Tag Archives: Arabic language

Arabic as Americans hear it

Who learns Arabic in America, and why? The latest World in Words hears from a few American learners.

Very few Americans paid attention to Arabic until 9/11. Since then, the language has been associated with anti-American rhetoric and violence. Ridiculously so, if you ask Zora O’Neill. Arabic is a language, not a set of beliefs.

O’Neill grew up in New Mexico, studied Arabic in college and lived across the Arab world where she was exposed to several varities of the language.

Zora O'Neill  (Photo: Christine Han)

Zora O’Neill (Photo: Christine Han)

When she hears someone exclaim, “Allahu akbar!” she does not run for cover thinking, as some Americans might, that a suicide bomber was about to detonate his device. Instead, she understands it as an expression of joy, praise and exuberance.

“I was watching the Arab version of ‘The Voice,'” says O’Neill. “One of the judges jumped up on his red chair and shouted ‘Allahu akbar!’ about somebody singing. There is nothing innately malevolent about that phrase. Quite the opposite.”

The students learning Arabic in Hani Abo Awad’s class know this too. Awad, an Arab-Israeli, teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington. Alumna Carol Zall returns to the school in the podcast, and talks with both teachers and students about their affection for Arabic.

So if you think that the only Americans who learn Arabic are those who want to work for the Pentagon or the CIA, think again.

Podcast contents

00:20 How Zora O’Neill got her name. More on Zora here. And here’s her book on learning Arabic.

1:50 America’s image of Arabic takes a dark turn.

2:10 “Allahu akbar!”

3:40 “You got punked”

4:20 Learning Arabic at a Jewish school

Carol Zall age 17. This is cropped from a group photo of 12th graders at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington.  (Photo courtesy Carol Zall)

Carol Zall age 17. This is cropped from a group photo of 12th graders at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington. (Photo courtesy Carol Zall)

5:15 Carol Zall: “This is my school.” Carol has posted her story with photos here.

7:23 Carol meets the new Arabic teacher.

9:50 Hani gets used to Washington “Oh my gosh, the food.”

10:42 “Americans are nice.” “Are you serious???”

11:50 A surprise: students want to learn Arabic.

12:15 Is this school unique, the only Jewish school to teach Arabic?

14:55 Classical Arabic. “Where do you know that from?”

Hani Abo Awad teaches Arabic at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington. He is an Arab-Israeli. (Photo: Carol Zall)

Hani Abo Awad teaches Arabic at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington. He is an Arab-Israeli. (Photo: Carol Zall)

15:51 There is no reason for Jews not to learn Arabic.

17:03 Elana’s T-shirt gets a reaction.

19:00 Learning French was less fraught.

19:50 “It’s not just a job”

20:20 Just say no to Hollywood.

23:00 The best years of Hani’s life.

The World in Words is also at PRI and on Facebook . And this is me on Twitter.

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Supermarket French, Chanson French, and Arabic in repose

The French of Anna Sam and that of Juliette Gréco could hardly be more different.

The French of Gréco (pictured) is moody and melodramatic, as befits this veteran chanteuse. Her pitch swoops to low octave depths and her Rs rrrrroll,  as she sings of love, betrayal and Paris. The songs sound like personal confessions, but most are not:  she became famous by singing the poems and lyrics of Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert and others. Now in her 80s, Gréco is bringing her über-Frenchness to a London stage.

Anna Sam records the mendacious and the mundane that she overhears at the supermarket checkout.

Sam recently retired after eight years working as a hôtesse de caisse (cash till hostess) — that was her official title. Less officially, she was a beepeuse (a woman who beeps).  She was doing it to bankroll her university degree in French literature — not that the customers knew, or would have cared.

Anna Sam overhead humanity at its meanest and most idiotic. Couples surreptitiously kissing in the frozen food section, or having sex next to the detergents. People so umbilically attached to their mobile phones that that they didn’t stop to say “please” or “thank you.” Mothers telling their children: “If you don’t work hard at school, you’ll end up a like that lady behind the counter.” And when she clocked off and went home, Sam couldn’t stop hearing the beep…beep…beep of the scanner. She recorded her observations in a blog, which became a book, Les Tribulations d’une Caissière (translated into several languages including English).  Her fame may yet spread, with talk of a movie.

Also in the pod, the UN Security Council resolution that got lost in translation. Resolution 242. is one of the Security Council’s most famous documents, the so-called land-for-peace concept in the Middle East. The French and English versions don’t quite say the same thing. The result? Confusion and conflict, with no end in sight. Not a good advertisement for translation or multilingualism.

