Abu Sinan on Learning Arabic

I absolutely agree with Abu Sinan’s view on this.  I am a passable language learner, but it took me three years of full time study before I really acquired any significant ability in the language.  Then I lived in the Arab World for a long time in places where hardly anyone spoke English.  Then I taught the language for three years.  I think I know what I am talking about.  College students typically learn to read some Arabic (MSA) if they study it for four years.  That is just the beginning in acquiring the status of an Arabist.  To think that young soldiers can be given any more than a passive "listening" ability in Arabic in a year or so of study is just illusory.  pl


"A few comments about the Arabic thing. I am an American who speaks Arabic. I am lucky to be married to an Arab lady so the "immersion" thing has helped me as well.

Arabic is not a language where you can take a couple of years of University level classes and be able to function reasonably well.

Arabic is a language that you can have four years of at University and still not be able to communicate on a day to day basis.

There are a few reasons for this. First of all Arabic is very regional and the dialects are often so different that native Arabic speaks can have difficulties speaking with other Arabic speakers who use a different dialect, the Maghrebi Arabic dialect is a perfect example of this.

I have had years of Arabic instruction at the University level, along with advanced grammar classes and I still find it difficult. The immersion aspect with my wife helps, but this is only of limited use as her dialect is understood by almost all Arabs, but it doesn’t help me with other dialects.

Second, Arabic is just a very hard language to learn. Languages are rated according to their difficulty to learn and Arabic is at the top along with Mandarin Chinese. There are numerous sounds in Arabic that just don’t exist in English, ie "ayn" and "gayn" not to mention glottal type stops.

Third, the language that is taught in University is classical MSA "Modern Standard Arabic", or in Arabic "fus7a". This is not the way that Arabs speak to each other on a day to day basis. It will help you watch TV and movies, as well as reading religious, academic and other books, but it is a long way from how most Arabs speak. I have met Americans who have learned Arabic in school and their Arabic is almost unintelligible because it is spoken in a scholarly manner that is far removed from day to day local dialect.

As to the military issue and languages, my experience is with the DoD and the US Air Force. The linguists were trained for a little over a year in Arabic. Granted this is full time training, but it still wasn’t enough. Keep in mind as well that in the Air Force, and I don’t know about linguists in other braches of the service, you are required to have a "back up" language as well. So this means in addition to learning Arabic in that time you must also be able to learn a second language, which in the case of Arabic linguists, was almost always Hebrew.

Most of the linguists I knew, even ones with years in service, could not have translated on a day to day basis in a real life situation. The ones that might be able to would be able to converse on children’s level. Their basic mission didn’t require them to do this and their training didn’t train them to do this. Their work was static work with existing materials where you can read or listen to the materials dozens of times and have a dictionary and software next to you to help you out.

I know several native Arabic speaks who went to Iraq early on to help out. This wasn’t really done out of ideological support for the war, this was done for the $120,000 tax free wages that were being offered by companies such as Titan to translate for American troops. They all told me that the Arabic translators that the Army tried to use were completely ineffective. One told of a story of a translator who had taken to carrying around an "Iraqi Arabic-English" dictionary with him because much of the vocabulary they had learned in Tech School was useless.

Personally, I think Arabic is a language where you MUST attend school, and advanced schooling at that, to learn. I also feel it is completely necessary to live in an Arabic speaking country or have long term interaction with Arabs to be able to become even moderately functioning in it.

I don’t think that the US military really has much of a chance of recruiting such people for the wages and benefits that they can offer such scarce people. Granted the bonuses, at least from what my former co-workers in the Air Force have told me, have gone up greatly for linguists. But when someone who can handle Arabic at a level 3 or even 4 level can basically write their own pay check, the military cannot compete.

It is about time as well, the FSI, I read somewhere, says that a student needs about 2 years of full time training to be able to go from the absolute basics to a level 3. FSI also doesn’t have any programs, that I am aware of, that go above level three. I reckon from level 3 to 4 you’d need a couple more years along with extensive time spent in areas where Arabic is used on a day to day basis.

There isn’t the time or money to create on the ground fluent Arabic speakers.

Abu Sinan"

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51 Responses to Abu Sinan on Learning Arabic

  1. john in the boro says:

    Abu Sinan reminded me of my own frustration with Arabic. Twenty years with brief and intensive periods as an Arabic linguist describe my Army service. And, I was lucky enough to get basic and intermediate Arabic, two and a half years at a DoD school. At the end of my time, I felt functionally illiterate with twelve years at the 3/3 level. On those occasions when I made commo with the locals, my dialect mixture was truly inspired.
    Language maintenance was a sore point with me throughout my time in the Army. Once upon a time, a civilian DoD employee commented that he just couldn’t understand why more linguists didn’t max out their Foreign Language Proficiency Pay (FLPP). At the time, that was an extra $100 a month and a new program. I looked at him and told him it wouldn’t happen as long as language maintenance remained an individual responsibility that was done on individual time. Besides, we got $110 a month for falling out of airplanes on Army time. By the time retirement rolled around the Army had doubled FLPP and held commanders responsible for their soldiers’ staying qualified. Wow, what a difference that made; language maintenance got locked in the training schedules. Despite the new emphasis, keeping soldiers qualified in Arabic remained a challenge.
    Arabic was hard to learn, hard to maintain, and harder to get good at. Aside from a few geniuses, Pat and Abu Sinan are right; the military has a tough job turning out Arabic linguists who can hit the ground running. This is particularly true in the case of interrogators. Likewise, as Abu Sinan notes, the defense contractors that participate in what I like to call Operation Loot and Scoot pay better. Stop loss only works for so long. I watched in disgust as the United States Armed Services paid for the training of linguists, nurtured them, and sent them to defense contractors. Smedley Butler might comment, “What a racket.”
    I am currently collecting Uncle Sugar’s dime at the local university and know several students in the Arabic program. It’s a new program, and the students are just beginning to realize the magnitude of learning Arabic. I hope they do better than I did, especially the student in ROTC.

  2. robt willmann says:

    Abu Sinan,
    Could you please explain what the different “levels” of ability to function in Arabic mean?
    You referred to levels 3 and 4. What do they and other levels entail?

  3. jCandlish says:

    My experience is that language acquisition more than anything has to do with age. I learned my 2nd language with 40 and still have difficulty with the correct turn of phrase. For my Swiss wife English was her 7th language, she was speaking passably in 2 months and fluently in 8.
    Since moving to Switzerland I better understand the issue of American mono-culturalism. Americans are at a tremendous disadvantage especially when it comes to language. For example, one frequently sees grade school age children playing word games on the train, a kind of a game of telegraph where one child states a compound sentence with the first and second parts in German and French respectively. The second kid will elaborate in French and Italian, and so on. These are pre-teen children. My eight year old Niece has a new boy in her class who does not speak the local language of Rumantsch so she is writing out flash cards for him.
    It just really seems that because language is an innate cognitive skill it has to be developed early (research indicates before puberty), and most likely plateaus at the pre-puberty level.
    I have a distant relation that married into a Lebanese family and had no difficulty acquiring Arabic as her 3rd or 4th language, even though it was non-latin.
    You can’t make the brain young again, the ship of hope for ‘creating’ Arabic speakers sailed a generation ago.

