Buying camel’s milk in Arabic

 
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By Philip Hall

Conversing about camel’s milk may not be the most useful Arabic to learn, but learning the language can open up the Arab world to Europeans.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Once, in Princess Gardens, we were in a hurry to get home. I saw a side gate and walked towards it. “It’ll be closed,” said Teresa, my wife, “Let’s try anyway.”

Outside, on either side, sat two young people who began to stare at us as we approached. When we were about ten yards away one of them blurted: “It’s closed mate.”

“Let’s go,” said Teresa.

“No, perhaps it’s open,” I insisted.

We walked the last ten yards, the teenagers staring all the time. I pushed the gate and it opened – Snap! The attention of the two watchers broke and we walked through. Every day, we face invisible barriers. Something stops us from opening a gate. We don’t ask for help when we really need it. We don’t ask someone charming for a coffee date. We don’t apply for a job we are probably well suited for.

Some invisible barriers are much bigger than that. Some are huge. For example, after you consider the facts, you might conclude that it is deeply irrational for European governments not to promote the teaching of Arabic in European schools. The numbers speak for themselves: the Arab world has over 400 million inhabitants, some 300 million people speak Arabic as their native tongue, and many millions more speak it as a second language.  Moreover, there are many native Arabic speakers in European countries. For example, Arabic is the mother tongue of nearly a million people in France, not to mention all the second and third-generation North Africans there who speak at least a little of the language.

Before coming to work in the Middle East, I had a short conversation with my recruiter. He was British and had worked in the Gulf for 35 years. There was a prosperous, flushed look to him. He was on the point of retirement. “Your Arabic must be fantastic.” I probed.

“No”, he said proudly, “I haven’t learned a word of it.”

This puzzled me. What was going on here? And why was this man so proud of his failure to learn Arabic? The accumulated prejudices of a thousand years seem to be blocking the path to language learning, and consequently blocking the path to mutual understanding between the northern and southern halves of the Mediterranean: two parts of a whole, shared culture.

But nowadays, who believes in historical determinism? I certainly do not. Do you? Who believes that what has happened in the past is the single decider of what will happen in the future? Why not choose our own future? Why not choose to overcome prejudice and do so by learning Arabic?

Government policy-makers can take the rational step towards funding and promoting the learning of Arabic in every school in Europe. As an individual, you can make this choice. Together, we can break through invisible historical social, cultural and political force fields by being practical and rational.

I am following my own advice; I am now learning Arabic. Our teacher is proficient in teaching primary school children, but we are middle-aged men. She is teaching us to ask for information, to talk about our families and describe what they do, to talk about what’s in our houses, and to say what we want when we go to restaurants. “Peteer,” she says, a little like a Palestinian Joyce Grenfell. “Did you do your homework?”

Peter says ,“No,” in a small voice, “I was too busy working”. His grizzled face looks down in embarrassment. “Oh Peter!” she exclaims, “We must do our homework.”

Secretly, however, my classmates and I are learning the poems of Adel Darwish, as sung by Marcel Khalifa. We are watching Palestinian cultural programmes, Egyptian soap operas and listening to Lebanese pop songs. I have even had my first conversation in Arabic. It was with Yemenis and it went like this:

“Do you have any camel’s milk?”

“Oh yes, I do, it is over there.”

“I love camel’s milk.”

“Yes it is very nice but the milk is much healthier fresh from the camel’s udder.”

“Really.”

“Yes, but not if the camel is ill.”

“Can I get fresh camel’s milk here?”

“No, you have to go to any small town in the desert. It’s easy to find camel’s milk there.”

“ Well, I will be sure to do so. Thank you for your advice.”

“My pleasure.”

Clearly, if I can converse about camel’s milk with a man from Yemen, the doors of the Arab world have now swung wide open for me.

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Seeing the world through new tongues

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Being monolingual can be limiting, so why not learn another language and get a new perspective on the world?

Monday 7 June 2010

Language is a great liberator. It enables us not only to walk the walk, but also to talk the talk. However, as much as it empowers us to articulate our thoughts, it can also shape the way we think or even confine us within the boundaries, however broad they may be, of its vocabulary, syntax and grammar, according to the latest research.

