A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is Arabic Hard? The Latest Silly Controversy

There's a new controversy in the Middle East blogosphere over an Israeli study that claims that Arabic is harder to read than other languages because the detail of the characters means people use only the left side of their brain, rather than both sides, thus creating learning difficulties. The original study is apparently not online, but there's a BBC report here, and a summary from the University of Haifa.

Well, of course there's been a lot of reaction. Brian Whitaker reflects on the subject here. A roundup of various comments from around the blogosphere is over at Global Voices. As'ad AbuKhalil, the Angry Arab, is angry of course, calling this a "colonial study." (Obviously, too, there's a loaded element in that the study came from an Israeli university.)

My own reaction is puzzlement and wondering what motivated the study. Only 40 subjects were studied, all university students. Learning a language in adulthood is, of course, always more difficult than acquiring a first language as a child. Some of the students spoke only Hebrew; others already "knew Arabic well", though it's not clear if they were native speakers. It's also clear that the study is talking about the writing system, not the language itself.

Many commenters have already taken the natural tu quoque approach and noted that some of the things that make Arabic hard to learn — being written from right to left, not writing the vowels — also hold true for Hebrew. (And I'd note that handwritten Hebrew script diverges from the printed character much more than does handwritten Arabic.)

And what about the thousands of characters in Chinese? Japanese kangi? (Here again the difficulty is the writing system, not the underlying grammar.)

I personally suspect this is just another case of an academic study that had funding and decided to prove what it already assumed to be true, but I shouldn't impute motive I suppose. The summary seems to suggest that the Arabic language itself creates a learning disability, which has naturally infuriated some people. Of course it's harder for an English speaker to learn Arabic than say, Spanish; it's a different language family and a different script. But it's an alphabetic script and once learned seems pretty readable to me. Admittedly as my aging eyes struggle with small diacritical marks I prefer to read newspapers online, where Control++ magnifies the letters, rather than on paper. But I have the same trouble with small print in English.

Enough of this silly discussion. Go do your Arabic homework.


communications said...

Wayne White could not agree more with Michael Dunne in that there has been quite enough said about this "silly" argument that should not have seen the light of day in the first place. For one thing, it is irrelevant as to whether Arabic is hard. Whether "hard" or not, it is an immensely important world language that many more people must master if non-Arab speakers and the nations from which they hail are to maximize their understanding of Islam as well as the many countries & cultures dominated by that powerful language.

Sharon Coleman said...

After studying Mandarin, I found learning Arabic (as an adult) pretty straightforward and that Israeli students (living in US) who already knew Hebrew, had a big advantage over us native English speakers because of similarities between Arabic and Hebrew.

David Mack said...

Imagine how hard it was before Saint Hans Wehr published his matchless dictionary. Fortunately for me, when I started in 1962, it had just been translated into English. Before that, knowledge of German was virtually a necessity for studying modern standard. That did not keep the director of Arabic studies at Harvard for insisting that we use a French grammar, a bit of a hurdle for a virtual mono-lingual American like me! All that said, at the end of day, it was accumulating vocabulary with no English cognates that was the hardest part -- not the writing system or the unfamiliar grammar. Two graduates of Hebrew School in my class had the big edge over the rest of us. It was noteworthy that in 1962, no American Arab or Muslim students would cross their parents by studying Arabic! How times have changed, for the better, with MEI offering "heritage classes" in Arabic and Farsi.

Anonymous said...

I found Arabic difficult to learn, but not because of the alphabet or because is is written right to left. That was the easy part. The hard part was the internal plurals.
Let us recall the famous words of James Moose, a State Department Arabist of a bygone era: "Arabic is a language that opens a door to an empty room."--Tom Lippman