Thursday

Does Lack of Familiarity Make Arabic More Difficult?

My recent post about the Arabic Alphabet received an interesting comment from Moroccan linguist Dr. Abellah Elhaloui:
all the aspects of Arabic that the writer finds "difficult to learn" are, for my 9-year kid, not only easy but also taken for granted (Adam writes near-perfect Arabic without even thinking he is giving different shapes to the same letter). This is exactly what we call Russel's Paradox (a learned COMPLEX system seems very SIMPLE to the one who has already learned it!). Users of English should be thankful that they find a system where the sound /ou/ is spelled o (bone), ough(although), oh (oh my God!), oe (foe), ow (low) ... an EASY system.
This is a really enlightening exploration into the nature of language acquisition, and, more accurately, our perceptions of difficulty when it comes to acquiring a language. What makes learning a language difficult or easy? And is there any specific about Arabic that makes learning it more difficult than other languages?



What Dr. Elhaloui points to is how relative our perceptions of language difficulty truly are. To his son, who presumably began learning Arabic as a small child, the difficulties that new students encounter with Arabic are mere formalities. Just as all of the crazy rules about English that frustrate ESL and EFL students seem so natural to we native English speakers.

In other words, because we approach Arabic with no prior exposure to it, we perceive the language as difficult. As Dr. Elhaloui implies, all languages are complex systems. We  English speakers have mastered one just fine, and as a result we should be able to master another. It's our lack of familiarity with the language which makes the task seem so daunting. However, if we practice, it will all become second nature to us.

I think there's a great deal of truth in Dr. Elhaloui's notion. The very fact that we consider a language as 'foreign' implies that it is different from whatever language we speak and are most familiar with. Overcoming that sense of difference is part of acquiring the language.

Familiarity with the target language can help in many ways, including constructing your perception of the foreign language. If you grew up with a Spanish-speaking relative or neighbor, merely hearing the language, even if you didn't learn any of it, can make learning it easier. Because of that exposure you're familiar with the language, and thereby more comfortable with it.

We can also say that Arabic has a much smaller cultural presence in the United States than some other foreign languages, including Chinese which is also considered to be very difficult to acquire. Undoubtedly, the 'cultural distance' or lack of familiarity with Arab culture adds to the stress associated with learning Arabic. Especially at a time when Islam, which is closely tied to Arabic, is so villified in the United States.

But the notion of familiarity must go farther than this. Rather than merely describing our perception of a language, it must also describe the relationship the target language has with our native language. The 'distance' between those languages greatly influences language acquisition. Stemming from two different language families, Arabic and English have many linguistic differences separating them.

Linguists group languages into 'families' based on the proximity of their origins. English belongs to the Indo-European family which includes most European languages, Hindi, Urdu and Iranian. Languages in this family share certain characteristics into grammar, syntax, phonology and morphology. Speaking English grants us familiarity with these components, and naturally makes learning languages within the family easier.


As a Semitic language, Arabic does not share many characteristics with English or any other Indo-European language (except Persian, Hindi, Urdu and other Central Asian languages use the Arabic alphabet). There are very few cognates between English and Arabic, and those that do exist refer mainly to the modern world. These terms disappear when you dive deeper into Pre-Modern and Classical Arabic.

What does this mean for Arabic language learners? It means that learning Arabic involves a kind of re-conceptualization of language altogether. As English speakers we have beliefs about how adjectives should act, how verbs should be conjugated, how to express necessity, and how to organize paragraphs and essays. When it comes to Arabic, especially Classical Arabic, you have to familiarize yourself with a totally new set of linguistic beliefs.

That distance is what can make it so difficult, especially in the beginning. Aside from the complexity of the system itself, there's the sense of isolation that comes with trying to learn a language that has very little in common with your mother tongue. When there is so little you can grasp onto in the beginning, it can be harder to answer the question: "Why am I studying Arabic?"

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