  4. Leila says:

    All right, this is all true. Yes, Arabic is hard.
    But Americans are not stupider than Arabs. If there were enough cultural desire to learn Arabic in America, folks would have done it. That’s all I’m saying.
    And regarding not enough time or money to create on the ground fluent Arabic speakers – well, maybe so, but shouldn’t our leaders have thought of that going in? That’s all I’m saying.
    I don’t think my opinion on this subject is “anti-American”. I think Americans are perfectly capable of learning Arabic.

  5. Cold War Zoomie says:

    Some thoughts from my own foreign language experience.
    1. After five years in the UK, I still ran into words and phrases that needed translation. Yes, you read that right…after five years in England!
    “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
    -George Bernard Shaw
    2. It took 12 months in Central America, speaking Spanish every single day, before I was able to carry on a conversation with a taxi driver. That was the ultimate litmus test! (It didn’t take as long to get around otherwise – I was functioning in about 3 months, and actually conversing a little bit in about six). I had no training whatsoever. Apon arrival, my only tools were a dictionary and an old Defense Language Institute book I had picked up somewhere along the way. Later, I got a discarded State Department language book from the embassy. It didn’t take long to realize in university Spanish classes that three semesters were not even close to equalling my 14 months in Latin America. Nope, being thrown into the streets with a dictionary, phrase book and a hankering for a few beers and a meal is definitely the best way to learn a language. Well, plus some one-on-one instruction from las muchachitas, por supuesto. But even after 14 months of immersion and three semesters in college, my skills are only a notch or two about a tourist.
    And Spanish is about as easy as it gets for English speakers.

  6. swerv21 says:

    Colonel Lang:
    Excellent post, as usual.
    I’m a native Arabic speaker who has grown up pretty much bilingual all my life. Despite speaking Arabic at home and attending Arabic school for a part of my childhood, my cousins would definitely say that ‘my tongue is heavy’, especially after living in the U.S. for the last 15 years.
    Arabic is not only a difficult language to master, even for a native speaker, it takes constant practice to maintain even passable fluency. When you factor in the relatively huge differences between formal Arabic that is used on newspapers and tv and that of the hugely varying informal dialect, you are talking about the equivalent differences of Shakespearean English and Jamaican patois.
    It is very difficult. I have to will myself to practice the language by reading (very slowly) the Arabic dailies and following (with some frustration) some of the Al-Jazeera talk shows. And God help me if a Hizbullah guy is on the air- I never have a clue what those guys are talking about.
    The British where able to produce people like T.E. Lawrence because Britain had accepted its fate as an Empire and viewed its involvement in the Middle East as a generational commitment. We can’t expect our men and women to have the same outlook unless we as a nation are prepared to accept our involvement in Iraq on similar terms.
    I think it’s also illuminating to look at the relative distance between English and Arabic speakers from the other side of the coin. While it is true that there are many Arab emigrants who are able to speak English on a day to day basis, there are few who can speak both languages without ‘giving themselves away’ in terms of their accent.

  7. MarcLord says:

    I can back up PL’s comments and Abu Sinan’s analysis, and add something from the tech side. I’ve been involved in the development of most speech synthesis technologies and languages, including Arabic. The “Long War” will have to last much longer before technology solves military communication/intelligence issues with automatic Arabic translation.
    Arabic, both written and spoken, poses first-order challenges for machine processing, higher than any other major language. Because it effectively has no vowels and instead relies upon vestigial (i.e., often missing) diacritical marks, to make a good synthesizer for Arabic you first have to build a program to contextually interpret word abbreviations in sentences and make good guesses about what phonetic morphologies were intended.
    It’s like trying to determine whether the letters “br” should represent bare, beer, bore, burr, bar, bear, or something else. While you can build valid statistical models to reduce error rates, you can’t always read someone’s mind. Humans are far better than machines at that, but it’s no picnic for us, either.
    For this reason there are no sophisticated enterprise- or military-grade synthesizers yet available for Arabic. But there have been some recent first steps on a long journey.
    DARPA has been chewing on this problem for some time, as has NSA. DARPA just deployed 35 IBM-developed translators in Iraq, called MASTORs (Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator). They’re not ready for mobile deployment, and I have yet to hear positive feedback about them. Just experimental at this point, probably slightly better than nothing. http://www.digitalworldtokyo.com/2006/10/us_military_to_use_ibm_arabic.php
    Because pronunciation distinctions between Arabic dialects tend towards severe, building a one-size-fits-all recognizer (or synthesizer) is of questionable value to begin with. What’s really needed are fifteen localized versions. A sizeable task. There has been much more NSA work on Arabic speech technology, but it’s not shared with the military and the applications differ. Sharing data would still require considerable work, years of it, before automated Arabic were truly “fluent” in field translation conditions.
    (Oh, and if you ever want to have some fun, ask a group of Arabic academic linguists if they can agree upon what dialect is most representative of Modern Standard Arabic. Then grab your best girl, dinner, and a movie. The Nicene Creed was written in less time.)

  8. Rider says:

    I am a PhD linguist and language teacher with a couple of years of college MSA and could not agree with you more, both of you. These points are all right on the money.
    Col. Lang, how would you compare your experiences with the Vietnamese language on these same points? If anything, VN seems to me even more difficult than Arabic.

  9. D.Witt says:

    I’m glad to see a real discussion of this issue–I agree with the points made about learning Arabic, espcially that regional dialects make a huge difference, and that ‘textbook’ Arabic will get you looked at like somebody trying to use Shakespearean English in today’s America.
    I’d also like to add that it’s easier to speak than to write–my wife is Lebanese, and fluent in spoken Arabic, however, as she grew up in France, she is not able to read or write Arabic beyond a basic level.
    Also, similar to revelations of official ignorance of the differences between people of the Mideast, I wonder how many Farsi speaking translators there are?