To illustrate: some languages lack a clear distinction between nouns and verbs. Others count differently – they may have a plural form meaning “of unexpected number” or a dual form. Other languages possess no past tense. Certain languages capture in a single word what others can only do in a longer phrase. Examples include “bling” in English or the bizarre “rawa-dawa” in Mundari, which apparently means “the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible and no one is there to witness it” – now put that into a sentence!

It is said that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, but what if it had no name? Well, we would still be able to see and smell it but may not be able to say it. After all, the absence of a word or grammatical form is not necessarily evidence of absence. For instance, a non-Mundari waiter may feel “rawa-dawa” at, say, spitting in an annoying customer’s salad, but would have no handy way of expressing it. 

One implication of this emerging line of research is that each language offers a unique window on the world and, so, each time a language dies – as is occurring increasingly frequently – a unique perspective perishes with it. That goes some way to explaining why so many societies exert efforts to preserve their languages against the onslaught of globalisation, and why language itself can be an issue for conflict, as demonstrated in places such as Belgium and Canada.

Another implication is that learning more than one language provides you with different ways of seeing or interacting with the world, a benefit that is often overlooked in monolingual societies such as the UK. For example, the multilingualism of Britain’s new deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg – in addition to his multicultural background – may partly explain his greater openness to Europe and the outside world. Of course, this has also been used as a stick with which to beat him by those who feel threatened by anything vaguely foreign.

In my own experience, I notice a number of both obvious and subtle ways in which language colours my outlook. Take humour. In English, the ambiguity and multiple meanings of the ubiquitous phrasal verb – the bane of foreign learners of the language – make it an ideal tool for making jokes and suggestive innuendo. In Arabic, which does not really have phrasal verbs, humour often hinges on the language’s dependence on the three-letter roots from which most words can be derived, paving the way for clever wordplays.

More importantly, by reflecting the cultures in which they evolved, languages are the key to gaining first-hand access to a society’s people, way of thought, literature, ideas, values, history and traditions – although more understanding does not always imply greater sympathy or communication. On a personal level, I feel that my English-Arabic bilingualism has enabled me to gain a bicultural or even multicultural perspective that would have been difficult to acquire otherwise.

For me, Arabic and English were largely fortunate accidents of upbringing. Moving to Belgium has rammed home to me the increased difficulty of acquiring a language with age. Although my Dutch has reached a high level of competence, I still make mistakes and my accent will never sound native. And I’m not alone. One of the masters of English writing, Joseph Conrad, never lost his thick Polish accent.

Although my bilingualism was eye-catching in Egypt and the UK, here, in Belgium, speaking three and a bit languages hardly raises an eyebrow. I am in constant awe at polyglots such as my wife who can communicate effortlessly in half a dozen languages and even understand related languages they don’t know.

Naturally, we want to pass on the gift of language to our son, not only to enable him to deal with both sides of his family and integrate into his native cultures, but also to help him become a global citizen who is at home in the world.

Given that childhood acquisition is far easier and more effective than adult learning, we’ve decided to start early. Although our six-month-old hasn’t learnt to speak yet, we are already working on raising him trilingually by exposing him to his mother tongue (Dutch), his father tongue (Arabic) and his family tongue (English).

This may sound horrifying, but is it any more difficult than learning just one? Acquiring a language for a baby, as I am learning, is a task of mind-boggling proportions: the infant must learn to distinguish meaningful sounds from superfluous noise, identify syllables and then words, crack the code of meaning, and gradually acquire the skill to combine words into sentences and longer texts.

But children have an innate ability to do this – and learning two or three languages is almost as much child’s play as learning one, most linguists agree, as long as the child is exposed to the languages constantly and consistently and in a natural fashion. There is also mounting evidence that bi- or multilingualism helps boost a child’s cognitive abilities, academic performance and career prospects in later life.

Naturally, not everyone is fortunate enough to be immersed in another language from an early age so as to reach or approach native speaker levels. But even imperfect knowledge of a language acquired in adulthood is useful and interesting.

As Friedrich Nietzsche once put it: “One who speaks a foreign language just a little takes more pleasure in it than one who speaks it well. Enjoyment belongs to those who know things halfway.”

