14 Nov 2007

The Costco Coulter on Arabic

Posted by dumpendebat

Today the Costco Coulter has posted some “good and bad news” about the surge in popularity of Arabic as a foreign-language choice for American college students. She claims to have taken Arabic when she was in college (she doesn’t seem to have learned much, as we have noted in the past, but that’s another story).

She thinks it good that American college students are getting interested in the Arabic language, and of course I agree with her. We sorely, sorely need Arabic speakers, and lots of them, to help do the work that genuinely helps to protect us from terrorists. The “War on Terror” is going to be won by intelligence officers and law-enforcement officers, not by B-52 bombers and infantry divisions. We need to have linguists who can monitor and translate communications in Arabic (not to mention other important languages such as Urdu, Persian, Dari, Pashto, etc).

However, she also seems to feel that Arabic language classes should only be taken by the right kind of people:

We don’t know who it is that is taking Arabic. Are they Tom and Jane from Podunkville, Iowa, who are basically pro-American and don’t have an agenda–the ideal FBI and CIA translators? Or is it Hamida and Suhail, whose parents came here respectively from Ramallah and Peshawar and hate America? We don’t want or need 24,000 of those.

Yes, keep those damn America-haters out of our college classes, by all means.

She also reveals, yet again, that she really doesn’t know much about the Arabic language:

Arabic as taught on most college campuses is classical Arabic, not the currently used kind, which involves different national dialects of a more modern Arabic. As I learned when I was in college and took Arabic, that kind of Arabic is mostly useless and not the kind we need to translate documents and surveillance tapes.

Let’s take this paragraph point-by-point, readers, so that we can clear up some misconceptions and get a better understanding of the problem of Arabic-language pedagogy. There are some interesting and important issues at stake here, and it matters whether we describe the problem accurately.

Item 1. “Arabic as taught on most college campuses is classical Arabic”

This is true, pretty much. Most Arabic classes will concentrate on Modern Standard Arabic, which is more or less the same thing as Classical Arabic.

Classical Arabic is the language of the Koran and other early Islamic texts. It is not a living language — it has no native speakers. No one grows up speaking and thinking in Classical Arabic. However, it is regarded with the highest possible prestige throughout the Arabic-speaking world, as it is held to be the language spoken by God and His angels in Heaven. Millions of people continue to learn Classical Arabic because of its high prestige, and because it gives one access to the corpus of Islamic scripture and related writings.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) was developed out of Classical Arabic, starting in the 19th century. Classical vocabulary was adapted to encompass modern concepts and terminology; grammar and syntax were slightly simplified as well. Modern Standard Arabic is the Arabic language used in TV news broadcasts, radio shows, formal speeches, and is the language in which Arabic books, magazines, and newspapers are written. It’s taught as a subject in schools, and at higher levels it’s also used as the medium of instruction. Thus, all educated speakers of Arabic, no matter what country they live in, have at least some degree of ability with MSA.

I think it’s fair to say that almost all Arabic speakers can understand MSA, but only highly-educated speakers are able to produce grammatically-correct MSA, at least for more than a couple of sentences at a time. Arabic conversations, depending on the situation and level of formality, go up and down a sort of dialect continuum between informal dialect and formal Classical Arabic. MSA can also serve as a sort of lingua franca between Arabic speakers whose dialects may not be mutually intelligible (a Moroccan and a Syrian, for example, might have real trouble understanding one another — their dialects are roughly as different from each other as are Spanish and Italian). MSA is not exactly the same as Classical Arabic, but it’s very close.

Item 2. “… not the currently used kind …”

Wrong. There’s not an opposition between Classical/MSA and “the currently used [sic] kind.” This is misleading. (There is an opposition between Classical/MSA and the national dialects, as we will see in Item 3 below.) Classical/MSA is very much in use today, just not as the day-to-day language that Arabic-speakers use at home, on the street, and at work. If you’re going to listen to the news or read a newspaper article, you have to understand MSA.

Item 3. “… which involves different national dialects of a more modern Arabic.”

A charitable reading of this baffling statement would be that Debbie S. thinks that Egyptian Arabic, Syrian Arabic, Gulf Arabic, etc, etc, are all dialects of MSA, which is of course not the case at all.

There was never one single Arabic language from which all variations of the language descended. That’s simply not how human languages work, as a matter of fact. There was never one single English language from which all variations of English descended, either. The dialect that has been considered “standard English” has been changing and developing alongside its cousin dialects (Cockney, Lancashire, etc) for hundreds of years.

So, too, the various versions of Arabic (Egyptian, Gulf, Libyan, Lebanese, etc, etc), like all living languages, have all been changing and developing, simultaneously, as long as people have been speaking these languages. You have to go all the way back to the theoretical Proto-Semitic, or at least back to the first “Arabic” dialects of the Arabian peninsula (ca. 2000 BC) to start talking about one language from which the others developed.