And to round things off, we hear from the founders of Meena, an Arabic-English bilingual poetry journal, out of the U.S. port of New Orleans and the Egyptian port of Alexandria. (Meena means port of entry). Arabic never did sound so sweet.

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Liberian proverbs, Ajami, and courteous interruptions

My colleague Jason Margolis recently went to Liberia to report a few stories for The World. While he was there, he spent some time with his childhood buddy Jason Hepps, who has lived and worked in Liberia for five years. Long story short, the two Jasons  found themselves judging a Liberian proverb competition.

Liberian English and its cousin Liberian Kreyol are littered with pithy sayings. Most of them, though,  are as incomprehensible as badly translated Chinese fortunes. For example:  Your child cannot poo poo on your lap, and you cut your legs off, you just have to clean them off.  Or: If one keeps pressing a young bird in his palms, the bird may one day stooled in his hands. So, on the face of it, lots of toilet humor. But the meanings of many of these sayings aren’t intended to be  funny. Several include refererences to Liberia’s civil war and refugee camps. Jason’s report centers around the night when he and his fellow Jason — with plenty of help from local experts — picked the best proverb.

Is this script a language? Yes and no. The writing system is Arabic. But the language isn’t. In this case, it’s Mandinka, one of many African languages that often use Arabic script. In fact, these languages have borrowed Arabic script  for more than a thousand years. What’s interesting though, is that Ajami has been overlooked by most historians;  African history has been told through the lens of  English, French or Arabic documents. Also, because Ajami isn’t a language, Africans who used it were often classified as illiterate, even though they were quite capable of writing sentences of Mandinka or Hausa or Wolof. Now Ajami is getting a bit more respect, thanks to people like Fallou Ngom of Boston University and Dmitry Bondarev of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Every year, 4,000 staffers at the United Nations in New York sign up for language classes. There, they learn not just how to say things in other  languages but how to say them diplomatically. Which can mean being clear, or being extremely unclear, depending on what’s required.  That takes practise, as does learning how to interrupt and assert yourself without being rude. Most of us have trouble with that in our mother tongues.

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Globish, health care, and a Facebook misunderstanding

This week, the case for and against Globish. A group of writers and artists debate the proposition that a simplified version of English is uniquely equipped to take over the world. That argument is made by Robert McCrum in his new book, Globish. (The term globish was popularized by Jean-Paul Nerrière to mean an emerging and simplified form of English used by non-native English speakers). McCrum believes that English is the ultimate open-source language: it welcomes, absorbs and adapts foreign words like no other language. What’s more, its grammar is relatively simple, which makes it more suited to universality than, say, Russian or Arabic. Wait a moment…Russian and Arabic, as complex as they are, are spoken across dozens of borders. In any case, perhaps it’s all that global travel that has turned English into a grammatically simpler language. This point, and many others, come from John McWhorter‘s New Republic critique of Robert McCrum’s assumptions. Read other reviews of Globish here, here , here and here. (I could link on and on; the man clearly has a magnificent publicist).

Also, now that millions more Americans have health insurance, clinics and hospitals are under pressure to make their services more accessible to non-English speakers. The pod has a report from Kansas City.

Then, a quick update on World Cup TV viewing habits in the United States with Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. If you think that only Spanish speakers watched Univision, and only English speakers watched ABC and ESPN, think again.

Finally, a conversation with Gregory Levey, whose book Shut Up, I’m Talking has more Facebook fans than Bill Clinton. Gregory has concluded that these are fans not of his book, but of the expression shut up, I’m talking. He’s trying to figure out how — or even whether — to address these followers. It’s the curse of having come up with a catchy, slightly obnoxious book title. In our interview, I suggest to Gregory that for a future book, he might consider the title I Hate When One String of my Hoodie Becomes Longer Than the Other. That title would come with more than 1.5 million Facebook fans, even before publication.  Our original, 2008 interview with Gregory Levey, about his adventures writing speeches for the Israeli government is in two parts, here and here.

Listen to the podcast  in iTunes or here.

