o (zootalures) wrote,


I have always liked learning languages, I suspect that this can be attributed to a subconscious feeling that being able to communicate with everybody will some how make the world a better place. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm has not always been met with an equal level of ability or study and so far (at 29 and three quarters), my efforts have led me to have smatterings of French, German, Russian and Spanish. I speak none fluently but by my reckoning I should be able to buy a train ticket, order a beer or have a brief conversation about the weather in the native language of about 20% of the worlds population (English included of course).

The University offers subsidised language lessons to staff which I decided to take advantage of (until the bean counters change their mind - which they appear to be doing at the moment) and rather than doing the sensible thing and actually learning one of the languages I have already started to some level of usefulness I decided that learning a new language would be a good idea.

I've always fancied learning Dutch or Greek but the university doesn't have any courses, Mandarin and Japanese frankly scare me, which left me with a choice of Italian or Arabic. No offense to the Italians (well not much anyway) but Arabic won on the grounds that it has more speakers (~250M in various dialects), and it sounds cooler and there are three speakers in my office I can inflict my efforts on.

Arabic is hard, no two ways about it:

  1. Pronunciation is hard: being a semitic language, Arabic draws on a completely different set of vowel and consonant sounds than Romance and Slavonic languages. Arabic has 28 letters in the basic alphabet (with several additional letters), most of which represent digraphs (consonant + vowel). Within the alphabet there are, for example, three sounds for "H" (ح‎,خ,ﻫ) one of which can best be described as "breathing out loudly", three "S"s, three "T"s, two "D"s and Qaf (ق‎) which is a completely unfamiliar sound to the western ear which can best be described as "the sound you make when you are choking on a squirrel". There are plenty of cases where confusing similar letters will lead to offense, my favorite so far being: قلب (Qa'lb): heart/sweetheart and كلب (Kah'lb) which means dog.
  2. Reading is hard: Arabic text is closely tied to the script, each letter may be written differently depending on whether it appears at the start, in the middle or at the end of the word, unless it is after other letters which break the flow of the pen, also in some cases letters roll together in unusual ways. In addition the vowel sound (long/short etc) associated with each letter is either left implicit (in most text), or supplemented by a complex set of diacritics which themselves are difficult to parse (used in dictionaries/the Quran).
  3. The grammar is complex compared to Latin languages. Arabic seems to have a bit of everything: Complex verb conjugation (stem + prefix + suffix), genders, noun declension by case and gender, a ridiculously complex plural (which has permutations for singluar, dual and plural) which change by case and so on.
  4. Almost everything about the language is irregular and so far (after 6 weeks) any mention of a rule or convention about the language has been predicated with a "well this applies some of the time but there are of course lots of irregularities".

Saying that, It's been quite fun.
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