Using Personal Connections to Motivate Language Learning

Me standing in wooden shoes at the Keukenhof, a flower park in the Netherlands, March 2015.

Learning a new language can be motivated by many factors and developed in different environments. While I have taken language courses in classroom settings, my most recent foray into a new language has been less structured, and more personal.

In April 2015, I visited the Netherlands at the end of a semester abroad in England. Much of my mother’s extended family still lives in the Netherlands, and she and I spent about five days meeting relatives and exploring areas like Amsterdam, Heerhugowaard, Volendam, and The Hague.

My relative and I took a canal boat tour in Amsterdam, March 2015.

While not universal, we were surprised by how many Dutch people spoke English, and spoke it well. Our family explained that English language is a required subject for most students, beginning at a young age. The proliferation of English media also helps them to learn not only the formal English of the classroom, but also the common phrases and expressions used in everyday conversation. My mother and I do not speak Dutch, so we relied heavily on our family when traveling, shopping, and communicating in general. The language barrier was not a significant challenge on our trip, however, as so many of the people we interacted with could speak at least some level of English, and many written texts were also available in English as well.

My relatives and I (center) in Chicago, October 2017.

In October this year, a few of these relatives had the opportunity to visit America for several weeks. They spent a weekend with my immediate family in Illinois before visiting other cousins in Indiana and then flying to Tampa, Florida, where a mini-reunion took place. My mother and I took them to Chicago for several days to see the city sights: the Shedd Aquarium, Millenium Park, Michigan Avenue, Chicago 360, and an architectural boat tour. While my mother and I still acted as guides, they could have functioned independently due to their fluency in English; they were able to read parking machines, store signs, menus, and ticket information on their own. Their language abilities afforded them comfort and agency even in a new place, and it allowed them to interact fully with their environment without needing much help outside help.

They later told me that they were not only fluent in English, but also had working knowledge in German, French, and Spanish as well. While this kind of language variety is impressive, it is not uncommon for the world at large. A European Commission report from 2012 found that 77% of people in the Netherlands have practical skills in at least two foreign languages (p. 13), and English is the foreign language most Europeans are able to speak at 38% (p. 19). In other regions of the world, such as those in Asia, Africa, India, and the Middle East, it can be common to speak or learn more than one language. These additional languages are not always taught exclusively in a classroom environment – as is common in English-speaking countries – but instead learned more organically through exposure and everyday use.

A Pew Research Center article from 2015 details that only 25% of American adults reported speaking a language other than English in a 2006 survey, and only 43% of this group said they could speak the language very well. While these numbers may be changing, and these statistics are never exact, it is clear that Americans spend less time and effort learning foreign languages. A 2015 article from The Atlantic quoted Richard Brecht, head of the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, as saying, “It isn’t that people don’t think language education is important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.”

Language learning, especially later in life, is not easy. I studied Spanish in high school and Latin in undergrad, but I retain almost no functional or conversational skills in these languages. However, many online resources make language learning possible – and fun – after people have left the formal classroom environment. I am currently using Duolingo – an interactive phone app – to learn Dutch, in the hopes of one day being able to speak to my relatives in their native language.

If you are interested in learning a foreign language, there are many resources that are available to you, whether you are at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or not:

Rosetta Stone – for University of Illinois students and faculty, look under Quick Links on the Literatures and Languages Library homepage and login with your netID and password

Mango Languages – through the Urbana Free Library with your library barcode and Champaign Public Library with your library barcode. Many public libraries have Mango Languages subscriptions; check the online resources page.

Duolingo – freely available on iOS, android, and Windows devices

Ethnologue – This is not a language-learning tool, but it includes updated statistics about languages worldwide. Use a University of Illinois netID and password to log in.

Happy language learning!

Laura Rocco

Graduate Assistant | International and Area Studies Library

MSLIS Candidate | School of Information Sciences

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sources

Devlin, K. (2015, July 13). Learning a foreign language a ‘must’ in Europe, not so in America. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/13/learning-a-foreign-language-a-must-in-europe-not-so-in-america/.

Friedman, A. (2015, May 10). America’s lacking language skills. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/05/filling-americas-language-education-potholes/392876/.

TNS Opinoin & Social, European Commission. (2012). Europeans and their languages. Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/eb_special_399_380_en.htm.

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Learning Korean is as easy as A, B, C’s!