Poll: Do you speak foreign? Do you think that learning other languages is important? Vote here

This is the extended version of a column which appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 4 June 2010. Read the related discussion.

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Language: the food of understanding

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Learning Arabic is tough but it can open you up to a whole new world of cultural experiences and opportunities, not to mention build understanding.

Arabic opens up a varied and diverse culture to the learner. ©Image copyright: Khaled Diab

Arabic opens up a varied and diverse culture to the learner. ©Image copyright: Khaled Diab

13 November 2009

“Why are you interested in learning Arabic?” the teacher probed. It was a question intended to get us talking, to introduce ourselves and explain why we had chosen to give up two hours of our lives twice a week to sit in a drab high school classroom in Palma de Mallorca.

For travel, said some of my classmates; an interest in Arabic culture and music, answered others. A few wanted to learn the mother tongue of a husband or wife. The first two of those reasons were also in part my own. But I also had other motives: “Because of the world we live in,” I said.

As a journalist writing about Spanish and European politics and social issues for the last decade, I have borne witness to the growing importance of what goes on along the Mediterranean’s southern and eastern shores to the politics, economics and social attitudes in the countries north of that sea.

The lands of North Africa and the Middle East have sent millions of immigrants to work in Europe’s cities, factories and fields – breadbasket nations such as Morocco keep European supermarket shelves stocked with peppers, tomatoes and chickens, while Algerian and Libyan gas and oil keep the heat on in European homes and cars on the streets.

And European companies have invested heavily in North Africa, attracted by cheap labour, geographic proximity and an increasingly educated workforce with a seemingly innate aptitude for foreign languages. French IT firms now operate call centres out of Tunisia and Morocco, British ones favour Egypt, while European manufacturers have shifted large swathes of production to the region.

Meanwhile, millions of European tourists visit North African and Middle Eastern beaches, cities and souqs each year. Back in Europe, interest in Arabic culture, music, literature and art has spawned multicultural festivals from Barcelona to Berlin.

Trade, investment, tourism, cultural curiosity and political co-operation in the myriad summits, conferences and forums that have sprung up in recent years are one thing. But, as anyone who has not been living under a rock will recognise, on the ground – both in Europe and in the Middle East and North Africa region – this blending of civilisations has often been far less sanguine.

Islamist terrorism has spilled blood and spawned anger from Casablanca to Baghdad and from Madrid to London. The spread of militant Islam among increasingly politically assertive Muslim communities in European cities has led to scare-mongering about “Eurabia” and the “Islamisation” of Western culture. And economic immigration has sparked its own backlash, particularly among lower income sectors of society where competition between European natives and foreign workers for jobs and social services is fiercest.

It takes two to integrate

With uninspired monotony, many European politicians talk of integration as the key to solving the social tensions that have arisen in European cities. In their view, the friction caused by immigration can be reduced or eliminated by providing (or imposing) language classes for immigrants, telling them to study and abide by local cultural customs and ensuring a carefully managed ethnic blend in public schools. However, such a top-down approach, with the onus on the immigrant to do all the work can only go so far.

An immigrant made to feel unwelcome by the native population is hardly likely to have the desire – or even the chance – to cross cultural barriers, build relationships and integrate into that society. Discrimination in the labour market compounds the problem. Regardless of what EU and national anti-discrimination laws dictate, it is undeniable that in much, if not all of Europe, someone called Mohammed or Hassan usually has a harder time getting a job in the same conditions as someone named John, Manuel or Hans.

It is, therefore, understandable that the North African and Middle Eastern immigrants who come to Europe tend to cluster among themselves.  Many never move out of usually low-income neighbourhoods where they feel comfortable surrounded by their compatriots and co-religionists. Hence the Kreuzberg district of Berlin is known as ‘Little Turkey’, Brussels’ Molenbeek area boasts 21 mosques for a population of less than 80,000 and Lavapiés in Madrid has become synonymous with kebabs, Arab cafes and Halal butchers.