  10. As a graduate of the Defense Language Institute: in my case, the 32-week intensive Vietnamese Southern Dialect course, I have some understanding of, and experience with, this subject of language learning out of military/civilian necessity. In my opinion, the discussion in this forum thus far tends toward the formally academic and fails to address the truly effective practical language-learning successes that our government and military have at times produced in the past. Please allow me to elaborate.
    As a Navy enlisted electrician with a public high school diploma (circa 1965) and one year of college, I managed to successfully complete the Navy’s one-year intensive nuclear power plant operator school curriculum. However, since cutbacks in the nation’s nuclear ship-building programs left too few billets for many of us recent graduates, I then got orders to attend foreign language school in Monterey, California, since someone with access to my personnel records discovered that — in addition to Algebra II — I had taken two years of high-school French. Thousands of us enlisted men, from all branches of the military services found ourselves in similar circumstances in 1969 when the doomed “Vietnamization” (or “Yellowing the Corpses”) stall for more time, blood, and money got underway. At any rate, it only took eight months of language work and three months of “counter-insurgency” training before off to South Vietnam I went along with those thousands of other enlisted men whose only appointed task involved “standing up” (in today’s jaded parlance) the demoralized and unmotivated South Vietnamese military in the technical aspects of our various lowly military occupation specialties. Nothing about us or our mission involved rocket-science or high strategic policy in any way, shape, or form. We just considered ourselves ordinary.
    Once “in country,” however, those of us with a good, practical, rapidly-acquired working knowledge of Vietnamese — as applicable to our own technical specialties — quickly separated out into two general types: (1) those who got to reinforce and add to their basic language competence through daily work with the Vietnamese and (2) those who pretty much remained in all-American units with little or no interest or incentive to do anything but forget, serve out their indentured time, and go home. Most of us, at least initially, fell into the second group because both the American and Vietnamese political/military establishments, each for their own self-serving reasons, did not want “their men” “fraternizing” with the inscrutable and untrustworthy (at least at the officer level) “other.” In my case, though, I got “percussively sublimated” (i.e., “kicked upstairs”) into the first group of active language learners when I grew a beard (as authorized fleet-wide by Navy CNO, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt) only to have my commanding officer retaliate against me for doing so by exiling me to the furthest, most remote outpost he could locate: “Solid Anchor,” a river outpost support base two kilometers from the very southern tip of the country. For those who wish to know the precise location of the world’s asshole, I can still clearly locate it for them on a map (although, some will now say that it has moved to Baghdad, right down the street from the increasingly-besieged Green Zone Castle).
    Upside, though: I got to spend the next year actually using and improving upon my Vietnamese since I had no choice but to acually work and live beside Vietnamese in a situation of mutual dependence.
    I have since gone on to obtain a second bachelor’s degree in Japanese (which I even taught in an American high school for one semester), and I can function quite well in Mandarin Chinese, too. So, I understand full well the difference between formal high school and college approaches to language learning through reading and writing (for a few hours a week), as opposed to more natural, short-duration, intensive “aural-oral” (listening and speaking) methods of language acquisition as implemented (at least in former days) by the outstanding and highly effective Defense Language School programs. Everything I have heard or read about to date concerning the ludicrous and haphazard American “advisory” program in Iraq (i.e., “Iraqification,” or “Browning the Bodies”) convinces me that the bureaucratic bungling I alluded to in my third paragraph above still characterizes the Lunatic Leviathan: namely, Parkinson’s Law meeting the Peter Principle in an atmosphere of rampant military careerism and political schizophrenia. None of this has anything to do with — except to make impossible — effective language learning by our military and civilian government employees.
    I owe nearly all of my lifelong interest and competence in foreign languages to two principal sources: (1) the practical-intensive “listening-speaking” (as opposed to the usual “book translating” classroom stuff) course in Vietnamese that I took — along with thousands of other ordinary enlisted men — at DLIWC; and (2) the petty, vindictive American officer who found some authorized hair on my face so offensive that he banished me to a year of crushing boredom (with occasional terrifying interludes of bloody mayhem) so that I could and would learn Vietnamese from the Vietnamese in about one year’s time.
    In summary, then, no human language (at least as spoken by fellow humans) presents any insurmountable obstacle to learning by ordinary American enlisted men with a high-school diploma, about a year’s worth of intensive/practical language study, and one year in-country working in a situation of mutual dependence with the “natives.” Two years, tops. If America cannot afford that minimal commitment of time and resources to training our foreign legion — at least its working, enlisted component — then America ought not to have one.

  11. Yohan says:

    My experience with trying to learn Arabic matches Abu Sinan’s statements completely. I took 4 semesters of MSA in college and hired a tutor for Jordanian/Palestinian colliquial but I just didn’t make much progress. I was starting to think that I had some sort of language learning disability when I spent a couple months taking German language classes in Germany and ended up learning more German in that time than I’d learned Arabic in 2 years.
    Arabic is just so different from English and so hard that it requires not only much more effort but much more sustained and constant effort. If you devote just an hour a day or spend just a year, you will never learn it.
    I definitely recommend spending significant time in an Arab country, preferably not Cairo, Beirut, or Morocco though. There are actually some very cheap programs in Yemen if you’re willing to rough it a little.

  12. arbogast says:

    My wife is taking Arabic. She is an excellent student. The goal is to be able to read classic Arabic texts.
    She is no more learning to speak Arabic than I am learning how to play quarterback for the New England Patriots.
    They speak English. We don’t speak Arabic. Who’s going to have the better intelligence?

  13. Sic Semper Tyrannis 2007: Abu Sinan on Learning Arabic

    Pat Lang points out that it takes years for an American to learn to read and write Arabic and therefore sending soldiers to crash programs in the hopes that it will help is illusory. Still, while that explains why most of the troops we s…

  14. john in the boro says:

    This website has good info about language proficiency levels and language categories (how hard a time an English speaker might have in learning a particular language)

  15. Two years, tops. If America cannot afford that minimal commitment of time and resources to training our foreign legion — at least its working, enlisted component — then America ought not to have one.
    This presupposes that – even for counter-insurgency purposes – Arabic speaking skills would be the only language skills needed.
    Obviously Arabic is of limited benefit in Afghanistan while Al Qaeda is involved in Africa – and Latin America, for other reasons, is potentially very interesting. So there are lots of languages our soldiers would need to learn.
    The question arises: if we train our soldiers in Arabic would be thereby be handicapping its ability to function anywhere other than the Middle East?
    This line of questioning leads to a Reductio ad absurdumi> to the effect that the United States should limit its counter insurgency operations to English-speaking countries.
    reductio, in turn, bolsters my fundamental Middle East strategy, which is “Develop solar power and get the hell out of there!”.
    If you cannot solve a problem, then it is best to avoid it.

  16. David Habakkuk says:

    How does Farsi compare in difficulty with Arabic?
    How well equipped are the American military and in particular intelligence agencies with people fluent in the language?

  17. Mary says:

    As someone with no arabic or foreign language skills, this has been an enlightening. I’ve been puzzled as to why seemingly simple things – like names – constantly end up with multiple spellings, as if there were no consistent guidelines. Even al-qaeda, or al-qaida, or al-qaydah or …
    One of the stories from interrogations at GITMO involves a young boy who was asked by his interrogator where the boy would go to get cash. The story goes that in the boy’s dialect, the word the interrogator used meant tomato. So the boy mentioned place after place he could go to get tomoatoes and they decided he was involved in pretty high scale terrorist financing activities.
    Who knows if the story is true, but even when I’ve seen it, I’ve seen the “word” that created the difficulties get spellings ranging from salata to zalati.
    To an outside observer, it certainly doesn’t seem that we are well geared to get accurate information. Thank you for some explanation of the difficulties involved.

  18. Alex says:

    I have to say that I wonder what definitions are being used here. (see Arbogast)

  19. W. Patrick Lang says:

    There is no generally accepted way of transcribing arabic into English text. There are many systems. Some prefer one others another. Complicating this is the former colonial heritage of many places in the Arab World. Arabic transcribed for a Francophone is necessarily different than if it is transcribed for an Anglophone. Thus – fouad for Francophones and fuad for Anglophones. They are the same name in Arabic. In addition, the Arabic lexicon is rich and varied by region. There are so many words for the same things that vocabulary selection in dialects is huge. Lastly, there are letters in the Arabic alphabet that simply do not exist in English or French although thre may be similar sounds. i.e., aspirated “h.” Example, the name “ahmad.” This is pronounced with a “hard” “h” sound. (There is also a “soft “h” sound which is a different letter. People who don’t understand Arabic usually try to say “ahmad” as though the “ah” is like “ah” in “ah, yes.” That is incorrect. Alternatively, they want to say the “ah” as though the “h” is like the “ch” in “loch.” That is also incorrect. For some reason Hebrew speakers are particularly prone to the latter mistake. It is quite comic to hear Israeli spokesmen make mistakes like that. What it shows is that they have no Arabic at all. The mutilation of the name of Usama bin Laden’s group is instructive. It is not “al qayda.” The word has a consonant in the middle which is calle “ayn.” It has the sound of a growl. The name minus the “al” has three syllables, not two. pl