Ever wondered what those K-Pop bands are singing about? Or what the actors in your favorite K-dramas are crying about? Well, wonder no more because this post of Glocal Notes is for you!  Needless to say, you are not the only one because a study by The Modern Language Association found that university students taking Korean language classes increased by 45 percent between 2009 and 2013, despite the overall decrease in language learning by 7 percent. According to Rosemary Feal, the executive director of the Modern Language Association, this increase could be a result of young people’s interest with Korean media and culture. Before going into learning Korean, let’s find out about Korean language itself.

The Korean alphabet was invented!

The Korean alphabet was invented in 1444 and proclaimed by King Sejong the Great in 1446. The original alphabet is called Hunmin chŏngŭm which means “The correct sounds for the instruction of the people.” As you can see from the name of the alphabet, King Sejong cared about all of his people.

Before the Korean alphabet was invented, Korean people used Chinese characters along with other native writing systems as a means of documentation. As stated in the preface of Hunmin chŏngŭm below, because of inherent differences in Korean and Chinese and due to the fact that memorizing characters takes a lot of time, the majority of the lower classes were illiterate. This was used against them by aristocrats to put themselves in a higher position of power. As expected, the new system of writing faced intense resistance by the elites who perhaps thought it was a threat to their status and to China. However, King Sejong pushed through his opposition and promulgated the alphabet in 1446.

Below is the paraphrased translation of the preface of Hunmin chŏngŭm.

The language of [our] people is different from that of the nation of China and thus cannot be expressed by the written language of Chinese people. Because of this reason, the cries of illiterate peasants are not properly understood by the many [in the position of privilege]. I [feel the plight of the peasants and the difficulties faced by the public servants and] am saddened by the situation.

Therefore, twenty eight [written] characters have been newly created. [My desire is] such that, each [Korean] person may become familiar [with the newly created written language of Korean] and use them daily in an intuitive way.

A page from the Hunmin Jeong-eum Eonhae

A page from the Hunmin Jeong-eum Eonhae, a partial translation of Hunminjeongeum, the original promulgation of the Korean alphabet. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hunmin_jeong-eum.jpg

Korean is simple.

The construct of the system is simple. Because King Sejong knew that peasants did not have hours and hours to spend on learning how to write, he invented a system in which “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.” The modern-day script has evolved into 24 characters and is called Hangul (한글) in South Korea and Chosŏn’gul (조선글) in North Korea. Due to its simplicity, both Koreas boast exceptionally high literacy rates, more than 99% in South and North Korea.

Fourteen consonants in Hangul

Fourteen consonants in Hangul http://www.antiquealive.com/Blogs/Hangeul_Korean_Alphabet.html

Ten vowels in Hangul

Ten vowels in Hangul http://www.antiquealive.com/Blogs/Hangeul_Korean_Alphabet.html

Consonants: What you see is what you write.

The shapes of consonants, ㄱ(g/k),ㄴ(n),ㅅ(s),ㅁ(m) andㅇ(ng), are based on how your speech organs look like when you pronounce these sounds. Other consonants were derived from the above letters by adding extra lines for aspirated sounds and by doubling the consonant for tense consonants.  

Shapes of consonants in Hangul

Shapes of consonants in Hangul
http://www.wright-house.com/korean/korean-linguistics-origins.html

Vowels: Three strokes encompass the world.

Various combinations of three strokes make up vowels in Hangul. A horizontal line (ㅡ) represents the Earth (Yin), a vertical line for the standing human (ㅣ), and a point (ㆍ) for heaven (Yang). This concept is derived from Eastern philosophy where heaven, Earth and human are one.

Vowel combinations in Hangul

Vowel combinations in Hangul
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHangul_Taegeuk.png
By Jatlas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1 Block = 1 Syllable

The Korean alphabet consists of 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Unlike English, where letters are written in sequential order, Korean letters are combined into syllable blocks. Each block produces 1 syllable. A syllable block contains a combination of consonant/s and vowel/s. For example, since the word 한글 (Hangul) has two syllables, it has two blocks. Pretty easy, right?

Syllable Blocks for the word 한글 (Hangul)

Syllable Blocks for the word 한글 (Hangul)
http://allthingslinguistic.com/post/66133111314/why-the-korean-alphabet-is-brilliant

Learn Korean

If you have made it this far, you may want to check out some ways you can actually learn the language yourself. There are numerous resources and classes that will fit your learning style.