Even smaller cities have given rise to Muslim neighbourhoods. In Palma, about a half hour walk from the language school and far from the brash seaside resorts for which much of the Spanish Mediterranean is known, are a cluster of streets where the atmosphere is more Marrakesh than Magalluf, more Tripoli than Torremolinos, more Beirut than Benidorm.

Few native Mallorcans do more than pass through here. Few linger to hear the call to prayer from the small local mosque, smell the fresh mint and spices in the stores or peruse the meat at a Halal butchers. And while some of them may visit Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia or Egypt on holiday next year, few will take the time to observe, let alone absorb, the enriching cultural diversity that now lies on their doorstep.

As a classmate of mine noted on a recent Friday evening spent strolling around the area: “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”

As we move inevitably towards a more multicultural society, just a little bit of understanding on the part of native populations, be it a shopping excursion to a North African immigrant neighbourhood for spices, an afternoon in a Moroccan-owned tea room or picking up a few words of the Arabic language, can go a long way toward avoiding misconceptions and bridging cultural divides.

This article is published with the author’s permission. ©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved.

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We don’t need no age segregation

 
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By Khaled Diab

Segregating school students by gender, or grouping them according to age simply doesn’t make sense.

April 2009

The fears of generations of parents appear to be unfounded. A new study suggests that it is girls who have a bad influence on boys rather than vice versa – at least when it comes to language. The research found that boys perform worse in English when there are a lot of girls in the class. This female factor can knock as much as 10% off a boy’s grades in the subject.

That boys get all tongue-tied around girls may seem self-evident. They blab and blag with the lads but, once in the company of the opposite sex, their speech rapidly devolves. In fact, for some, the presence of a girl they fancy triggers the kind of recessionary pressure that causes their vocabulary to shrink faster than the economy.

The researcher behind the study, Steven Proud of Bristol University, attributed the discrepancy in performance to the realisation among boys that the girls are better than them at English. This probably acts as a demotivator, especially when coupled with the need to appear cool and nonchalant in class. It could also be that teachers gear their teaching approach to girls when there are more girls than boys in the class, Proud contends.

“The results imply that boys would benefit at all ages from being taught English with as small a proportion of girls as possible,” Proud observes, arguing that this presents a strong case for single-sex English classes. Personally, I went to a mixed primary school and a single-sex secondary school, and I don’t recall any perceptible difference in my performance – but then I was good at English and so perhaps articulate girls failed to intimidate me.

Other experts are doubtful of the value of Proud’s suggestion. “This is one study, among many, which detects very small differences between boys and girls. But you can’t say that it means boys or girls should be separated,” says Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.

Smithers has a point. The gap between boys and girls in different subjects, such as science and languages, is actually smaller than the differences within each gender. In addition, splitting up boys and girls can lead to a growth in awkwardness in social interactions between the two sexes in later life. It can also revive the traditional idea that gender differences are real and enormous, rather than marginal and often socially programmed. For instance, boys are more likely to be rebellious, to have learning disabilities and to express their emotions less because of the way they are forced more than girls to wean themselves off their mother’s affections before they are ready.

My own view is that we need to group pupils according to ability and not segregate them according to gender – or even age.

There is no compelling reason for age segregation in our education systems, since children tend to mature mentally and physically and different rates. But schools are still widely regarded as some kind of education or knowledge factories where you input generic child at one end and output an educated person at the other, and we desperately need to move away from this production-line model and towards more customised learning.

By basing education primarily upon ability rather than age, pupils will be able to study at the level and speed that suits them. To customise the learning experience further to their abilities and needs, schoolkids should be streamed for ability in each individual subject, not according to their overall “intelligence”. So a pupil who is strong at literature but weak at French will study the former at a higher level.

The possible downside of such a system is that you will have pupils of very different ages in the same class, and a youngster who is academically accomplished isn’t necessarily mature enough emotionally and socially to study with older peers. In addition, there is the chance that younger kids will get picked on and older pupils will feel embarrassed.

But the current age segregation in schools has its drawbacks, too, with seniors often lording it over juniors. With time, the greater contact between pupils of different ages will corrode the bizarre age discrimination in schools, and the tribal cliqueness where kids can act like they live in different centuries not study in different years.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 25 April 2009. Read the related discussion.

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