  20. Babak Makkinejad says:

    David Habakkuk:
    “Persian” is the name of the name of the language in English language – in German it is “Persisch” etc.
    Using “Farsi” when referring to the official language of Iran is akin to saying that Italtians speak “Italiano” and Germans speak “Deutsch”.
    The historical name of the language has been “Farsi-ye Dari”, i.e. Court Persian. And in fact, at times, the words “Farsi” and “Dari” where used interchangeably.
    After WWII, Afghans started to refer to the Persian language in Afghanistan as “Dari”. The Soviets, since 1920s, were using the word “Tadjiki” to refer to the Persian language spoken in the Tadjik Soviet Socialist Republic. In Iran, we had been using the word “Farsi” for centuries – having dropped “Dari” from it long time before.
    So, all of a sudden, in the 20-th century, we were faced with 3 languages, “Farsi”, “Dari”, and “Tadjiki”! Which, of course, was just a political lie serving certain interests such as those of the Russian communists and the misguided Afghan nationalists!
    I think that Persian is easier to learn for an Indo-European speaker than is Arabic.
    On the other hand, as some one who studied Arabic for 2 years, I found that language’s grammar confusing. Also, I did not care much about learning Arabic because I did not think that that knowledge could help me in my life; knowledge of the languages of the dominant civilization on Earth seemed to be more useful – English and French.
    There was an Iranian fellow who had studied Arabic (Classical) for years and was in UAE with his parents an looking for the men’s room. And he did not know how to ask for it in (colloquial) Arabic, even after years of instruction in Arabic. He had to fall back onto the Quran; he started reciting, from memory, the story of Yusuf (Joseph) and Butifar to a security guard who burst into laughter and directed him to the men’s room!
    Which brings me to my final point: one learns a language because one is going to get some benefit from it. And that benefit should be equal or greater than the time & effort spend on acquiring that language skill.
    In case of Arabic, once the current US war in Iraq winds down what benefit will that knowledge bring? There might be opportunities in teaching it, in doing scholarship in it (if there is any funding for that – a very very big “if”), and doing business with Arabs. But for the vast majority of people who have learnt that language there is really no opportunity to exercise their skills.

  21. jCandlish says:

    Again, I can’t judge the strategic weight of the American engagement in the Islamic regions, but it seems ponderous. Col. Lang’s concluding statement in the pre-amble is too instructive to leave tangentially addressed.
    “To think that young soldiers can be given any more than a passive “listening” ability in Arabic in a year or so of study is just illusory.” pl
    If plastic language acquisition skill is critical shouldn’t the American Forces field children, say 10-12 year olds? Hearts and Minds indeed!

  22. Kevin Rooney says:

    I only studied a tiny bit of it, but Farsi should not be particularly difficult. About the same as Hindi I would guess.
    First because it is an Indo-European language. Second, because it is one national language, like French or German or Japanese.
    Even though we say Arabic as though it is a language, it is more like a language family. “Arabic” is not analogous to French. It is analagous to all the Romance languages but with all the mass media being in a modernized Latin that no one actually speaks. And with the Church still using the original Latin.
    When I look at the world, I notice that the places that were functioning nations and had a unified language before colonialism did well after colonialism. Even if they were flattened by devastating war (Korea, Vietnam). The places that were tribal not national have suffered. (Africa) The Arabs are somewhere in between. Not quite fully separate nations, but clearly not one nation.
    The difficulties of learning Arabic are thus a mirror of the difficulties the Arabic people are having finding their place in the modern world.

  23. Kevin Rooney says:

    I would like to see some program analogous to ROTC for critical languages: pay for folks university in return for some years of service. Regardless of what happens in the next few years in Iraq, we are going to need a sizeable number of American Arabists for decades to come.
    I would also extend that to any language that we might need personnel for over the next couple of decades. Obvious candidates include Farsi, Dari, Pushto, Mandarin, Urdu, Russian, Korean.
    Part of the long-term intellectual infrastructure for a nation that benefits so much from global trade.

  24. Kevin Rooney says:

    Yohan: I definitely recommend spending significant time in an Arab country, preferably not Cairo, Beirut, or Morocco though. There are actually some very cheap programs in Yemen if you’re willing to rough it a little.
    Yohan, I would be curious why you recommend against Cairo, Beirut, or Morocco. How receptive are Yemenis to Americans?

  25. Montag says:

    Many years ago there was an independent film called, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” about a Texas manhunt in 1906, if memory serves. The entire story took place because of a faulty translation. A Sheriff, his deputy and an Anglo translator were questioning a Spanish-speaking horse dealer about a stolen horse they had been told he had bought.
    The translator asked, “Did you buy a horse?” And Cortez answered, “No, I didn’t buy a horse.” The Sheriff became angry and drew his gun and then all hell broke loose–resulting in the deaths of the Sheriff and the brother of Cortez.
    When Cortez was questioned in prison by his lawyer, using a bi-lingual Latina translator, it turned out that the whole tragedy had occurred over a word. The Anglo had used the word “caballo,” thinking it was a gender neutral word for horse. But to Cortez a caballo was a stallion, and he truthfully answered that he hadn’t bought a stallion, but a “yegua,” a mare. Since that word was unfamiliar to the incompetent translator, he lazily told the Sheriff that Cortez was flat out denying what they knew he had done. But Cortez had innocently bought a horse that he hadn’t known was stolen and was trying to be helpful!
    You can judge from this how difficult it must be for U.S. troops to gain accurate intelligence from the locals.

  26. Bob Haskell says:

    I wonder if, in addition to the difficult and time consuming job of creating a relatively few truly fluent Arabic linguists, the military should not also attempt to teach a large number of soldiers (one per company?) ‘enough’ Arabic?
    I pose the question based on my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1970s, first in Afghanistan and later in Morocco. In each country I took a six week, intensive language course that was entirely speaking-listening, with carefully selected vocabulary. In Afghanistan, I learned Dari, the local variant of Persian, which is admittedly far easier for an English-speaker than Arabic. Following the course and 4-5 months living and working soley with Afghans, I tested 2+ on the FSI. In Morocco, I studied Moroccan dialect and, though I used French professionally and (usually) socially, I was still able to get along quite well in Arabic in the market, ask and understand directions, engage in superficial social banter and understand a great deal of what was being said around me.
    I suspect that having even a similar knowledge of Arabic available on a company level would prove extremely useful, and wonder why the army and marines have not attempted something along these lines.

  27. kao_hsien_chih says:

    Something funny about dialects that Babak’s story reminded me of:
    I was trying to read signs written in Korean in Yenji, Jilin Porvince, China, where there is a large Korean minority when I realized the signs made absolutely no sense. (I’m originally from Seoul, South Korea) Only when I read the smaller print in Chinese (and my Chinese skills are absolutely horrendous) and did some thinking, did the signs start making sense. I should add that the variations in Korean dialects are nothing compared to those in Arabic. Quite frankly, I’m always amazed at the people who can pick up languages in totally alien cultures without “too much” difficulty (that is, they can do any decent job at it, period.)

  28. daveinboca says:

    Back in the day, I studied Arabic at FSI in Beirut with four CIA students [I was an FSO]. My language aptitude had tested out at 75 out of a possible 80. After a year of intense studies, I tested out at 3+ Speaking, 4 Reading. I had been promised two years, which is what is required to become really good at the language—but an FSO termite in the personnel system had tricked me into the Arabic FSI program by promising more than the State Dept had to give me. I met George Kennan during this time up at Princeton—he was from my hometown of Milwaukee and he told me: “Treat the State Dept like an old whore—if you don’t slap it around, it will ruin you.” Truer words were never spoken.
    The State Dept now ranks ARabic [and Japanese] as Class 7 languages, as opposed to Class 5 languages, because both are excruciatingly difficult to learn true fluency.