Take classes:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers twelve Korean language courses throughout the academic year with varying levels. There are multiple scholarship opportunities for learning Korean! Check out Foreign Languages and Area Studies, Critical Language Scholarship Program, Middlebury Language Schools’ Summer Intensive Program Fellowship, and many more.    

Self-study tools:

Strapped for time during the semester? There are many self-study tools that will let you learn the language in your own time, location and pace.

Print resources:

  • Integrated Korean Series – Want to take a peek at what students are learning in Korean classes? This is the current textbook used by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Korean Language Program.
  • 서강 한국어 (Sŏgang Han’gugŏ) – Series of textbooks published by Sŏgang University in Korea and used by many Korean programs in American Universities.
  • 재미있는 한국어 (Chaemi innŭn Han’gugo) – Korean textbook series published by Korea University. Volumes 4-6 are available through the University Library.
  • Everyday Korean Idiomatic Expressions: 100 Expressions you can’t live without – Have you ever wondered about some Korean expressions from K-drama that just did not do it justice with word-for-word translations? Well, this book is for you! This book lists 100 idiomatic expressions with literal and actual meanings and usages with detailed explanations so you can be a Korean language expert. Here is the book intro.

  • 외국인을 위한 한국어 읽기 (Korean Graded Readers) – Want to read Korean novels and short stories but afraid that those may be too hard for you?  Here is a set of 100 books where Korean novels and short stories are divided into levels of difficulty.
  • Korean with Chinese Characters – Want to find out how Hancha (Chinese characters in Korea) is used in a Korean context? Here is a book that lists some common Hancha words used in Korean contexts.

Language through media:

Sometimes, learning a language may be less stressful if you follow a storyline. Here are some resources for you to explore Korean movies and dramas.

  • Media Collection at Undergraduate Library – Korean movies from diverse time periods are available through the Media collection at Undergraduate library.
  • Asian Educational Media Service (AEMS) – AEMS is a program of the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that offers multimedia resources to promote awareness and understanding of Asian cultures and people.
  • Asian Film Online – Asian Film Online offers a view of Asian culture as seen through the lens of the independent Asian filmmaker. Through a selection of narrative feature films, documentaries and shorts curated by film scholars and critics, the collection offers perspectives and insights on themes highly relevant across Asia, including modernity, globalization, female agency, social and political unrest, and cultural and sexual identity.
  • Ondemandkorea.com – Watch Korean drama and variety shows, for free. Many of the episodes provide subtitles in English and Chinese.

Other Resources:

  • Korean Language Program -The Korean Language Program at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign offers Korean and accelerated Korean language course tracks for non-heritage and heritage learners. These language courses are augmented with cultural instruction introducing students to both Korean culture and society using authentic texts and audio-visual materials including newspaper articles, dramas, films, documentaries, etc. Weekly events such as the Korean Conversation Table (KCT) are available during the semester to help you practice speaking in Korean.
  • Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies (CEAPS) – The Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies provides lectures, seminars, programs and events on East and Southeast Asia.  
  • Korean Cultural Center (KCC) Facebook Page – The Korean Cultural Center is a registered student organization and a non-profit organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The group works to promote Korean culture through various events and programs. Visit their Facebook page to check out the latest event!

If you are interested in finding out more about learning Korean language or its culture, feel free to contact the International and Areas Studies Library at internationalref@library.illinois.edu. Also, don’t forget to follow our Facebook page for instant updates on cultural events and posts like this one.

Author: Audrey Chun

References

Algi Shwipke Pʻurŏ Ssŭn Hunmin Chŏngŭm. Sŏul : Saenggak ŭi Namu, 2008.

The Background of the invention of Hangeul”. The National Academy of the Korean Language. January 2004.

Hunmin Jeongeum Haerye, postface of Jeong Inji, p. 27a, translation from Gari K. Ledyard, The Korean Language Reform of 1446, p. 258.

Korea. [Seoul : Korean Culture And Information Service], 2008.                    

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Adventures in Arabic, Part II

Welcome back, Arabophiles! And thank you for joining us at Glocal Notes for the second edition of “Adventures in Arabic.” As promised, this week we will share “Ways To Cope with Difficulty” and “Miscellany.”

As always with this blog, one of our most pertinent goals is to make you more aware of the resources that we have in our library and on campus to help you with your needs. These resources come in many forms. Among them are the print, the digital, the human, the interdepartmental, and the ones that go beyond the borders of our university. Shall we take a tour?

