Learning Arabic

I had my first Arabic lesson last week.

I’ve always vaguely wanted to be able to speak a little Arabic, dating back to my time in Nigeria, where the main local language, Hausa, has some links with Arabic. So, encouraged by my friend Christine, we have joined a small class given by a very pleasant Moroccan woman called Halima.

I think I was curious to see if my ageing brain can handle another foreign language. After one hour I began to appreciate the enormity of the task: it is not just that Arabic belongs to the Afroasiatic rather than  indo-European language group. The real killer is going to be the Arabic script. OK I learnt some Greek at school, but with this exception, learning languages up to now has involved grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation – but not a whole lot of confusing scrawls. Written, to boot, from right to left.

There are 28 letters in Arabic.  Not an insurmountable number, you might think.  But…. as well as the symbol for the letter itself, there are further distinct symbols for the letter depending on whether it is at the start, middle or end of a word. Vowels appear to be an alarming range of dots and dashes scattered above and below the consonants – or in some cases left out so you have to know the context of the word. And I can understand enough to know that a further complication is rules about which letters are joined together in what circumstances.

I’ve never had a particularly good visual memory; I struggled with drawing and remembering diagrams and maps in biology, chemistry and geography. Am I going to get a handle on these scrawls – often alarmingly similar?

The sounds are also strange, with many apparently achieved by simulating strangulation. But I’m more confident that in time I will recognise the variants of, for example various k or kh sounds.

Im going to concentrate on mastering the alphabet because I know that I need to have some grasp of the structure of a language to make any progress; I cant just listen, repeat and retain words. That was my problem in Nigeria where there was no proper dictionary or grammar book.

oh, and a final challenge: I am of course learning Arabic in a French speaking class.

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