  29. Anna in PDX (was Cairo) says:

    Hi, I am late to this discussion but I was in the US Foreign Service and studied its 2 year Arabic immersion program – one (nine-month) year in FSI Washington, one in FSI’s field school in Tunisia. There were also DOD guys at the Tunisian second year place who had done Monterey. The people who were really naturally good at language could learn Arabic in this program to a good working level (3 or 3+ – I got a 3+/4 and a military colleague got a 4/3+ and we were the only two in the course to do that). I think it was a good program as it emphasized speaking (the dialect concentrated on was mostly Syrian/Lebanese on the grounds that it was intelligible to other dialects and Egyptian was offered as well, which is what I took because I already had a grounding in it through being married to an Egyptian). Writing was not focused on, and reading was all newspaper texts on the assumption that this is mostly what FSOs need. The Army guys there (there were only 2 of them that year – this was in 94-5) spoke to me a lot about their needs and how they felt the program served them and they were very happy with it.
    The FS offers 2 years only for 4 languages: Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and I think Korean. The rest of the languages including Persian/Farsi are one year.
    I know the Monterey DLI is really highly regarded but I think FSI’s program is also a really strong one and could easily be made even stronger.
    The main costs for these programs though are taking a valuable FSO or military person out of their career for 2 years to merely learn a language and to keep paying them a full salary at the same time. It’s very expensive and then the FS rotates people out of area and it seems like it is not very cost effective.

  30. Robert Chatel says:

    These comments are very interesting and I believe some common threads are that the younger one starts learning a foreign language the better; some languages are harder to learn than others and this often depends on what one’s first or other languages are; immersion often helps but is no guarantee of learning without strong motivation or the need to survive, and even then it may not be enough to acquire real proficiency; and related to the issue of motivation it is often important that one have a strong sense of respect for the language one is trying to learn and its native speakers.
    As an American living in Europe for thirty years and teaching English language and linguistics at various levels (mostly university), I have managed to acquire enough Greek to get along in both modern and classical Greek (reading with a dictionary), to work as an academic translator of Portuguese into English, and to read the Romance languages of the Northern Mediterranean and Greece comfortably, as they are used in the media. I am still at a loss in many of the dialects that persist, and these are languages that have probably experienced more levelling to a common network or educated spoken and written variety than many other languages. Several of the comments referred to this element of Arabic.
    At the level of language policy, I believe the United States must make a much greater and earlier effort to expose its young people, whether citizens or immigrants, to the rainbow of languages that currently are on offer in many parts of our country, to teach them, and to teach respect for them and their speakers. Unfortunately many forces are at work that undermine this, including lack of resources, attitudes to foreign languages by both adults and immigrant children, the pressures to upgrade scientific literacy and numeracy, and the limited hours in the day for all of us.
    I will apologize in advance for a long comment, but will add that I found the other comments thought-provoking and worthy of more than a quick comment.
    On last thought on mutual intelligibility: linguists face the vexed question of trying to distinguish between a language and a dialect, and traditionally the definition of the former is that it is a collection of mutually intelligible dialects. Unfortunately, this is not good enough to distinguish current Spanish and Portuguese in many cases or to justify referring to Chinese as a “language,” since the former are pretty much mutually intelligible at least from Spanish to Portuguese, while the latter contains dialects that are not mutually intelligible when spoken. I think Weinreich is credited with a provocative solution in his claim: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

  31. Yohan says:

    Yohan, I would be curious why you recommend against Cairo, Beirut, or Morocco. How receptive are Yemenis to Americans?
    Beirut is great for partying and the friends of mine who have studied there love it, but they learn very little Arabic because everyone an American will get to know there speaks English and French and is always trying to show off or practice their English on an anglophone. Cairo is similar though not as bad, though the main strike against it is that everyone I know who has studied there hates the city, it’s waaay too crowded. Also, while the Egyptian dialect is widely understood because of the dominance of Egyptian movies, music, and television, I personally find it inelegant and many Arabs regard it as uneducated sounding(because of the large number of poor and uneducated Egyptians). Morocco is a lovely place but their “Arabic” is completely unintelligible to non-Moroccan Arabs. Moroccan colliquial is such a mash of Berber, French, Spanish, English, and regionalisms that it really is its own language. All regional variants of Arabic are different, but someone speaking Lebanese Arabic can be understood by a Jordanian or a Saudi, excepting a few vocabulary differences. The accent, while clearly identifiable, is intelligible while Moroccan can often be unintelligible.
    Ordinary Yemeni people are very hospitable and have no problems with Americans. In fact, American tourist money is very much appreciated. If you stay in the capital Sanaa you should have few problems, I would advise against visiting Saada though, since they have a bit of an insurgency problem. My old Arabic professor always told us that visiting Arab police states like Syria and Yemen were much safer than the traditionally popular places like Egypt or Jordan since someone is always watching you and they eliminate anyone even remotely suspected of involvement in terrorist plots. Of course, however, your mileage may vary.

  32. Cujo359 says:

    This has been a fascinating discussion, to say the least. For a while I was working in Korea on a computer project for the DoD. While I was there, I noticed two things. One was that Korean was very easy to pronounce and read, but very difficult for a Westerner to understand. (I’m gratified to note that according to that page john in the boro referred to, they agree it’s one of the most difficult). The other was that there’s so much to understanding a language beyond being able to translate words and sentences into that language.
    On the second point, perhaps the best illustration is the use of humor. While I was there, I met a number of Koreans who had at least passable English skills. I’d say that some were even at the S3 level as described in this rating system:
    They were people with whom I could have professioional-level discussions about engineering issues. Yet, to a person, they weren’t able to follow my sense of humor.
    Admittedly, my sense of humor is something of an acquired taste, but like most humor that isn’t slapstick it’s based on subtle issues of word use and context. My native English-speaking coworkers had little or no trouble picking it up, but the Koreans I worked with were at a loss. It’s not that they weren’t as smart as my coworkers and I, it’s just that their knowledge of English and American culture wasn’t deep enough to understand.
    I suspect that one way you could tell a native Arabic speaker from someone who has a “professional level” knowledge of the language would be to make an Arabic pun and see who laughs and who has a puzzled expression on his face.