WAYS TO COPE WITH DIFFICULTY

A screenshot of the homepage of the International and Area Studies Library's portal to materials and research strategies pertaining to the Middle East & North Africa. Found at http://www.library.illinois.edu/ias/middleeasterncollection/index.html.

A screenshot of the homepage of the International and Area Studies Library’s portal to materials and research strategies pertaining to the Middle East & North Africa. Found at http://www.library.illinois.edu/ias/middleeasterncollection/index.html.

Print & Digital Resources

As mentioned in Part I, in Arabic class here at UIUC we use a text book called Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad and her colleagues. Aside from occasional dalliances with Google Translate’s pronunciation function, I’ve found the text to be quite sufficient as a learning tool. What’s more, it is accompanied by a compact disc which holds the class’ listening exercises and videos that demonstrate how the script is written.

However, if a beginner were interested in complementary texts, one might consult the call number ranges or addresses that indicate where print reference materials are held in our library. Don’t know where those are? No problem. That’s why we have lib guides. Our University Library is a big proponent of lib guides, which are concentrated, digital resources designed around a theme and meant to help you find what you need when you need it. Here are four that pertain to learning about the Arab world and the Arabic language:

Human Resources

But there’s more!

Professor Laila Hussein is the Middle East and North African Studies Librarian at the University Library. Specifically, Professor Hussein works at this blog’s home unit, the International and Area Studies Library. She can help you find sources for your term papers, tell you about the Bibliography of Africa course and, as a native speaker of Arabic, discuss how Modern Standard Arabic differs from regional dialects. She recently published a piece about her broader work in the American Library Association’s International Leads.

Professor Kenneth Cuno is the campus’ local expert on most things Egyptian. He has spent decades studying Egyptian society and culture to come to a better understanding of how the country and its people link their ancient and pharaonic past to the present and its political uprisings. His courses this semester focus on modern Egyptian history and mutable concepts of family over time. His recent publications include Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Egypt and Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Eman Saadah is the director of the Arabic Language Program. In addition to coordinating the multiple sections of beginning Arabic courses, she is the official faculty chaperone for students traveling in the winter study abroad program to Jordan. She coordinates an annual 3-week trip for students interested in visiting the Middle East. Moreover, if you’re studying Arabic, you can write to her and ask about the weekly conversation tables held on Thursdays in La Casa on Nevada Street at 4:00 p.m. that discuss modern issues in Muslim-majority countries.

Angela Williams is the Associate Director of the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES). She is a doctoral candidate in the Education, Policy, Organization and Leadership program. Aside from being a competent Arabic speaker, she is also studying Persian.

Interdepartmental Resources

A screenshot of the University of Illinois' Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies website's home page.

A screenshot of the University of Illinois’ Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES) website’s home page.

The Center for African Studies (CAS), the Center for Global Studies (CGS), and the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES), and the European Union Center (EUC) have affiliated  professors who offer a variety of courses pertaining to the Arabic-speaking world. Moreover, these three centers host a series of events and talks that shed light on multiple topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and development efforts in Sub-Saharan African countries. There are also regular Iranian tea times at these campus cultural houses. To sign up for the Center for African Studies’ weekly newsletter, delivered by e-mail, write to Terri Gitler (tgitler@illinois.edu); to be included on the Center for Global Studies listserv, complete this form; and for CSAMES’ email list, click this link and fill out the form.

The Summer Institute of Languages of the Muslim World (SILMW) is native to our campus and is currently run by Dr. Eman Saadah. She is from Jordan and teaches Arabic during the eight weeks of the summer term. In addition to intensive courses, the program offers cultural workshops and field trips to help introduce students to Islamic cultures. Also, if you recall the federally funded fellowship mentioned in Part I of this post, also known as the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship, SILMW is FLAS-eligible and offers up to seven different languages for study, including Arabic.

Outside Academic Resources

Middlebury College offers intensive study every summer for eleven modern languages. Arabic is offered at its California campus site and is eligible for the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) federal award.

Middlebury College offers intensive study every summer for eleven modern languages. Arabic is offered at its California campus site and is eligible for the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) federal award.

Arabic at Stanford: If you’re feeling a bit shaky writing and pronouncing your letters, this nifty website can help you to perfect scribing and vocalizing the Arabic script.

Georgetown University: This page tells you what makes learning the Arabic language challenging for native speakers of English.