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Bilingual tots and the language of smell

Not many parents in Israel make the choice, but a few send their kids to Arabic/Hebrew bilingual preschools. The World’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell is one of them. His son is about to enroll in a preschool where Hebrew and Arabic are spoken on alternate days. To relax, this 3-year-old will speak English at home. (Matthew, he’ll thank you for it one day…)  Matthew says parents have different reasons for sending their kids to a bilingual preschool. For Hebrew speakers, it often comes from a desire to learn more about the culture of their Arab neighbors. For Arabic speakers, it’s more likely to be out of a wish to get a leg up the socio-economic ladder. For outsiders like Matthew, it’s a golden opportunity to have the kid learn a couple of foreign languages at a stage in life when those languages might stick.

Next in the pod is an interview with Seattle-area rabbi Mark Glickman (pictured, looking at the camera).  He recently visited the Cairo Genizah, which once boasted one of Judaism’s largest repositories of documents. Many of these documents dated back hundreds of years, but at the Cairo Genizah, they were, in Rabbi Glickman’s words, “a messy, jumbled dump.” They are now stored, in somewhat better shape, in archives around the world — in the UK, the US and Israel.  Glickman explains why so many sacred Jewish texts were written in Arabic.

Next, a report from Syria on book-publishing and reading in Arabic-speaking world. Books in Arabic have a long history (pictured is an Arabic version of One Thousand and One Nights from the 14th Century). But not many people these days read books in Arabic: a recent UN survey reported that less than 2% of native Arabic speakers reads even one book a year. That means that fewer books are being published.  However, you can still find bookstores in cities like Damascus and Beirut; they’re trying mightily to revive the practice of reading in Arabic.

A short plug here for Ed Park’s novel, Personal Days. The book is replete with inventive wordplay (unwanted backrub given by a character named Jack = jackrub; character called Graham with whiny British accent is renamed Grime). Plus, there’s a nice un-Eating Sideways moment. It’s when the narrator suggests that there should be a French expression, along the lines of l’esprit d’escalier, for the sensation of being initially amused but later unnerved by something that’s said to you.

Finally, we visit the New York Public Library for a smell test. What does a book’s particular odor convey to an educated nose, such as that of Shelley Smith (pictured) of the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division?

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Israel’s street sign vigilantes, learning Hindi, and your brain on language

sign1This week, a mom-and-pop effort to restore Arabic script to street signs in Israel. Earlier this year, Israel’s new transport minister Israel Katz proposed an overhaul to his country’s road signs. So far they’ve been trilingual: Hebrew, Arabic and English. But Katz wants to remove Arabic and English city names and replace them with transliterations of the Hebrew names. So instead of the English word, “Jerusalem,” and the Arabic name for the city, “Al-Quds,” both languages would spell out “Yerushalayim,” the Hebrew name of the city. The proposal hasn’t been implemented yet. signs2But street signs in Israel have long been ideological battlegrounds: the Arabic has often been defaced or obliterated. That’s where Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel (pictured right) come in. They are reinstating the Arabic, one sign at a time. So far the police haven’t stopped them. (Photos: Daniel Estrin)

Also in this week’s podcast, I speak with author Katherine Russell Rich on learning Hindi at a language school in Rajasthan. Her book “Dreaming in Hindirich-dreaming1 is also an investigation into what happens to our brains when we learn a learn a language. Rich quizzed several neurolinguists, so she could get a handle on the challenges and all-round weird linguistic moments she encountered in her pursuit of Hindi mastery. So there are answers (not THE answers perhaps) to the following: what’s the difference between learning a language “intuitively” as a child and in a classroom setting later on? Why is it so difficult to have a perfect accent in your second or third language? Why do so many people verbally shut down for weeks or months  when learning a language? How does language effect personality and vice versa? And is there blowback from your learned language that changes how you speak your native tongue?

On the subject of the last question, check out this fascinating conversation on The World’s science podcast on the latest research into what happens to your native tongue when you learn a second one. According to this study, you’ll never read your first language in the same way. Also, that cognates can trip you up.

Finally, we cast a somewhat shameful eye over a tough-to-translate expression in Spanish.

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A language of French Caribbean, Spanish unity and disunity, and more (not) teaching English in France

This week, two takes on language teaching in France.

First, a couple of Paris high schools have started teaching Antillean creole, a language in the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Guadeloupe

Those two islands were in the news earlier this year after a series of strikes and protests. Then, part two of my conversation with American Laurel Zuckerman who wanted to teach high school English. Zuckerman fought the French education establishment- and guess who won? We then consider an Arabic word beloved by Saudi Arabia’s morality police. Finally, Spain unites over a soccer victory, but remains divided over which songs best represent the spirit of the nation.

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