In the Arabic-speaking world, there are indeed “national dialects.” Ethnologue counts thirty-five of them. There is a good deal of variation among these dialects, to the point where some of them are not even mutually intelligible, as mentioned above.

Here’s an analogy to help you understand the relationship between Classical/MSA and the national variations of Arabic: Imagine if Latin were still the official language of Italy. All newspapers and books would be in Latin. Latin would be taught as a school subject, and then be used as a medium of instruction in the classroom as students got older. Children would grow up speaking Italian at home, and everyone would speak Italian to each other for all their day-to-day communications, but all mass media and the government would conduct their business in Latin. Italian would seldom be written down at all, and there would be no standard for the written language. Many Italian people would express open disrespect for their own Italian language, saying things like “Italian has no grammar” and “Italian is just a broken dialect of Latin, it’s not a real language.”

Now imagine this situation in Egypt, not Italy. Substitute Classical/MSA for Latin and Egyptian Arabic for Italian, and you have some idea of the relationship between Classical/MSA and Egyptian Arabic — that’s how it actually is in the Arabic-speaking world. Classical Arabic is considered the “true Arabic language” and is held in the absolute highest esteem by Arabic-speaking people. It’s a sort of sociolinguistic glue that holds together the Arabic-speaking world.

[Of all the variations of Arabic, only Maltese has “broken away” from the mainstream of Arabic dialects to become considered a separate language (rather than just another Arabic dialect). This is mostly because Maltese people are Christians and do not have the same absolute reverence for Classical Arabic (the language of the Koran) as do the rest of the predominantly-Muslim Arabic-speaking world. Maltese, aside from being written with the Roman alphabet and having a large number of loanwords from Italian, could just as easily, from a linguistic standpoint, be considered a dialect called “Maltese Arabic” rather than a language called “Maltese.”]

This situation (high-prestige language used for some situations, low-prestige language used for other situations) is known as diglossia. If you are interested, I highly recommend you look at “Perspectives on Arabic Diglossia” (Andrew Freeman, 1996), which is available online.

Item 4. “As I learned when I was in college and took Arabic, that kind of Arabic is mostly useless”

Well, “useless” is kind of a loaded term. It depends on what you want to be able to do.

If all you want is to be able to speak to people and understand what they’re saying, then Classical/MSA is not going to immediately help you out much. Even at the height of my own Arabic skills, after 47 weeks of MSA, I could look at an Egyptian movie and barely understand a word the characters were saying. If you really want to understand spoken Arabic, you really need training in one or more of the national dialects.

By the same token, you cannot read Arabic without Classical/MSA training. The national dialects are not written. All newspapers, magazines, books, letters, etc, etc, are written in Classical/MSA. Without Classical/MSA, you cannot understand the Arabic mass media, either (news broadcasts, many TV shows, etc).

Which makes more sense: to study MSA first, and then work on one or more regional dialects later? Or to start out with a dialect and supplement it with “formal” Classical/MSA later? That’s an open question, readers. There are very much two schools of thought. It’s simply incorrect, though, to say that MSA is “useless” — that’s a grotesque oversimplification. Yes, it’s frustrating to spend several semesters studying a language and then perhaps finding oneself still unable to have a simple conversation at the end of it, but you can’t really “know” Arabic without a firm grounding in Classical/MSA. Yes, you need a dialect as well if you really want to speak the language and get along on a day-to-day basis in an Arabic-speaking place, and you have to understand someone’s dialect to understand everything they’re saying, of course; but that doesn’t mean MSA is “useless.”

Item 5. “… and not the kind we need to translate documents and surveillance tapes.”

Right and wrong: you can’t translate a document without MSA, so that part is 100% wrong, but you need to understand the dialect to fully translate a surveillance tape, so that part is right.

It’s not so simple. Arabic is a tough language for English-speakers to learn (although it’s really not as hard as you might think, because its grammar is pleasantly regular: it follows its own rules to the letter), and the problem of diglossia makes it even harder: you kind of have to learn one-and-a-half languages (Classical/MSA plus a dialect) to really “know” the language enough to be really useful. MSA isn’t enough by itself, and neither is a dialect. The good news is that knowing one of the two gives you a tremendous leg up on learning the other (just as it’s much easier to learn Spanish if you already know Italian or Catalan, let’s say, although that’s not a perfect analogy).

It’s encouraging to read that Arabic is now one of the top ten languages studied at American colleges and universities. We’re going to have a lot to do with the Arabic-speaking world for many, many years to come, and we will need all the Arabic speakers we can get. College classes in MSA are not going to make people ready to join the FBI and get cracking as an Arabic interpreter right away, that’s true. But a solid foundation in the language is the very best place to start.

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