Middlebury College: If you’re looking for an immersive experience, but can’t quite make it abroad, you might consider Middlebury College’s Language Schools. At Middlebury, you can join a summer-long program in which you sign a Language Pledge and communicate almost exclusively in your target language for the duration of the summer term. In addition to courses, there are extracurricular activities that are all conducted in the target language, including theater, cooking, sports, poetry, and more. A total of eleven modern languages are taught through the Middlebury College Language Schools: nine are offered on the Vermont campus and two, including Arabic, are offered every summer in California. As with SILMW, these programs are also FLAS-eligible.

Around the Web

Thankfully, learning Arabic isn’t all about dictionaries, papers and tests. It is also about humor, travel, struggles, pronunciation, sharing, solidarity, culture, and community. When you’re not sounding out your alif tanwins, deciphering your waslas and choosing your proper kursis, you can check out these pages that will speak intimately to your challenges and successes:

 

MISCELLANY

 A female student wearing a hijab. Photo Credit: Tahir Ansari

A female student wearing a hijab. Photo Credit: Tahir Ansari

What’s required vs. what’s necessary

I’ve come to think of my relationship with Arabic much like any long-term one that I might have with another person; I’ve found that when I put in the time, energy, and attention for working on Arabic, peace, harmony and good tidings are my rewards. When I don’t, there’s discord, anxiety and friction between us. Knowing this, doing “just enough to get by” isn’t the best approach in creating a strong foundation for a lasting love. This frequently means requiring more of myself than what is recommended. Doubly more. As a friend of mine likes to say, “The struggle is real.”

This is my first time having an instructor who is a hijabi*.

As far as I can tell, what my instructor wears has had no bearing on the efficacy of her teaching. As a Westerner and a feminist, I’ve been exposed to schools of thought that suggest the garment is outrightly oppressive. However, writing off the cultural practice entirely without hearing from the people who respect it would be unjust. As the many think-pieces published on various Internet platforms state, a hijab does not equate to oppression just as a bikini does not equate to freedom. When we assign definitive meanings to garments, we limit the dialogues we can engage about them. Interestingly, recent news articles seem to suggest that the hijab is taking a strong foothold in the mainstream. See a Muslim policewoman’s uniform in Minnesota and a retail model’s attire for H&M. It would seem that fewer and fewer preconceptions about the covering are true.

There are heritage speakers in class.

In language pedagogy courses, new instructors are taught that there are “true beginners” and “false beginners.” True beginners have had zero to little meaningful contact with the target language being taught. False beginners are learners who may have taken the language years ago and have significant gaps in their history of learning. Or, a false beginner could be a heritage speaker who has spoken the target language for years at home but has insufficient experience in terms of reading and writing it. The heritage speakers, it seems, ask fewer questions and make fewer comments. This may be because the basic principles of the language come more easily and/or naturally to them based on their more personal experiences.

I still can’t write my name.

At the time I started writing this post, the statement written just above was true. It took me about four weeks to learn to write my name. This isn’t because my name is inherently difficult or that I’m painfully slow at picking up grammar cues. It is because the letters “k” and “n” come rather late in the abjad (alphabet) – “N” is the fourth to last. It may, then, take 20 class meetings before you can use the Arabic script to write your name, and even more than that if you’re a Henry, Harold, Heather, or Helen, as “H” is the last consonant of the alphabet. Here are some of the names I learned to write rather early: Rashid, Sara, and Tabatha.

This is not something you do for “fun.”

Over the course of my foreign language learning career, I have noticed that there are some languages that students from the United States approach casually. We say, “I’m going to brush up on my [fill in the language of your choice here].” Or, “I used to study [fill in the language of your choice here] in high school.” These languages tend to represent cultures that are nearer to the U.S. geographically and ideologically than the Middle East. Arabic is not one of these languages.

If you are American, chances are that there were no cable channels in your home that featured the Arabic language. Chances are that your local grocery chain didn’t have a specific marketing campaign to celebrate an Islamic holiday. Chances are, if you’re from the U.S., your favorite pop station isn’t regularly mixing Arabic-infused songs into its daily rotation. My point is this: Different languages and cultures are portrayed in different contexts in the United States. While Arabic class is fun, it’s also demanding, informative, challenging and rewarding. One thing it is definitely not, however, is an “easy A” for a Western, non-native/non-heritage speaker.

With this course, time must be carved out minimally five days a week for attentive practice. More than anything, this teaches me to moderate my expectations. If by the end of the semester I can…

  • politely and warmly greet people from the Maghreb, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula
  • introduce myself properly and respectfully
  • pronounce vowelled texts
  • count to one hundred
  • state the colors
  • know the days of the week and months of the year
  • name common food items
  • talk about the weather
  • and mention how I’m feeling…

I will be content.