  33. shepherd says:

    Colonel Lang,
    Thanks for another fascinating thread.
    I studied linguistics in grad school and though I don’t speak Arabic, I have been fluent in around 10 languages at different times, and I’m familiar with the kinds of problems it presents. Please post this only if you think 1) it accurately describes the problems Arabic learners face, and 2) you think it might be useful in explaining those problems to those who’ve never studied a similar language.
    Below, I’ve made a list things that make it very difficult and time consuming to learn a language like Arabic. While almost all languages present one or two of these problems, Arabic seems to present most of them. And when you have to confront them all at once, it is very difficult to master the language, indeed.
    Phonology. These are the sounds speaker of a language makes to create words and meaning. The more similar a language is phonologically to one you already speak, the easier it is to learn. Unfortunately, if a language has a sound that your language does not contain, it takes a long time before you can distinguish it from other sounds when you hear it spoken. You also have to learn to enunciate those unfamiliar that soundin such a way that native speakers can understand you. It’s really quite difficult to overcome these problems.
    Orthography. Learning a new system of writing takes a while—especially when you consider things like handwriting, script variations, and so on. A further complication occurs when the writing does not phonetically represent the language. In that case, you won’t know how to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary when you hear them.
    Grammar. Grammar can be a real impediment, especially if the language organizes itself logically in a different way from your language. I’m guessing that learning Arabic grammar is not merely a matter of learning verb endings, as it largely is with Spanish or French. It probably involves things like how to use numbers, ways motion is expressed, how emotions are assigned to speakers, how spatial relations are organized, how objects of verbs are handled, and so on. In addition to learning the language, you also have to learn to “think” differently. That takes time as well.
    Vocabulary. Since there are almost no cognate words between Arabic and English, vocabulary at the beginning is a matter of brute force memorization.
    Dialects. Dialects are probably the biggest hurdle of all. If you’re an outsider, Arabic dialects are probably for all practical purposes different languages. Though native speakers can easily understand different dialects, it’s not the same for those who have learned the language later. A non-native speaker, while perhaps understood by the locals, would have to learn new grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation to understand them.
    When you add up all these problems, and there are probably many more besides, you end up with a language that sounds just as difficult to learn as many people commenting on this thread have found it to be.

  34. kao_hsien_chih says:

    I think Cujo359’s point about humor is dead on. Understanding a “language” isn’t just a matter of knowing its mechanics, but knowing what really means what. I went completely bonkers on several occasions when “translations” that are technically true don’t actually make sense in one language or the other because that’s just not the way locals would speak it, or when seemingly subtle differences don’t make it through translations with serious consequences in interpretation (I guess the comment about the Western movie captures this point perfectly.) (Note: I don’t translate professionally–but I’ve also seen many “professional” translations that had exactly these problems.)

  35. johnieB says:

    I have remaining fragments of several, including Classical Hebrew, and took Tieng Vietnam from DLI in 1967-68 for thirty two weeks, followed by a year+ of practical application with the Cav. I didn’t find Vietnamese difficult, but I never learned to read beyond an elementary level. I sympathize with some of the comments with regard to Arabic, including missing vowels and altered consonants.

  36. Chatham says:

    “(1) those who got to reinforce and add to their basic language competence through daily work with the Vietnamese and (2) those who pretty much remained in all-American units with little or no interest or incentive to do anything but forget, serve out their indentured time, and go home.”
    I completely agree with Mr. Murray’s point here. One of the problems with learning languages is that the ability to speak one’s own language will be detrimental. If you practice speaking the language with locals everyday, but you speak in your own language more and on a greater variety of subjects, it stunts the learning. A student might spend a lot of time studying a language and going to class in that language, but when they relax, have real conversations, etc, it will be in their native language. This prevents a certain depth, as the mind will continue to function in the native language, and translate as needed into the target language.
    I say this from my own experience. I’ve studied both Chinese and Spanish, both in and out of the classroom. I think Leila does have a point regarding people underestimating the ability of someone to learn a language; the teachers for all of my classes fell back on English too often (I don’t think they should have said a word of English personally, except a little at the earliest levels). Especially with regards to Chinese, this was because of the assumption (amongst both the students and teachers) that it was just to hard for us to learn quickly. When I started taking more intensive classes in China (no English, you had to learn how to write all the word you studied), at first I thought it was too hard, then I just worked harder and realized I was being lazy before. Languages take a lot of work, engagement, and interest. You can’t just go to a place and take a class there and expect to get good at the language.
    I have also come to a similar conclusion as Mr. Murray that classes are most useful as preparation for daily conversations. I learned more Spanish in one month working in Ecuador (as well as a few days working in Venezuela) among people that spoke just about no English and having an Ecuadorian girlfriend than I did in 3 years of classes and trying to practice with my family. If you’re making plans with someone to meet them or getting directions from them on how to do your job, and the person can not speak English, you learn fast – you have to. The problem is if you can fall back on English, you will for important things and difficult conversation topics.
    In two months I went from knowing a couple of words, to being able to stumble through a conversation, to being conversational. And this was not even immersion; the first month I didn’t speak Spanish much outside of the classroom and a few situations; the second one, I would speak to my relatives and watch TV in English (again, me being lazy). With Chinese I never got as much constant exposure, due to my girlfriend being a westerner, being in a class full of foreigners (meaning most of the people I met were non-natives), and being at a university (most students knew at least some English). Still, I noticed how much of a difference it made conversing with friends that would only speak Chinese, or talking to workers/cab drivers that didn’t speak any English (also better conversations; unlike most students, cab drivers/workers were fairly open about their thoughts on America/Mao/Iraq etc.).
    If I’m remembering this correctly, someone told me a few years back about a friend of theirs (pretty sure they were military, maybe special forces?) who had a full immersion Spanish course where they were dropped somewhere in South America, and they couldn’t speak a word of English for a month (I met a girl in China who was taking a similar “no English allowed” course). Have you heard about this? Do you have any thoughts on it? It seems like it would be the best way to train people.

  37. Chris Marlowe says:

    Having lived some time in California, I draw some comfort from the fact that I would run into different languages everyday at the local market. I’d hear Korean, Taiwanese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, Vietnamese and Spanish, just to name a few. As a general rule, I feel that younger Californians are much more comfortable with people who are not “like them”, and embrace people of all backgrounds and cultures.
    Most of the rest of the US though, especially the Midwest and South, are not there yet.
    The Chinese government is now floating a proposal to make English one of the two official languages of the country, along with Mandarin. The thinking is that in order to make China a modern global country, English is a necessity. (I think that the Chinese are also looking over their shoulder at India, where English is an official language.) The plan calls for the importation of 25M native speakers of English annually to teach in the schools. If a decision is made, it is believed that it would be announced around the time of the Olympics.
    It would be interesting to have 1.5B more English speakers. I just hope that Americans don’t think that the Chinese will be any less Chinese, and more American, just because they spoke English.

  38. Chris Marlowe says:

    Some years ago, at a diplomatic cocktail reception, I chatted with a retired American diplomat about using more minority members for their local language skills and knowledge.
    He said “We can’t do that.”
    I asked “Why?”
    “More often than not, they don’t like what we do in their countries. Then it becomes a security issue.”
    “Then how about having mainstream Americans spending time with the local people to learn the language intensively?”
    “Can’t do that either. Then the Americans wouldn’t like what we do to the country either and someone smart would figure out our BS. Then the whole country (US) would find out what our real agenda is if someone talked to the media. We’re supposed to be the good guys, you know?”
    “So you really don’t want to know other languages?”
    “Not really.We do what we do and that’s it. You know the British phrase ‘Go native’, haven’t you?”
    It was a short but very enlightening conversation; it reminded me of something out of a Graham Greene novel.

  39. Will says:

    Have always been interested in the true sounds of language and consonant shifts.
    For example “Julius Caesar” is pronounced Yulius Kaisaar in classical Latin and a lot of our words of Latin derivation are grossly mispronounced. Jesus should be Ya-seus. Closer to the Hebrew Ya-souhou, Joshua)
    Similarly Arabic has no P sound but Hebrew, an ancient Phoencian dialect did. The “Farsi” which has been under discussion here is an Arabic rendition. In Iran, it would be “Parsi.” I often use the phrase I learned in Latin I for the Persians, “Persicos.” Or the French for Iraq, “Irak,” b/c that’s the way Dumbya pronounces it. Actually, I think Iraq has the Ayin for “I,” and Baghdad has the Ghain for gh. Ayin also means eye. The Phoenicians when they invented the phonetic alphabet drew a circle for this symbol which is the ancestor of our “o.”

