Hurdles in learning Arabic?

Discussion in 'العربية (Arabic)' started by إسكندراني, Jul 2, 2013.

  1. إسكندراني

    إسكندراني Senior Member

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    What would you say is the most difficult thing about Arabic for a learner? I mean once we have gotten over the shock of a language nothing like indo-European languages and become fluent with the script? in my limited experience teaching beginners, i would probably say i felt learners struggled with:
    - reading without vowelling
    - conjugating verbs
    - the size of the vocabulary
    - the fact you can't converse in dialect with fluency for quite a while
    - understanding the grammar rules, which are quite extensive
    - coming to terms with native speakers not adhering to them

    in light of whatever problems you faced learning arabic, what did you find most useful to overcome those hurdles?
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2013
  2. paieye Senior Member

    English - British
    I was brought up from an early age on Latin. English is largely based on Latin, and it was assumed in those far-off days that, to master English, school-children must have an understanding of Latin. A vital part of learning it was to be able to analyse every single word grammatically, so as to determine whether it was simple or compound, what part of speech, and its relevant characteristics -- for nouns and adjectives, its declension, case, number, gender, &c., for verbs, its conjugation, tense, number, mood, voice, &c.

    Latin is exceptionally simple and terse. Its descendants -- Italian, French, Spanish, and many others, including English -- are less so, and the study of them benefits even more from analysis.

    Arabic seems to me also much less simple and terse than Latin (possibly far less so, but I need a little more time with it before I make up my mind). In particular, it is exceptionally rich in compound words, that fairly cry out for analysis. Take -- this is only an example, not a real question --- لَكَ. Is that 1 word or 2 that have been merged ? What parts of speech are they ? If the 1st word started off as لِ, how and why has it become لَ ?

    I accordingly approach Arabic longing for grammatical analysis, but have so far found not a single book or course that makes any attempt at it, and indeed it seems an unfamiliar idea to most Arabic-speakers to whom I have mentioned it.

    There is also the difficulty to which you refer that in written Arabic vowels are largely treated as an extra. This means that the foreign student may see a written or printed word, and have literally no idea how to pronounce it.

    Mercifully, I have found a tutor who understands my difficulties, and is equal to the task.

    I might add, يا اسكندراني, that I am much indebted to you and to other faithful supporters in this forum for your help with, and impressive understanding of, my labours in this respect اشُكْرُكُم !
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2013
  3. Qureshpor Senior Member

    Punjabi, Urdu پنجابی، اردو
    I started taking interest in Arabic whilst at University and started with "Teach Yourself Arabic" by Professor Tritton. I had the advantage of knowing the alphabet (as I had learnt to read the Qur'an as a child) and a lot of the words in Urdu are borrowed from Arabic, so vocabulary was not too much of a problem either. Urdu is also written without vowels, so yet again another advantage. However, when I got to the "construct state" (the izaafat), I just got stuck and gave up. This must have been page 5 or 6! My problem was n't so much the difficulty/difficulties encountered in Arabic but my own mind that is not prepared to accept anything until it has disected the problem into minute pieces!!

    Later on I bought the "Linguaphone" Arabic course, which had tape cassettes and I enjoyed learning the language through this material. Still, when I come across a problem, I would search it in half a dozen text books at my disposal but they appeared to have everything in them except my query!! I would go back to Tritton's book now and again and then leave learning Arabic altogether once again. After a few years of this painful "struggle", I don't know what happened but things suddenly began to fall into place. I remember, when I first started to actually understand small passages in Wicken's lovely book and found myself laughing at the witty sentences interdispersed within the book, I knew I had finally found my way into this wonderful language.

    One of the difficulties that I encountered with Arabic was a lot of memory work in conjugations of verbs, especially in the "present-future". I wondered why, for example, the 3rd person singular/feminine is not "yaktubiin". This would make the whole conjugation set completely regular. I found it annoying that "taktubu" means both "you (masculine) write and "she writes"! ta prefix should have been for the second person and ya for the third!:)

    There are still doubts in my mind about some of the grammatical things but I hope in due course they will be ironed out.

    I have been to several Arabic speaking countries (including your homeland). I have always tried speaking the language and have made myself understood. However, when the natives have replied back to me, most of the time I have felt they were speaking too fast for my slow brain to capture everything. My speaking Arabic did cause a slight problem when I was in Aswan and went for a haircut with a friend. I was trying to show off my knowledge of Arabic to him. Anyway, I was unable to make myself understood as both of us just needed a trim. In the end I put my index finger out, pointing with my thumb the amount I wanted the barber to cut. Well he thought it was how much I wanted left. Needless to say, when we came out our wives walked right past us not recognising us!!
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2013
  4. suma Senior Member

    English, USA
    I think the practice (thankfully now very obsolete) of studying English via Latin, and attempts to match English to Latin grammar are very wrong.
    So I'm equally opposed to teaching or studying Arabic thru an English crutch.

    Would you judge an orange using an apple as the standard of what a fruit is suppose to look/taste like?
  5. Pathawi Member

    Oakland, California, USA
    English - USAian
    For me, the two most difficult things have been the size of the vocabulary, & the chasm between فصحى & عامية.