If you didn’t catch Part I of this series last week, click here to go back in time, and be sure to follow our page on Facebook for more posts like this one.

Multiple types of marinated olives, a common food eaten in the Mediterranean. Photo Credit: Speleolog from Flickr

Multiple types of marinated olives, a common food item eaten in the Mediterranean world. Photo Credit: Speleolog

 

 *Mini-glossary of terms

abjad: The Arabic alphabet, which relies exclusively on consonants; most vowels are largely excluded from the script in writing.

hijabi: Any Muslim woman who wears a hijab, a covering for the hair, head, and upper body.

kursi: Literally “chair,” “throne,” “seat” or “stool.” In grammatical terms, the kursi is a written symbol upon which the Hamza (ء) sits but has no pronounced vowel.

Marhaba!: “Hello!”

Mumtaaz!: “Excellent!”

taliib (masc.)/taliibah (fem.): seeker of knowledge (“student”)

tanwiin: A grammatical term that refers to three different diacritical marks that indicate that a word ends in the sounds “-an,” “-in” or “-un”

Tasharrafna!: “Nice to meet you!”

ustaad (masc.)/ustada (fem.): teacher

waajib: homework

wasla: A diacritical mark (ٱ) that indicates the sound Hamza should be elided or suppressed in pronunciation

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Adventures in Arabic, Part I

The Arabic alphabet or "abjad*" of 28 letters, read from right to left. (See glossary for asterisked items.)

The Arabic alphabet or abjad* of 28 letters, read from right to left. (See glossary for asterisked items.)

After more than a decade of study, it’s safe to say that I’m a pretty experienced language learner. To me, languages are a medium for learning more about neighbors, those near and those far. If you say “direct and indirect object pronouns,” I know what you mean. “Accents and diacritical marks”? Got that, too. “Formal and informal registers?” Yes, I understand. But here’s a series of terms that are altogether new to me:

  • hamza and glottal stops
  • teeth and tails
  • vowelled and unvowelled texts*.

(See the glossary at the end of the article for asterisked items.)

These are all characteristic of the Arabic language, and, before August 24, 2015, the first day of the Fall 2015 term, I had never heard of them.

Thanks to the Center for African Studies and the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS), I am on a journey that is not only introducing me to new vocabulary but is taking me on a metaphorical tour of lands I’ve never known. In this two-part blog series, I will review the first month of class meetings my Arabic 201 course has had and introduce you to some potentially new revelations.

The overarching goal of these pieces is to introduce you to print, digital, human and interdepartmental resources available to you in our library and all over campus should you be interested in Arabic, the Middle East, its diaspora, and/or Islam. In the first installment of “Arabic Adventures,” we will cover two topics, each with five themes: “Modern Day Use of the Language” and “Characteristics of the Language.” Be sure to check the Glocal Notes blog next week for “Ways to Cope with Difficulty” and “Miscellany,” in which we will explore more curiosities.

MODERN DAY USE OF THE LANGUAGE

coffee shop

The Farsi (Persian) language written in Arabic script. It reads kaafee shaap, or “coffee shop.” Photo Credit: Rui Abreu

The Arabic script is used to write many different languages.

Just as the Latin script—the one you are currently reading—is used to write many languages like English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and German, the Arabic script is used to write multiple languages as well. That is, the symbols used to write Arabic are the same symbols used to write Persian, Urdu, Pashtu and Kurdish. Combined, there are more than 560 million speakers of these four languages all over the world. Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was also written with the Arabic script (Csató 135).

Demand for the language is growing (Conlin)!

Every seat in my classroom is full and has been for four weeks. This surprises me because the class meets five days a week and has handwritten homework due almost every day. Among the undergraduates and graduate students, we even have someone auditing the class. Students want to be there and are very motivated with the language. Moreover, the United States’ government has recognized the importance of developing a multilingual citizenry and has therefore established multiple lines of funding to support committed language learners in their efforts to master other tongues. Among the scholarships and fellowships available are the following:

There will be an information session regarding the Critical Language Scholarship Program on campus, October 8, 2015 from 3:30- 4:30 at 807 S. Wright St. Floor 5 (Illini Union Bookstore), Room 514. Students of Arabic and 13 other languages are eligible to apply.

