤣 But I could write another post about that. What you say about diacritics is really interesting; it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in finding this aspect difficult. As for sharing the post, yes, of course, please share away!

      Like

  2. Thanks for sharing your linguistic journey! I’m in a similar boat, I moved here to Egypt and started learning Arabic eagerly and aggressively, but I found that it moved to the back burner for a while. As another member of the AUC community, I think a big challenge with developing skills is that since work is in English, you really need to find opportunities to actively practice and use your new language skills. I had a similar problem in Korea, I was learning Korean, and had lots of co-workers who were Korean, but I never got a chance to practice because we worked at an English academy and there was no passive exposure or conversational practice to be had. And to echo what Maha said above, oh man do the masks not help! I’m usually pretty good at picking up numbers in a new language, but I still struggle every time a cashier tells me the price of something because I just can’t hear it clearly.

    Liked by 1 person

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