A Journey in Arabic (MSA)

It has been 10 years since I started learning Arabic, but never quite got to writing a full-length reflection on this journey thus far. I feel that it is time to share my experiences on the learning process, and the various challenges I encountered along the way.

December 2009. I had only just completed my elementary education, ready to enter junior high school. The memories of the standardised exams past still lingered deep in my mind, along with the thoughts and considerations for choosing with school to enter. Doing a third language did cross my mind by that point, but I never gave much thought to it until then. The language center offered French, German and Japanese as “foreign languages”, and Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu as “Asian languages”. Strange, I know. Why would they classify Japanese as a foreign language instead of an Asian language, I thought. I had been pressured to pursue one of these as a third language, for my parents had done Japanese and French before. The thought of exchange programs to respective countries surfaced, and so did the prospect of attaining some sense of cultural literacy. So definitely, I had to make my choice.

Arabic never crossed my mind as a first-choice language. Other than the Halal logo on many of the food packaging and Classic Arabic being the language used in the Qur’an, my prior knowledge of this language never exceeded those bounds. Perhaps this was indicative of the various cultural, linguistic and communicative skills I stood to gain, but I did not have that foresight.

My first choice came to be French. With prior upbringing in France, I had come to have a basic foundation of understanding how French sounds worked, though most of the grammar and vocabulary were chucked at the back of my mind by that point. Of course, being able to revisit the language after a decade or so was an attractive prospect, in addition to the potential immersion or exchange programs mentioned. So yeah, that decision was made, with Arabic as my second choice.

To be honest, I was quite surprised to be allocated to Arabic. It was the most foreign sounding language in my opinion, probably due to the lack of exposure of the language or its language family within this country. Like many other Arabic courses convened worldwide, the Arabic I was taught was Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA. It aimed to provide a fundamental understanding of Arabic spoken in the Middle East and North Africa.

There is ongoing debate on which regional Arabic dialect MSA is closest to. Some argued that MSA is most closely related to Levantine Arabic, spoken in countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, while some proposed Gulf Arabic, spoken in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. Various other dialects with influences from other languages also exist, such as Algerian Arabic with French and Berber loanwords, and Egyptian Arabic (Masri), with influences from Egyptian Coptic. Each variant has their own quirks and phonological differences, as well as vocabulary for some objects and actions. This makes the Arabic language as a whole way more diverse than many would assume to be; its diversity could be on par with English, French and Spanish, with respective variants spoken in different countries and geographical regions. This however, brings into the question of mutual intelligibility. While say, a speaker of Egyptian Arabic may understand MSA, a speaker of only MSA may not fully understand Egyptian Arabic.

A significant portion of my first year was spent on getting used to reading and writing Arabic. The Arabic script needed some time to digest, personally speaking. While the sounds and letters are way more regular than in English, the words did not indicate vowels, except for the diacritic marks and long vowels which occasionally appear. While native speakers could determine the vowel sounds implied based on context, beginners like me at that time memorised the word with all its vowel marks. Letter joining was also a significant section in my first semester too. Arabic script is somewhat cursive, and letters can adopt up to four forms based on their position in a word. With 28 letters representing the language, it packed a rather low level of difficulty, as I had prior experience with cursive writing.

There is no denying that Arabic had several unusual sounds, speaking from an anglocentric perspective. In additional to voiced and voiceless pharyngeal fricatives, represented by ع (‘ayn, glottal stop) and ح (ḥāʾ, which sounds like a really hard /h/), there was a system of emphatic consonants. In MSA, it is described as an obstruent consonant which contrasts against voiced and voiceless obstruent consonants. There are five of these in MSA, represented by ط (ṭāʾ, a pharyngealised /t/, with a throat constriction), ظ (ẓāʾ, a pharyngealised /ð/), ص (ṣād, a pharyngealised /s/),  (ḍād, a pharyngealised /d/) and قَ (qāf, an uvular consonant pronounced further back of the throat than /k/). In regional variants, additional letters may be added to represent certain sounds that only appear in those respective dialects, but generally this 28-letter system is fairly constant.

Along with these, there was the concept of sun and moon letters to grasp. This system works to alter the pronunciation of the letter lām of the preceding Arabic definite article al~. Sun letters cause the assimilation of the letter lām into the initial consonant of the noun, as in الشَّرْق (ash-sharq, the east). Moon letters do not cause this assimilation, as in الْمَتْحَف (al-matḥaf, the museum). This system is split evenly into 14 sun and 14 moon letters, which became natural as I got used to it.

The very first themes covered were mainly on how to introduce yourself, from hobbies and interests to daily routine and occupations. This formed the basic vocabulary which was sufficient for basic conversation. Feminine nouns distinguished from masculine nouns in a more explicit fashion compared to languages like French, owing to the tâ marbûta letter attached to the end of every feminine noun.