An early edition of the textbook Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad used in beginning Arabic classes at the University of Illinois. Photo Credit: Meedan Photos

An early edition of the textbook Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad used in beginning Arabic classes at the University of Illinois. Photo Credit: Meedan Photos

Variants of the Arabic language are not 100% mutually intelligible.

In our classroom, we use a pair of textbooks titled Alif Baa and Al-Kitaab. (Alif is the first letter of the Arabic abjad* and baa is the second. Kitaab is the word for “book.”) With this text, we learn Modern Standard Arabic, which is also known as fusHa and is understood by most native speakers of Arabic. However, given the wide breadth of people and countries where Arabic is spoken—conservatively, from Morocco to Iran— the variations between and among regional dialects can make communication challenging. For example, as people in the West are infrequently exposed to the Englishes of India and Nigeria, one must accustom him or herself to varying accents and vocabulary in order understand and be understood. Therefore, learning Arabic in a classroom is a beginning on the road to competency and fluency, not an end.

It is a standard practice for Muslims to learn to read Arabic for the purpose of reciting verses from the Koran (Qur’an), the sacred Islamic text.

However, many Muslims do not speak Arabic or use the language outside of religious contexts. For example, one graduate student I know at the U of I is from Bangladesh. She is a practicing Muslim and is able to read the Koran, but beyond the holy book and polite greetings, her knowledge of Arabic as a modern language is limited. Speaking of which, the Koran’s surahs (chapters) can be read and/or heard for free at quran.com and, as with the Bible, multiple sites allow you to order a free copy. The Google search “free qur’an” yields more than 33 million results.

A young girl learns to read the Koran. Photo Credit: Plan Asia

A young girl learns to read the Koran. Photo Credit: Plan Asia

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE LANGUAGE

Remnants, vestiges and “fossils” in the language reveal its history of contact with other cultures.

Did you know that Arabs ruled what came to be known as Spain and the Iberian Peninsula for nearly eight centuries? The most commonly cited dates are 711- 1492 A.D. (Watt). Arabs also traded heavily with peoples in East Africa, particularly in places like the Swahili Coast and Dar es Salaam (Horton), which forms part of modern-day Tanzania. Wherever the Arabs went, they left a lasting vocabulary that provides evidence of their travels, influences, cultures and wares. While the words below are not all direct translations, they do reflect origins, roots and terms that have had centuries of comparable use in their respective tongues:

Arabic Portuguese Spanish French Swahili English
Insha’aallah! Oxalá!/Espero Ojalá!/Espero J’espère Insha’aallah!/Natumaini I hope/God-willing
mi’a cem cien cent mia one hundred
qmees camisa camisa chemise shumizi/kamisi chemise/shirt
rafeeq amigo amigo ami rafiki friend
sukkar açúcar azúcar sucre sukari sugar
zeit azeite aceite huile mafuta ya kupika cooking oil

 

A group of Muslim men bowed in prayer and a young boy playing. Photo Credit: Daniel Bayona

A group of Muslim men bowing in prayer as a young boy poses playfully. Photo Credit: Daniel Bayona

Religion is embedded in the language.

If you ask someone of the Arab world in Arabic how he or she is, an appropriate response is “al-Hamdu li-llah,” meaning, “Thank God.” This could mean “I’m great,” “I’m fine,” “I could be better,” “God is merciful” or simply be a verbal enunciation to accompany a shrug. Here is a list of five common, everyday expressions in Arabic that all contain a variant of “Allah,” the Arabic word for and name of God:

  • Allah!: Wow! What a surprise!
  • al-Hamdu li-llah: Thank God
  • Bismi-llaah: In the name of God (said before or upon beginning something)
  • Insha’aallah: God willing, hopefully
  • Maa shaa a-llah!: Wow, that’s wonderful/beautiful/adorable! (Brustad 166)

When you think about it, this is not so different from:

  • God bless you (after a sneeze)
  • Jesus Christ! You scared me!
  • Lord, have mercy!
  • OMG/Oh my God!
  • TGIF/Thank God it’s Friday!

Right-to-left.

You have probably already heard that Arabic is written from right to left.

.tfel ot thgir morf daer era secnetnes taht snaem osla sihT

Did you catch that?

This also means that sentences are read from right to left.

And organizational paradigms are constructed from right to left. For example, math equations were once carried out as follows:

4 = 2 + 2

7 = 3 – 10

8 = 2\16

Also, when you open a book, its front cover rests in your right hand. If you examine the comic below, note that the text begins in the upper right-hand corner of the right page and ends on the lower left-hand corner of the left page.