  40. Leila A. says:

    Chris Marlowe’s anecdote about the diplomat is enlightening. Wonder how true it is. It certainly confirms my suspicions about the American gov’t and its Arabic mission.
    Didn’t Dubya fire a bunch of State Dept. Arabists because they were “too sympathetic to the ARabs?”
    That’s the problem. If you actually understand a culture, you have to respect it and its people, and you can’t just blithely bomb the hell out of its capital and populace without some remorse.
    Arabs have been accusing me of being too sympathetic to Israel all of my life, for similar reasons. I grew up in the USA with Jewish friends, I studied violin with Jewish teachers, read Anne Frank and accounts of the Holocaust, played Mendelsohn, read I.B. Singer and Isaac Babel. Lived on the Lower East Side for a while and acquired plenty of Yiddish and a taste for borscht, plus a love for the Yiddish history of that neighborhood. However angry I might be at the State of Israel and its supporters, I just can’t extend my anger to Jews, Judaism, or Jewish culture. (Or Israelis and Israeli culture) THey are human beings, too. I guess I’ve “gone native.” Or become “brainwashed by the Zionist media,” you take your pick.
    Going native, indeed. Going human is what I call it.

  41. Kevin Rooney says:

    Thank you for the explanation. I have filed it away for when I have the opportunity to act on it.
    Especially where to do in Yemen and where not.
    Just based on Morocco’s history – being political separate from the rest of the Islamic world so much of the time, I could imagine its Arabic being quite different.
    What you say about police states is so often true. As long as you do not run afoul of the state, you can often be quite safe. The Soviet Union was far safer than Russia is.

  42. Will says:

    Fascinated by agglutination, the way words are strung together to form monster words. I’m sure i haven’t used the proper technical word. In German it’s par for the course- words such as oberwerhkommando.
    But sometimes it’s done for other languages by force making names harder to understand or pronounce. Marjaoun is a town in Southern Lebanon. Marj ‘Ayin. makes perfect sense- field of springs. That would be the best transliteration.
    Ahmadi Nejad, the Iranian president is always transliterated as Ahmadinejad making his name a mouthful. And then his remarks on Israel are twisted through creative translation to make him a devil with horns and another cause for war.
    Remarks about Israel

  43. Alex says:

    During the Second World War and part of the Cold War, the British armed forces had a very good language program which screened National Servicemen for aptitude, pulled the top whatever per cent, and put them through the JSSL (Joint Services School for Linguists), which had developed full-immersion courses for WW2.
    Not only did it provide a lot of Russian speakers for various intelligence tasks quickly, it also produced a surprising number of good writers.
    I think there’s a big difference between the learning you need if you’re going to converse in formal situations, read official documents, interpret intelligence intercepts, and write for target language speakers (we could call that the specialist level) and the learning you need to communicate in practice (we could call it the barefoot linguist level).

  44. Abu Sinan says:

    Wow, I didn’t realise my off the cuff comments would start such a good line of comments.
    A few comments on what I have read. Someone asked what I was talking about when I mentioned rating scales. The ability to speak a foreign language is based on a rating scale, with 1 being beginning level and 5 being a native speaker.
    In the case of Arabic it is pretty rare for a non native speaker to get to level four. Basically a level four, speaking wise, would be someone who could speak to a large group of people or who was at a level where they could confidently debate issues in a panel discussion.
    There might be a better explanation of how the ratings system works online, I don’t know. Level 5 is a native level speaker and I have not met any non native speaker gain a level 5 in Arabic, although it is much more common in languages like Spanish and German.
    My wife’s father was a Saudi military diplomat here at the Saudi Embassy for 25 years. The closest Westerner I have seen to a level 5 Arabic speaker would be the Western wife of the current Cultural Minister here at the Saudi Cultural Mission.
    She met her husband, the cultural minister, at school here in the West. She took college level Arabic and lived in Saudi for 20 years. Her Arabic is very good, but even I can tell she is not a native speaker. But after living 20 years in Riyadh, I think she is as close as it comes.
    Someone mentioned the diacritical marks, and lack there of, in most texts. This is very true. Outside of books on learning Arabic, The Qur’an, and a small amount of religious texts, you will not find these all important marks.
    As the poster also pointed out, these marks are also used as short vowels, so if you do not already know the written word you are trying to read, this can make it really hard. However, Arabic does have one thing that can help is such circumstances. Arabic words are based on root words, usually consisting of three consonants. So if you are aware of the root word, you can pretty well suss out the meaning of the word, even if in a written case you cannot know exactly how to pronounce it.
    Example, the root k-t-b, has a basic meaning of to write. So you get “kataba=he wrote” “katabat=she wrote” “yaktubu he writes”. Then, if you are aware of the root word and other associated meanings it can help you figure out words like “katib=writer” “maktab=office” or “kutub=books”. So if you are reading something and do not know the exact word, Arabic makes it rather easy if you know other words related to the particular root of the word in question.
    Arabic is hard enough, that Arabs at university level, are required to take Arabic classes all four years at university.
    Someone talked about Arabs not speaking good enough English to pass as native speakers of English. I would dispute this. My wife speaks Arabic fluently with a Hijazi accent, as the Hijaz (area of Saudi Arabia) is where her family comes from. She has been here in the USA off and on since she was about five. Her English is certainly native English speaking level. I think the only way one might be able to detect the fact that English was not her first language is the way she constructs a few sentences. Like other speakers of second languages, sometimes she uses literal Arabic translations into English. Given the fact that she has no accent in her English many people wouldn’t catch it. I have to say she doesn’t really do this anymore as I used to call her on it when we got married, but she used to construct sentences like “Higher the volume” when talking about the radio or TV, or “close the lights”. These are literal translations from Arabic as in Arabic you do tell someone to “higher” something, as in volume, or you are asked to “close the lights”.
    Someone also talked about dialect and the views of some dialects to Arabs. One thing you must realise is that Arabs are highly regionalised and they all seem to carry on some pet hatred of one country or another. Saudis, as a rule, tend not to like Kuwaitis or people from Qatar, many Lebanese don’t like Syrians, and almost every Arab hates the Saudis. So not matter what dialect you learn you are going to run into somebody who doesn’t like the way you speak.
    My wife’s family comes from the Hijaz, more specifically Mekkah and Jeddah. So they speak Hijazi Arabic, and that is the dialect I use and am most experienced with. However, with years of being outside of Saudi, a lot of Egyptian dialect has crept into their language use. I blame that on the domination of Egypt in many areas of Arabic media, especially TV and music. I give them a hard time about this when I hear one of them use a well known Egyptian term, because they tend not to be too fond of Egyptians. Something like “ez-zayyak”.
    Slang can be funny when you don’t have a clue and take it literal, like the first time someone said to me “ish lonak? “(transliteration correct?). Literally it means “what colour are you”. So to this I answered “ana abyad.” That got a good laugh. This is a phrase used often by Kuwaitis. It is a way of asking how are you doing.
    As to Yemeni Arabic, it would be very good to learn this dialect. It is very distinct and it is respected by other Arabs because it is seen as being very close to “true Arabic”. Arabs are very particular about their Arabic. However, knowing Yemeni Arabic might get some strange looks and questions from people. It is strange enough for a Westerner to speak Arabic, let alone a dialect like Yemeni (of which there are several varieties of it’s own) or Saudi Arabic (again with several varieties).
    I have been asked before if I worked for the CIA or FBI, and they really had a hard time figuring out my Hijazi accent as most Americans who learn a particular dialect learn Egyptian, Lebanese, or even Palestinian/Jordanian (shu hi?). A Yemeni dialect would bring the same response. My co-workers, many of whom are Arabic, thought I was with the FBI or some other intelligence agency for a couple of years until a few of them ran into me at the mall with my wife and kids. I guess they didn’t figure the FBI would give me children to help my undercover work.
    As to Farsi/Parsi, I believe it would be much easier to learn as well. It is, as someone stated before, an Indo-European language, and from listening to it, the sounds are much closer to European sounds. I think there are a good number of dialects, but I think they are much more understood by Farsi speakers as a whole than the various Arabic dialects are. I also think there are many more native Farsi speakers that would be willing to work for the US is translating roles. The majority of Iranian Americans came from Iran before and right after the Islamic revolution and tend to be very secular, often being “more American than the Americans”.
    I speak German as well as Arabic, although I admit my German is a bit rusty from lack of use. The last time I was there was in 2001. Use of a language is critical. I think this is what makes many Westerners who speak Arabic “suspect” and would cause many of them to have a hard time getting a clearance. Most people who care enough about Arabic to put in the years of study and travel to become fluent would naturally gain something of a sympathy with Arabs, not to mention the travel needed in the Middle East and the associates you might make, wouldn’t look good on an application. There are some great schools in Syria, Yemen and the like, but if you spend two years in one of these spots good luck on a top secret clearance.
    Many people who speak Arabic would have no problem working with the US government in tracking down al-Qaeda and the like, but the US makes the “war on terror” too broad of a brushstroke. There are countless people who speak Arabic who would work night and day against bin Laden, but when you throw in groups like Hamas and Hizb’Allah into the mix they would not agree. I have had this discussion with other Arabic speakers, native and non native, and it is clear that you could not refuse to work against Hamas and Hizb’Allah but still work against al-Qaeda, so they choose not to work at all.
    Most Arabs, Arabic speakers and Muslims for that matter, would not lump al-Qaeda, Hizb’Allah and Hamas together. THAT is, in my mind, why more Arabs do not work for the US government. My sister in law, fluent in both English and Arabic and working on her Masters as a Linguist made that very point to me. She’d love to work against bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but would refuse to work against Hamas. She had thought about applying for the FBI, but when she thought about it that way, she decided not to. As long as that grouping is kept, improperly in my mind, there will only be a very limited number of native speaking Arabs willing to work for the US government.

