What makes learning Arabic difficult? *edited*

I just finished reading a dissertation last week. In English, not in Arabic.  But it was about Arabic.  Most of it was really dense and the central topic wasn’t very helpful for me.  But, the introductory matter, the conclusions, and the structure gave me a little more framework for understanding the challenge of the Arabic language.  The study was written by Salih J. Altoma and published in the Harvard Middle Eastern Monograph Series in 1969.  The title is “The Problem of Diglossia in Arabic: A Comparative Study of Classical and Iraqi Arabic.”  Here’s how the paper starts:

“The Problem: Diglosia has been defined as ‘A relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which may include a standard or regional standards), there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earler period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation.'”

That was the first sentence.  Pretty thick, no?  That, in a sentence, defines the challenge of learning Arabic.  Here’s a little more detail distinguishing between colloquial and classic:

“There is, on the one hand, “Classical Arabic,” described also as “standard,” “literary,” “written,” and “formal” – which maintains a high degree of uniformity and functions as the official standard language in all Arab countries.  It is used in formal situations which include, among others, political speeches, sermons, lectures, news broadcasts, conference discusssions, and most written activities.  “Colloquial Arabic,” on the other hand, is the actual language of everyday activities, mainly spoken, though occasionally written, and it varies not only from one Arab territory to another, but also from one area to another within each territory.  Among the colloquial varieties are those spoken by sedentary and non-sedentary (rural, nomadic) groups.  However there is in each case a standard or semi-standard colloquial based on the dialect of the capital city.”

So, there you have it. **added: 28/3/09*  Because the written language is strikingly different from what is spoken (more formal, pronounced differently, and a significantly different vocabulary), learning to read and write (properly) is almost like learning another language.  In fact, for Lebanese kids in school, formal (written) Arabic is taught as a foreign language in school starting in Kindergarten.  This written Arabic (called Modern Standard Arabic) is considered “pure” Arabic, so it pops up in more formal life situations, such as: in books, the songs we sing in church, the evening news, formal lectures in universities, and our pastor’s sermon on Sunday mornings.  It’s a fact that many kids grow up speaking Arabic fluently but may or may not ever learn to actually read and write Arabic. Instead, they read or write in either French or English. **

This feature of a real diglossia is a part of what makes learning Arabic difficult for us Arabic as Foreign Language students.  There are plenty of other elements that contribute to it’s difficulty…and it’s beauty.  But, this unique feature still baffles me.

posted by: caleb


4 thoughts on “What makes learning Arabic difficult? *edited*

  1. Have you seen any studies that examine just how close/far عامية and فصحى really are? Everyone states that the diglossa exists, but I’m wondering if you know of anybody that has quantified the distance.

    • This dissertation attempts to compare the two and show some of the distance between Modern Standard and the Iraqi dialect. If you’re interested in researching that issue, it might be a good place to start. As an anecdote, Fussa is treated as a second/foreign language in school in Beirut.

  2. Pingback: This could be addicting « beautiful feet: the blog version

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