A comic written in Arabic. Given the right-to-left reading pattern in Arabic, the panel in the lower left-hand corner of the entire image should be read last. Photo Credit: Maya

A comic written in Arabic. Given the right-to-left reading pattern in Arabic, the panel in the lower left-hand corner of the entire image should be read last. Photo Credit: Maya

 

Some sounds are entirely foreign, like the letters ع (ayn) and غ (ghayn).

There are no English equivalents for either of them and, therefore, they can represent real challenges in aural perception for native English speakers. In transliteration (Language Library), the ع character appears as a small, elevated “c,” as in the following word for “university”: jaami ͨ a.

A screen shot of the word "university" in English, its Arabic script translation and the ع character circled in red, courtesy of Google Translate.

A screen shot of the word “university” in English, its Arabic script translation and the ع character circled in red, courtesy of Google Translate.

#BlackDotsMatter

ب ت ث

See those three symbols above? Each of them shares the same skeleton. However, the dots, their placement and their numbers distinguish them from one another. On the right, the letter is baa; in the middle, the letter is taa; and on the left, the letter is thaa. Arabic can be resourceful in that it uses a limited amount of skeletons for different letters and makes minimal but perceptible changes to convey new meanings.

#NotAllTs

Where the English language uses one symbol for the letter “t,” Arabic uses multiple symbols to distinguish its varying sounds. Being mindful of your tongue, say the words “tab,” “thank,” “that” and “taught” aloud. If you pay close attention, you realize that the “t” sounds are different, particularly with the blends or combinations of two consonants. In Arabic, “tab” would be written with a ت,“thank” with a ث,“that” with a ذ and “taught” with a ط. The same is true with the letter “s”: “said” would begin with a س, “should” with a ش and “sought” with a ص.

Cursive is mandatory.

Lastly, for this week’s post, know that in Arabic, letters are generally connected in the written script. Just a handful of the 28 letters make up the exceptions, like ا (alif), (daal), ذ (thaal), ر (raa), ز (zaay) and و (waaw). What makes the writing truly engaging is that the letters generally have an “independent/isolated” shape, an “initial” shape, a “medial” shape and a “final” shape. That is, depending upon where the letter appears in a word, it may take on a different appearance. Take nuun (ن), for example, the equivalent of “n” in the English alphabet. See the image below for its four different manifestations, all dependent upon position.

A screenshot from ArabicPod101.com as seen on youtube.com.

A screenshot from ArabicPod101.com as seen on youtube.com depicting the four representations of the letter nuun.

For more on this topic, visit Glocal Notes next week and remember to like our Facebook page!

*A mini glossary

abjad: A system much like an alphabet that relies strictly on the writing of consonants to relay messages. In other words, short vowels are largely excluded from the script in writing.

hamza and glottal stops: The word hamza describes a written symbol and a sound made with one’s throat. For example, upon saying “uh oh”, the “uh,” the sound produced is hamza. In linguistics, this vocal phenomenon is called a glottal stop. While most native speakers of English only make this sound to signify something haphazard, it is in fact an integral part of the Arabic language.

teeth and tails: Just like tittles – the dots topping the letters i and j – in learning to write Arabic, it is important to pay attention to the letters’ dots, serifs, curvatures, strokes and lengths. The “teeth” refer to the beginning and connecting segments of letters and the “tails” refer to their ending segments.

vowelled and unvowelled texts: In Arabic, words are typically written without short vowels. So, for example, the word “continent” would be written solely with its consonants, such as “cntnnt.” The language relies on the reader’s prior knowledge to supply the necessary vowels. For young and new learners and/or ambiguous messages, texts are generally “vowelled,” or, that is, they include the letters necessary to sound out the words’ pronunciations. These texts, however, are the exception, and not the rule. “Unvowelled texts” are far more common.

References

Brustad, Kristen. Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995. Print.

Conlin, Jennifer. “For American Students, Life Lessons in the Middle East.” The New York Times. 6 August 2010. Web. 26 September 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/fashion/08Abroad.html.>

Csató, Éva Ágnes. The Turkic Languages. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Horton, Mark. The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society. Oxford: Blackwell publishers, 2000. Print.

“Transliteration.” Language Library: A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Hoboken: Wiley, 2008. Credo Reference. Web. 27 Sep 2015.

Watt, W. Montogomery. A History of Islamic Spain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965. Print.

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