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Learning Arabic: Part 2

Updated on June 25, 2018

A friend of mine and I went to a state park the other day. It’s May in the Chicagoland area, which is a great time of year for Chicagoans. The weather is at its best, between winter and summer (where the heat can be grueling).

The sun was out, and we walked along the path catching up in what turned out to be t-shirt weather. Admiring the scenery along the way, I did my best to make observations in Arabic.

It had been over four months since I first re-visited the language, in January or February of 2017. This is around the same time that I started building content for my website, so my studies were a bit cramped, but I had a lot of opportunity to discover and develop new methods of study, and practice. One method that I found online was to write a short description of someplace that you remember very well, like your bedroom, or where you work, and translate those surroundings, and your actions to Arabic.

Learning the translation of your natural, every day surroundings is an effective method of learning a language.
Learning the translation of your natural, every day surroundings is an effective method of learning a language.

I haven’t written a full description of any one place in my memory, but I’ve given myself a lot of hands on practice in many other ways. The most difficult aspect right now is finding exposure, as I mentioned in “Arabic for Writers and Freelancers,” but that’s only speaking of who I come into contact with on a daily basis. Fortune enough for me, one of my coworkers is Egyptian, and speaks Classical Arabic (as well as Egyptian-Arabic, and French I believe), but that exposure is mainly just in passing while at work. I bring notecards with me with vocabulary: that contains words in English, their Arabic translation, and my own form of Arabic-English phonetics (since I’ve pretty much abandoned the phonetics provided in the dictionary) and I practice while I’m at work. I put grammar lessons on the opposite side of the card. All I can do for the most part is work on letter recognition and spelling, but it still counts for something. From time to time I’ll ask my coworker, whose name is Ahmed, if I’m pronouncing something correctly, or I’ll just say something, and see if he was able to understand me.

I’ll say, “I am going north for work” or “I heard the capital is sunny.” Pronunciation is easily the most difficult part of learning how to read, write, and speak Arabic. The help Ahmed is able to provide is much needed. As for now, I’m progressing, but I often have to spell out the word that I’m trying to say in order for him to tell me how to pronounce it correctly.

The very first hurdle is actually learning how to say each letter. The letter “ra” for instance is often pronounced with “rolling r’s” that can go on twice as long as Spanish “rolling r’s.” There are a few others that I know of that don’t come easily… The real trouble is thinking you’ll be pronouncing something right, and end up being nowhere close. There was one day I meant to tell Omar from “Part 1” to “have a good day,” in Arabic, and he started laughing. If I remember correctly, I told him to “have a good donkey” or something.

My main means of exposure is through media, particularly music. I found that listening to music wasn’t so much for helping me with vocabulary, but to learn and build an understanding how Arabic is spoken, and sung. I was able to pick out some words and phrases, but for the most part I still didn’t know what they were saying. Even still, after listening to the same song long enough, I would learn, perhaps not the translation of the lyrics, but how the song was sung, and the real intention was simply to pick out Arabic syllables and letters as they were being sung. This was a very lucrative study technique. I came across a female rapper from Tunisia, which is a Muslim-majority country in North Africa, which sits on the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea with Algeria to the west and Libya to the southeast.

The article wasn’t so much about learning Arabic, or the musician; if anything it revolved around Mohammed Bouazizi, who was a fruit vendor in Tunisia’s capital of Tunis. The country had been riddled with government and police corruption for the previous twenty-some years, and one day, Mohammed’s fruit cart was confiscated because he didn’t have the proper permits required. He tried to pay for one and was beaten by Tunisian police. He then went into the police station and lit himself on fire as a form of political protest.

This action, as well as the protests in Tunisia as a whole, are widely accredited for inspiring the Arab Spring, which was a series of uprisings, civil war, revolution, and foreign intervention across North Africa and the Middle East from around November 2010, to today, with the current, multi-party conflict in Syria, as well as several other countries.

I’ve also watched a few Arabic-spoken movies (with English subtitles) including one that I really enjoyed called Djinn, which was a horror movie based in Tehran during the time of the Iran-Iraq war, in which Tehran (Iran’s capital) was being attacked. The main characters were a family of three. The husband was fighting in the war, and the movie focused primarily on his wife and their young daughter, who at the same time were being haunted by Djinn in their apartment. Djinn are supernatural demons in Islamic mythology.

It was a great movie too. One thing I found interesting about the movie was the wife’s attitude toward the possible presence of Djinn in her apartment (while it was still undetermined). As her daughter was claiming the she was being visited, and her neighbors were warning her of evil spirits (as strange occurrences began, and intensified) she maintained a staunch denial of there being Djinn in her apartment, and that the ongoing conflict was causing hallucinations. Much the same as with the Tunisian musician, watching an Arabic-spoken movie was very helpful in learning pronunciation, and even better for auditory interpretation practice.

Djinn (Jinn) are demons in Islamic mythology.
Djinn (Jinn) are demons in Islamic mythology.

I’m still considering different ways to gain firsthand exposure. Volunteering will help. I’m still working on those arrangements, but for the time being, its music and movies as far as media is concerned. I still have to get an audio book for Arabian Nights. I’m reading the book in English right now, and much like most of my other studies of Islamic culture, history, etc. I try to keep up with mentally translating what I’m reading, and speaking it out loud. Sometimes that takes from the amount of actual material I cover, so I use this method in 20-minute increments.

The state park my friend Ronde and I went to is quite beautiful. We don’t have sights quite like those of the Colorado Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, or, the Kermanshah Province of Iran, but we have a few state parks that are pleasant to walk through on a nice day.

The Kermanshah Province of Iran
The Kermanshah Province of Iran

As I said earlier, I’ve been quite busy of late, so my friend and I had a lot to catch up on. He’d known that I have studied Arabic before, but, seeing him only here and there over the past four months, the fact that my vocabulary was around 400 words was new to him. That being said, it’s one thing to be able to look at a notecard or a picture and know the word, and it’s another to command that vocabulary. It’ll be a little while still until I am able to have a functional conversation in Arabic, but at the park, I was able to say “Ana degheba ghghaba bahayda dukkan,” which very roughly translates to: “I went to the forest after I went to the store,” in classical Arabic.

There’s many Arabic dialects, as it is a prominent, if not primary language in North African countries, the Middle East, as well as many Asian countries. From what Ahmed has told me, most Arabic speakers are at least adequate in classical Arabic, which is also known as Quranic Arabic, as it is the language of the Quran. But like Ahmed said, even if a given Arabic speaker isn’t Muslim, odds are that I could get by with classical Arabic. Even still, I’m more interested in being fluent in a specific, regional dialect, and being adequate with classical, than vice-versa, and there’s a few that I have in mind already.

I want a dialect that is useful. I don’t want to learn the language of a person that I’m never going to meet. Ahmed recommended I learn Egyptian-Arabic, which is an interesting prospect, but even still, I want to choose a dialect that is relevant to one of the projects I’m working on. I’d like to do volunteer work, so if I consider that I’ll come into contact with some of the Syrian refugees, that makes Syrian-Arabic a bit more of a plausible candidate. I could do some work about the ancient history of the region, perhaps about the city of Damascus for instance. And that in itself is another categorical deciding factor, is the content that I can write based off of that region, or group of people; coupled with having someone to speak to, and someone to work with, I truly can’t think of a better priority than Kurdish or Farsi. Persia. The Iranian Revolution. The Kurds. There’s so much potential.

Which Arabic dialect should I become fluent with?

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