    I started by learning Egyptian Arabic, & have only more recently begun working on فصحى deliberately. This has meant that while learning to have conversations in Egypt, I wasn't necessarily learning skills that would help me read a newspaper. It's hard to get a sense of register. I also don't know when the vowels are different. (رحّب, for example, has a different second vowel.)

    The difference between colloquial & فصحى has meant that my skills have developed very differently. I can have decent conversations in Egyptian Arabic, but I can't express myself to the same level in writing. In Spanish, French, & German, my speaking & writing skills are about on par, as there's not such a gulf between the spoken & written forms of the language. I write questions about Arabic in Arabic on Facebook, as the medium seems conversational, but I get the sense that I'd look foolish using عامية to ask general questions in a forum with strangers.

    The size of the vocabulary is a challenge. I use a spaced repetition system with digital flashcards to learn vocabulary. Every time I encounter a word that's new to me, I look it up in the Hinds-Badawi Egyptian Arabic dictionary, & if there are example sentences, I add them to my flashcard deck. But this takes a lot of time, & my vocabulary acquisition goes more slowly than I'd like. I wish there were a similar dictionary with example sentences in فصحى. I also wish that there were good graded readers of عامية that used Arabic script & brought one beyond a beginner level. To make up for this, I've been using عامية texts that have English translations: the novel عايزة الجوّز, & the CultureTalk Egypt Website ( Neither is perfect, as the translations aren't quite exact (they're not meant to be), but they do the trick: If I can't understand what I'm reading in Arabic, I can compare it to a translation to get a general sense of where I'm getting something wrong. Additionally, with CultureTalk, I convert the video interviews to audio, & listen to them when I'm out walking here in the US. This is all very slow going.

    I don't think verb conjugation is much more difficult than in Germanic or Romance languages. The pronunciation is dramatically different (I had a very hard time wrapping my brain around emphatic consonants at the beginning), but it's a limited set of skills to pick up. I don't find lack of vocalisation particularly hard to work with in reading, but one thing I notice is that I can often read text in فصحى & understand it without being quite sure how to pronounce it.

    The one part of grammar that I've found unusually difficult is إعراب of numbers. Not so bad in Egyptian, but in فصحى…

    Bob Offer-Westort
    Oakland, California, USA
  6. tr463 Senior Member

    Without a doubt, the one word that comes to mind as soon as I read this is practice.

    My Arabic learning experience was somewhat different (and "ideal" if you will) because my university has what's considered the best Arabic program in the nation due to the fact that 2/3 al-Kitaab authors have been my teacher over the years and a small 15-20 student setting where they had ample time to focus on our personal needs.

    That being said, because they were university classes, I had Arabic homework every single day that got progressively harder. The first year wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, probably because the books didn't delve into much grammar and stuck mainly to introducing new vocab.

    I took my second year of Arabic over a 9-week summer period which was structured to cover a year's worth of material in that short time. Additionally, this is where heavier writing assignments were given and we went into the finer aspects of grammar, most notably "el i3rab." This intensive summer program gave students about 3-5 hours of homework each night and upwards of 10 hours of homework every weekend (and classes were from 9-4 Monday through Friday). I remember on my final test, we were given an un-voweled paragraph and were asked to write the conjugation marks AND i3rab marks on it - something I could do then but would laugh if you asked me to do the same now.

    Third year consisted of lots and lots of writing and fine tuning our grammar knowledge. Additionally, I took an Egyptian Arabic course that really boosted my 3meeya abilities. Personally, I believe that I found EA easy to learn because of my fus7a base, so it was only a matter of changing the accent, dropping a few "formal" grammar aspects and learning new vocab.

    The summer after that, I studied in Alexandria where I was able to cement in my EA skills and again hone my writing skills. Fourth year back in the USA where I took content courses and wrote essay upon essay. Then a year back in Alexandria where we wrote complicated papers on Arab philosophers, analyzed articles about sectarian strife, and translated academic papers to/from Arabic. In terms of EA, we watched about 2 Egyptian movies a week, wrote papers in EA, and made long recordings in EA as well. In addition to alll of that, we had a "language partner" we met ~once a week, took a class in Alexandria University (where it would be us, the one foreigner in the class and then anywhere from 100-500 other Egyptian students) and had to take those tests as well, and had an internship at an organization/business in Alex.

    The reason I wrote that novel above is to clarify the depth and range in which I studied and the ENORMOUS amounts of homework I've done over the past 5 years. Strangely, it's never been about "what's difficult" to learn for me and my classmates because not learning/understanding was never an option because you'd just fall behind and fail. However, we've always had a teacher/native speaker available should we need clarification on anything so that's always helped.

    However, my personal current situation, having been out of classes Arabic classes for about 6 months now, I can stay that getting in speaking time is difficult which has lead me to rely on my "back-up" fush7a inventory of vocab that's been hard coded into my brain. Meaning, in the random times I have spoken Arabic in the past months, if there's every a word or grammar structure I'm reaching for in EA, I'll usually just replace it with fush7a (if I remember that). I read books/the news here and there and listen to BBC podcasts in order to retain and learn new vocab. I've probably suffered the most in writing because I never liked writing to begin with (rather, the topics that were given to us in school) so I'd probably be the worst at that. Also, don't even get me started on the i3rab because that's completely gone from my memory.

    Anyway, the key takeaway is practice practice practice.
  7. إسكندراني

    إسكندراني Senior Member

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    Thank you all.

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