Wednesday 23 Jun 2021 | 18:19 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Jun 2021 | 18:19 | SYDNEY

Learning Arabic: Is it worth it?

5 October 2011 14:48

Vanessa Newby is PhD candidate at the University of Queensland.

As a student of the Middle East, I recently delved into Edward Said's classic, Orientalism. What struck me was that for all his disdain for Orientalists, Said makes mention of the fact that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, scholars of the 'near' East were, as a matter of course, fluent in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. This was considered the baseline for acquiring knowledge of the region, but if someone mentioned today that they were fluent in all three, it would cause an audible intake of breath.

On return from my year spent in Syria studying Arabic, I was invited by my former Arabic teacher in Brisbane to speak to his students about my experiences in the Middle East. Their reasons for wanting to study Arabic varied. There were postgraduate students who needed it for their research, others planning to work in the Middle East, and some who had been on holiday to the region and wanted to maintain a connection with their experiences. Possibly the most interesting category were those who had had nothing to do with the region but were just curious about the language. 

My pleasure in meeting so many interested people was tinged with concern, as I have to confess I looked around each class and wondered how many of them would last the course.

The problem with Arabic as a language is that it has an exceptionally high entry point. For a start, any student from a Western background who is not Muslim will be completely unfamiliar with the text and pronunciation. Arabic is hard to pronounce because it contains several letters and sounds we do not have in English. At the religious school I studied at in Syria, reading sessions were a painful experience for all us non-Muslims, whereas non-Arab Muslims who had read the Quran from an early age often read beautifully or at least significantly better.

But with Arabic, you soon come to realise that the script and pronunciation are the least of your problems and it is in fact the complex grammar structure that can (and in some cases will) destroy you — or at least a belief you once had that you are a reasonably intelligent person. Again, native English speakers fall down because our grammar is relatively simple and, as is oft lamented, has been extremely poorly taught in schools for generations X and Y. In order to even begin to understand the complexities of Arabic grammar, I had to relearn my own.

Perhaps we shouldn't feel too bad about all this. The Persians I met in Iran, who share around 40-50% of their vocabulary with Arabs and write in the Arabic script, complained vigorously to me about the complexity of the Arabic language.

Another downside to learning Arabic is that, other than for the study of Islam, what precisely do you use it for? 

Business in the Middle East is conducted in English, and in the oil-rich Gulf states, the natives you meet are vastly outnumbered by foreign nationals. So for business purposes, Arabic is non-essential. In addition, it is possible to obtain English translations of Arabic and Persian newspapers (see for example Mideast Wire), English language national newspapers, and to view English language regional broadcasting. So if you are a political scientist (ahem), an over-enthusiastic tourist or simply curious, why bother?

I have many answers to that question, but possibly the best is found in a recent experience I had at an Iraqi festival in Brisbane where I managed to win myself a small prize for speaking some Arabic. The competition was pitiful but the delight and warmth I received from the audience when they realised I had studied their language was immensely rewarding. 

There simply is no substitute for the level of understanding achieved when you are able to communicate with another community in their language. The same goes for reading in the original, because comprehension of the construction of language facilitates conceptualisation of the construction of thought. Orientalism aside, I remain inspired by the work ethic of scholars of earlier eras who had the patience and discipline to master Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit.

Lastly, while Arabic is not easy, it is worth the fight: its poetry and literature are testament to its beauty and completeness.

The debate about Australia's lack of foreign language learning in schools has been going on for some time and I will not add to it here. But for postgraduates, I believe the lack of funding from government sources for foreign language learning overseas automatically puts us behind political scientists and area specialists from the US and Europe. This needs to be corrected. Students willing to undertake the ardours of learning a language for the sake of their study should be encouraged to do so.

For those who would argue for the need to focus on languages closer to home, I believe Australia has the capacity to focus on all of Asia, not just East Asia. We also need to acknowledge that if we are prepared to engage militarily in the Middle East, we should also be engaging culturally and diplomatically. Learning Arabic is part of that endeavour.