On the joys of learning Arabic script

Just by way of follow-up on my attempting to learn the Arabic alphabet and fuel my brain, I’ve surprised myself in learning about ten letters already in the last several days since my previous post.  My Apple iPad app helps me a lot, as it groups letters by similarity, and so you quickly begin to recognize that letters fall into families.

Seems to me, this is a good way to learning inventories, whether of vocabulary, birds, trees, flowers, etc.  If you do this with a language with many English cognates like Spanish or French you can actually acquire a reading vocabulary of several thousand words in a matter of an hour since, for example, our –ion ending words are virtually the same in spelling and meaning in those languages, confirming the wise pedagogic axiom of proceeding from the known to the unknown.

I haven’t actually practiced writing the letters at this stage, but see a challenge when it comes to connecting the letters in script.  You also mustn’t make the frequent Westerner mistake of writing the characters from left to right. In its cursiveness, Arabic script reminds me of the now defunct shorthand secretaries learned years ago.

What always amazes me when you start a new interest is its snowball effect, or tendency to get larger as you get into it.  Now I’m becoming aware of just how dynamic and relevant Arabic is in its growing number of speakers and considerable literary heritage. (The Arabian Nights comes to mind).  And of course there’s the sacred Koran, recited in mosques around the world.

I’ve also learned that Arabic script is employed in writing Farsi (Iran), Urdu (India and Pakistan), the latter rivaling Hindi in its vast number of speakers.  Additionally, a score of other tongues use Arabic script.

If you go beyond written Arabic, you quickly learn how important it becomes to choose its dialect version wisely as considerable variations exist between, say, Egyptian versus Iraqi Arabic.  If I were to actually make a stab at acquiring conversational, or everyday Arabic, I’d probably pick the Jordanian variant simply because several of my student friends in France years ago came from there, and I associate them with many kindnesses. I also happen to like Jordan’s progressive royal family.

220px-RichardFrancisBurtonArabic has rekindled my memories of reading the biography  of ebullient 19th century explorer Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), who lived one of the most remarkable lives on record, with a facility for learning languages quickly, including Arabic, without an accent.  (See Lovell’s A Rage to Live).

tresi827And not to be outdone, there’s the extraordinary story of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), fluent master of Arabic, advisor to kings, and a principal architect of the post-Ottoman Middle East.  (See Wallach’s Desert Queen).

On more familiar grounds to most of us, though I’ve not read his classic work, The Seven Pillars, we have the saga of Bell’s good friend, T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), better known to millions as Lawrence of Arabia via the movie version of his storied life.  By the way, all three acquired Arabic outside the classroom, or without formal study.

In sum, there are so many reasons that can enter into your choice of a language to study:  ease, heritage, utility, etc.  One that’s often missed, however, is distinctiveness.  If you want to find a less traveled path, try taking-up Swedish or even a language drenched in euphonious vowel syncopation like Hawaiian or Maori that always leaves me mesmerized.  You’ll have a leg-up on the herd and find new friends, flattered that you chose their language and culture.

I happen to find this also occurs with a language like Arabic. Though it’s a first language for millions, it’s still a rare acquisition for Westerners.  And among languages, for me at least, it smacks of the exotic.


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