  45. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    A Finnish speaking FSO for Baghdad. From Wayne Madsen’s blog:
    May 22, 2007 — Exiling U.S. diplomats to Iraq. Helsinki’s newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, is reporting that William Davnie, the Press and Cultural Affairs Counselor at the United States Embassy in Helsinki, was transferred from Finland to Iraq in early April after he had policy differences with U.S. ambassador Marilyn Ware. Davnie speaks fluent Finnish, a language for which he will find little use in Baghdad.
    WMR reported on Ware on Sept. 1, 2006: “One of the biggest wastes of money has been on the security upgrade to the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Finland. The embassy, located in the tranquil harbor area of Helsinki and facing picture post card views of ferries connecting Helsinki to Stockholm and yacht basins, has a double security fence complete with 360 degree pan, zoom, and tilt cameras disguised as street lamps. No other embassy in Helsinki, including the Russian and British embassies have any security so elaborate. Not surprisingly, the U.S. ambassador to Finland is a big time corporate donor to the GOP — Marilyn Ware, the former Chairman of American Water Works Company, a firm that is attempting to privatize public sector water utilities around the world. A neo-con, Ware is an alumnus of the International Republican Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. She also was co-chair of Tom Ridge’s gubernatorial campaign. Ware can rest assured that with the millions spent on the security at her embassy in Helsinki, she does not have to worry about attacks by passing Finnish, Swedish, or Estonian ferry passengers.”
    Marilyn Ware: Neo-con shrew exiles dissenting U.S. diplomat in Finland to Iraq
    With Ware’s neo-con links, it is obvious why William Davnie now finds himself on the neo-con Nazis’ American version of Hitler’s “Eastern Front.”
    Was the al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad built by a Finnish company?

  46. ikonoklast says:

    The cesspit is apparently bottomless:
    “Al Hurra television, the U.S. government’s $63 million-a-year effort at public diplomacy broadcasting in the Middle East, is run by executives and officials who cannot speak Arabic … That might explain why critics say the service has recently been caught broadcasting terrorist messages, including an hour-long tirade on the importance of anti-Jewish violence, among other questionable pieces.”
    On the other hand, this sort of thing might at least improve its ratings in the ME.

  47. William says:

    I am also learning Chinese by a special and innovative service in http://www.hellomandarin.com and http://www.hellomandarin.com/courses/course.html . I like to learn in live class with teacehrs from Beijing directly. I also like to practice Chinese with volunteers freely everyday http://www.hellomandarin.com/connectingchina . Watching Chinese learning TV on CLTV http://cltv.hellomandarin.com is also interesting and helpful to practice listening and learn more about Chinese culture.

  48. Sid3 says:

    A truly fascinating thread. Thank you.
    Abu Sinan — the last two paragraphs of your 21 May 07 entry is pure gold, as it reveals the great blind spot of present US policymakers. You write…“Many people who speak Arabic would have no problem working with the US government in tracking down al-Qaeda and the like, but the US makes the “war on terror” too broad of a brushstroke…Most Arabs, Arabic speakers and Muslims for that matter, would not lump al-Qaeda, Hizb’Allah and Hamas together. THAT is, in my mind, why more Arabs do not work for the US government.”
    In my opinion, your words should headline a policy paper. Your observation precisely explains how the USG has failed miserably to follow the golden rule described in Chapter 15 of Fall’s Street without Joy: to win, the USM and the people must emerge on the same side of the struggle.
    The USG ignores your observations at great peril.

  49. JFP says:

    I realize that almost no one will read this because the comments stopped quite a while ago, but I’m going to say it anyway. It seems to me that much of the problem with learning a foreign language lies in the way it is taught. My experience here is with a Arabic class taught in a college, so maybe things are different in the government classes.
    But the obvious way to proceed is to start with the most commonly used words and proceed gradually to less common words. However, this is violated all the time by my textbook. We learned the term “United Nations” in the first chapter. WHY?
    We learned the verb “to want” at the end of the first year, though that is something we should have learned the first day. We learned the verb “to be cut off” before we learned “to take.” Why? WHY? It is utter madness.
    And it’s not just my college class. Anyone who has had a couple years of high-school Spanish should be able to order a meal in a restaurant in Mexico, but it seems that they cannot do that. WHY?
    I could go on and on about this, but let this do for now.

  50. Rob says:

    I would like to attend a school/program, modeled after The Defense Language Institute, for Arabic. I am a civilian, an Army vet, 41, and highly motivated. I’m looking for an immersion program that’ll help me reach fluency.
    Thanks for any responses.

  51. liamm1320 says:

    I have been thinking about doing those Arabic games for learning. I believe they are at http://www.creativeeducationandpublishing.com/store/index.php?route=product/category&path=66. I think it’s great to learn more languages.

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