One grammatical point I was never made aware of were noun cases, the nominative, accusative and the genitive. Maybe this omission was allowed due to the lack of emphasis on noun case declensions in everyday speech, although I have yet to converse with a native Arabic speaker in a non-academic setting to determine this. I only realised it when reading through my textbooks at the time, which were Mastering Arabic by Wightwick & Gaafar, and Al-Kitaab fii Ta’allum al-‘Arabiyya. These books definitely warrant separate reviews, considering how integral these books were to my learning experiences.

I have to remark that the most difficult parts were the verbs. For one, there are 10 different patterns of verb conjugations. You have the two typical tenses where you conjugate by person, number and gender. In 10 different patterns. It certainly did seem difficult at first sight, and even in practice, there was a lot to get used to. Understanding which verbs belong to which pattern, or which conjugation to use. I have to say that even until now, 10 years on, I have a bit of trouble every now and then nailing the right form of the verb to be used.

The 10 different patterns of conjugating verbs.

I was quite new to language learning then, and so I was quite naive around building vocabulary as a new language learner. Therefore, I face arguably the most difficulty in building vocabulary in Arabic, where my knowledge barely extended past that of what was taught in lessons. New to social media then, there were not many avenues I could reach out to for help. It was not until three years later when I put in real hard effort to familiarise myself with more words, and those I could find practical use in. Gone were the days where I complained that I only had my dictionary, or BBC Arabic news to learn new words from. I incorporated flashcards into my learning process, taking inspiration from the Leitner system that Memrise applied in its application.

The journey forward was not smooth sailing, where I encountered my first grave failing marks in Arabic assessments my language center had. When 2013 came around, there were only a few months left to the standardised exam, the GCE O levels. It was supposedly to be on par with the CEFR B1 standard, or early-intermediate level. Of course I had to pass it somehow. I was the only one in my high school sitting for that examination, and of course I did not want to be part of the failing statistic.

Getting a mere 37% for the preliminary examinations was quite disheartening, but still a learning process nonetheless. By that point I was more confident in speaking and writing, although my reading and listening had a long way to go. Understanding that vocabulary had always been my weak point in this learning journey, I decided to explore various methods in picking up new words in Arabic, Memrise included. I remember getting a storybook written entirely in Arabic, only to paste stickers over it to try to figure out which words best fit the context of the story.

A page of the storybook I used in my vocabulary and usage building process.

Being able to fully understand the story, in Arabic, for the first time ever brought a sense of achievement and encouragement. It was also a comfortable method at the time, and so it stuck with me for the next few months.

The GCE O levels examinations in the October of 2013 came and went. I entered the examination hall still with knowledge gaps here and there, but I was glad to have completed it to the best of my abilities. What was left were the results to be released. Sometimes I did worry about my performance, like the ever-looming fear of failing. Aptitude tests like these surely do not dictate how well one is at a language; that is up to the native speakers to decide. If one is able to strike a nice conversation with a native speaker, I thought, then the language learner has grasped some conversational standards in their target language. It was with this mentality where I set off to pursue my language learning escapades in 2014, which continues to this very day.

Results day came round in January 2014, and to be honest, I was not expecting myself to do well. All I wanted was to pass it. And fortunately, I did. These years of effort were well worth, and that moment felt surreal. I was probably the only one in my high school’s history to sit for the Arabic as a Third Language GCE O level examination and pass it. And this was it, the result of my first delve in foreign languages.

Following these four years of learning Arabic, what should be the way forward? Was I going to drop Arabic entirely from my life, or to let the experiences shape how I was going to tackle future languages? Surely this journey would not end there, or these experiences would have been for nothing. The challenges I encountered along the way in learning Arabic were somehow the ones I craved to encounter again. And so, began my hobby, or interest, to learning as many of the world’s languages as I can, with several pre-set goals in mind.

In some ways, this learning experience was the origin of my interest in language learning, linguistics and perhaps, anything language-related. If I were given the chance to re-learn Arabic again, I would gladly take up the opportunity, now better informed of resources, a community of learners, and a better understanding of priorities in language learning. These four years have served as a formative period for what was to come later. Even after the last big hurdle in Arabic, revisiting the language every now and then was what I had been doing since. Learning more about the varieties of Arabic, even delving into some of them like Egyptian Arabic, I was reminded that language learning is definitely way beyond just passing examinations. And this was the philosophy I have adopted ever since.

Afterword

This reflection has been in the works for months, as I recollect my experiences, memories, achievements and challenges in my learning process. With Arabic being my first true pursuit in language learning, I am glad to have composed a full-length reflection of my learning journey, rather than leaving this as a brief mention for why I am so interested in learning foreign languages. I hope this reflection has inspired some to pick up learning languages, or to motivate learners who have encountered challenges in their learning process.

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