Arabic in Alabama

Sheri Spaine Long, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Foreign Language and Literature at UAB, says the department started getting inquiries about Arabic after September 11. Then Lamia Zayzafoon, Ph.D., an English professor and native of Tunisia, applied for a job at UAB. Though the faculty position she sought was in the English department, she offered to teach Arabic, as well.

Interest in the Arabic class went beyond expectations. The initial projection was 10 to 15 students, but the class filled up on the third day of registration, topping off at 25 students with more on a waiting list. The department decided to offer the course again in the May mini-term and also in the fall 2006 semester.

Ancient Tongues

Until now, Arabic has been little studied and little known in the West. It belongs to the Semitic language family, which includes Hebrew and the other ancient languages of the Holy Lands that go back thousands of years. These were spoken languages, not written, and the vast majority are now obsolete. Arabic, however, has flourished because of the rise of Islam and the importance of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy scripture.

Muslims believe the Qur’an was dictated to the prophet Mohammad by God via the angel Gabriel. Because Mohammad was illiterate, Muslims believe the elegant style of the Qur’an is the miracle of the prophet. Some Islamic sources say that the verses were at first transmitted orally then written on bones and palm tree leaves. The Qur’anic text we have today was compiled during the reign of the third caliph, Uthman.

As Islam spread, so did the importance of Arabic; eventually it became the official language of the Muslim empire, which flourished for more than four centuries. Today there are an estimated 246 million Arabic speakers, making it the sixth most-spoken language in the world. There are around 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide—some 22 percent of the world’s population—who know at least some Arabic. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Shakespeare, the Nightly News, and Slang

In a sense, Arabic is two languages—the formal language and the language of daily life. The same was true of Latin, which was the formal language of the Roman Empire, while the various spoken dialects, which developed into the Romance languages, were the languages of daily life.

Today there are an estimated 246 million Arabic speakers, making it the sixth most-spoken language in the world.

Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic (a simplified version of Classical Arabic used in the media, from newspapers to broadcasts of Al-Jazeera) are the formal forms of the language and are understood across all of the Arabic speaking world. The difference between these two forms of the formal language has to do with elegance and style, according to Zayzafoon. “It’s like Shakespeare versus a modern novel,” she says. “You can understand Shakespeare, but the phrasing and the style are very different from the way people actually write today.”

In contrast to these two forms of formal Arabic, the colloquial dialects are the mother-languages of the Arab people, the spoken languages used in daily life. They vary widely, from the North African dialects of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt to those of the Middle East, and they are not always comprehensible to each other. Egyptian is the most widely understood dialect—“and in my opinion, it’s the most beautiful,” says Zayza-foon. Egyptian films, TV shows, and music are popular all over the Arab world, so people are widely exposed to that dialect.

Students of the “Superhard”

UAB student Christi Vincent says her fellow classmates in the first semester of Arabic were “an interesting mix.” She chose the class because she spent eight years in Saudi Arabia teaching English, an experience that left her interested in learning more about the language. Her peers included a former missionary to Lebanon, a member of the military, an American interested in working in the Middle East, and second- and third- generation Arab-Americans who wanted to learn more about the language of their heritage. Some of the students say they took the class because they wanted to learn about another culture, while others say they relished the challenge. Student Lydia Gamble signed up for Arabic because she loves learning foreign languages and because, she says, “I had been told that Arabic is a difficult language to learn, and I had to see for myself.”

The U.S. State Department does rate Arabic (along with Chinese) as one of the “superhard” languages, because it takes longer for native English speakers to become proficient than it does with languages such as Spanish or French. Interested students needn’t be frightened away, however. As the name implies, Arabic 101 offers the basics. “We emphasize basic skills,” says Zayzafoon. Students learn the basics of grammar and how to express greetings, ask simple questions, describe things about themselves, and how to count.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Arabic for beginners is learning to hear and make sounds that have no equivalent in English, particularly the deep guttural sounds. (Conversely, Arabic has no p or v sounds.) Zayzafoon places prime importance on learning to distinguish these sounds and spends ample time on them during the first two months of the semester.

Another element of the language that can be intimidating is the Arabic alphabet, a curvy script written from right to left. In Arabic a letter changes shape depending on where it’s located in the word. Even so, according to students, it looks harder than it actually is. “I love writing the Arabic script,” says Gamble. “At first glance, one would think it is difficult to write, but it is not. Writing is the most fun part.”

A Gateway to Empathy

Language is not the only thing students study in Arabic 101. Zayzafoon believes it’s important that students also learn about the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of the Arab world. “One of the misconceptions in the West is that the Middle East is monolithic, but in fact there is a lot of diversity. It’s not a homogeneous world.”

To encourage students to interact with the Arab-American community, Zayzafoon requires each student in the class to interview someone from the local Arab community. Students also attend cultural events and watch Arabic movies. “Besides helping with the language, it’s important for them to see the Arab world through the lenses of the Arab people.”

Studying Arabic may be particularly relevant because of today’s highly charged global political atmosphere. As Vincent says, “Any language is a means of bringing people closer together. Studying this particular language is important because there is a disconnect between our cultures, and I think learning Arabic is helping people in Birmingham bridge that gap.”

Zayzafoon echoes that belief. “It’s good that, through the study of the language, we’re looking at similarities. There are so many things we have in common. I hope that an understanding of our similarities will be the basis for cooperation and understanding between the two worlds. I hope that the study of the language will help us break the tendency to look at things as ‘they’ and ‘we.’ I don’t like the word ‘they.’ I hope students will learn the ‘we.’”