Sunday, 6 February 2005

Learning Arabic

I've tried to learn some basics of Arabic for some time, in fact since I first went to the Middle East for work. I tried doing it through books first and then language software but haven't managed to go much further than شكرأ [shukran], which means thank you. Part of the problem, I think, is that I have a better visual than auditive memory. So to remember things I need to see them written. Of course, with Arabic, it meant I had to learn the alphabet first. Now, in theory, the Arabic alphabet is not that difficult to learn, it only has 28 letters. What makes it a challenge is:

  • Some letters like ب [ba] or ث [tha] only differ by the location and number of dots.
  • Letters in a word are linked together, which makes it more difficult to identify where a letter stops and the next one starts. And of course, to confuse the student even more there are some letters that don't follow this rule and can't be linked to the next letters, such as ر [ra] or و [wa]
  • Letters change shape depending on where they are in the word, in most cases a letter inside a word has a different shape than the same one at the end of a word, a bit like if you were writing with the Latin script and use lowercase letters inside the words and uppercase letters at the end of each word, such as thE quicK browN foX jumpeD oveR thE lazY sleepinG doG.
  • Vowels are not written, except for two long vowels, or are written as diacritic in children books and elaborate scripts.
  • The combination ل [lam] followed by ا [alif] is always written as a ligature, لا.
  • Finally, I nearly forgot, Arabic, of course, is written right to left.

So I've now mastered maybe half the alphabet, mainly the letters that have an obvious equivalent in English. I'm now left with all the letters that have no equivalent in English: the dark letters, such as ض [dad], and the ones that you say from the throat, such as غ [ghain]. For Western vocal chords, most of them make the Scottish ch, as in loch sound simple and easy to pronounce.

So, in an attempt to improve my Arabic faster than a couple of new words every year, I recently bought yet another language software, following online recommendations. It's not cheap but I thought that if it worked, it was worth buying the Rosetta Stone package for Arabic. I tried it out on Friday evening and it looks good so far. At first sight, it is not as boring and academic as the Transparent Language equivalent and it has more depth than the EuroTalk equivalent. So we'll see. Of course the optimal solution would probably be to go and do a total immersion in Cairo or Amman and I might still do this one day. But in the meantime, I'll try my best at home, or in the office after hours, where I have a real Arabic keyboard.

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