There is no shortage of books on the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. Some stand back to analyse it in terms of trends and networks, seeking to explain the 'why' through abstractions. Others have written participant accounts or their histories from the sidelines. The Exile offers a fulsome corrective to this trend towards abstraction. Curious what life was like for bin Laden, his commanders and their families? Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy deliver in spades.
The beating heart of this book are the stories of bin Laden's wives, their children and their life in 'exile'. The authors seem to have managed to achieve as yet unparalleled access to the wives and some other family members of Osama bin Laden, and their tale is both gripping and believable. The second important contribution that the book makes is to reveal Iran's role in hosting the bin Laden families (and commanders) post-2001. The rich detail goes a long way to giving the reader a sense of the day-to-day frustrations of their lives in Tehran (and other places) as well as their interactions with Iranian military and government officials. The book would be worth its price just for these sections alone.
Chapter Eleven tells the story of the night bin Laden died, to a large extent from the perspective of his wives and family members. They also weave in accounts from US soldiers participating in the raid, but this is a perspective we have been denied till now and I think it is an important one. Indeed, the trauma faced by the children on that night (and throughout the years prior, for the most part unable to leave their home) is one of the understated but crucial themes that stand out from 'The Exile'.
Every account of bin Laden's time post-2001 has to grapple with the question of Pakistan's role. The authors take a smart position throughout the book, which is to abstain from abstraction and a strong analytic voice. There are some claims of Pakistani ISI involvement and meetings here and there, but they step back a little before charging the government or senior officials with a state-level conspiracy. Whatever happened, this account holds, was much more an affair of bit players.
The book had the feeling of being rushed to press. It must have cost a lot to research the book, so perhaps the authors simply ran out of funds, but it seemed like there were so many other lines of enquiry that could have been started. The hardcover copy I read still had a fairly large number of typos, and it's a shame that the authors use the word "Afghanis" to refer to Afghans.
The book is extremely readable -- it kept me up until two in the morning as I finished it -- and this is in large part because of the use of dialogue and building up narrative tension through conversations. Unfortunately, the handling of some of these conversations -- reported through interviews with participants -- strains credulity. Study of memory and oral history has shown how these kinds of memories degrade or get reshaped with each telling, and I wish there were more caveats throughout the book that what we're reading is an approximation of what happened in order to better imaginatively enter the situation.
All in all, though, The Exile is an important book, an engrossing read and hopefully the beginning of more enquiries as others follow up on leads and side-stories raised in the telling. I took copious notes and will be digesting its various contents for a while, I think. It seems that scholars of September 11 and its aftermath are doomed to eternally reading and retelling the same events in slightly different contortions as new facts and witnesses emerge. If all the books were as good as this one, I wouldn't mind so so much.
I'm currently scheduled to do some archival work in August that would greatly benefit from being able to understand written Italian. That's a little under two months away from now, so I've been thinking about how best to approach this problem.
I'm only interested in comprehension, and not in production, of language, so this would seem a great opportunity to get a little bit of grammar and then immerse myself in some comprehensible input. I bought a quick-and-basic grammar overview and have set myself up with Clozemaster. (Clozemaster is a great way to learn vocabulary through context. I wrote about it previously here.)
I'm posting about this less-than-two-month mini goal here for a little bit of public accountability. I will in no way be fluent by the end of it, but I hope to be able to make my way through an archive of materials in Italian, or at the very least to know what is worth properly translating and what I can skip over.
There's rumoured to be a Beeminder/Clozemaster direct service connection in the works, but until then I'll use Clozemaster's own daily reminder tool. A più tardi.
One million words. More.
The Power Broker is the kind of book you see in a bookshop, pick it up, put it back down again because its weight is a physical assault on your wrist.
It isn't available as a digital edition for Kindle, so you're stuck with lugging the physical copy around with you. I started this book in February, setting up a Beeminder goal to keep me on track. The pages are large and the type small, so even a goal of reading twenty pages a day took 30-45 minutes.
I persevered, despite some weeks where I was travelling and therefore separated from the 1.3 kilogramme tome.
It was worth it. At over a million words, Caro obviously has the space to include a good deal of detail.
Robert Moses, if you're still reading by this point, is the subject of this biography. Moses worked in city planning, transportation and huge building projects in the New York state area (and some other big ones elsewhere in the United States). Caro's book details his life story, showing how Moses' drive 'got things done' in and around the city. Whether it was building roads or huge buildings, Moses was a force to be reckoned with in political as well as administrative terms.
Caro approaches his subject from a number of different perspectives. He appears to have read a huge amount of the raw primary source material in the public domain as well as interviewed 522 individuals close to or involved in Moses' work. That he managed to keep the book so readable is almost a miracle in and of itself. Every page draws you in, details and stories and glimpses that make Moses and the times in which he live come to life.
There are so many amazing details and sections to this book that picking any one would detract from the whole. If you have the time (and the stamina), give this book a read, even if you have no prior interest in urban planning. Highly recommended.
“How naive he’d been, thought the optician, how naive. Because there would always be greater sorrow, deeper and more unfathomable than any of us could ever imagine.” (p. 83)
Bad things happen all the time. Suffering is a feature of life for many people. When this suffering happens on our doorstep, an initial flurry of interest is followed by a long steady wane as what was the extraordinary becomes routine. So it is with the boatloads of people making their way towards Europe. For a brief moment, Europe seemed to care. The passage of time saw even these tragic stories become absorbed into the fabric of ‘normal life’.
Emma Jane Kirby’s book, The Optician of Lampedusa hits the pause button on our collective forgetting. This is an Italian optician’s story, a short tale of his coming into contact with the raw human tragedy occurring with regularity on Europe’s southern shores. The optician is sailing with friends when he comes across hundreds of drowning Eritreans (among others). The book chronicles the moments before, during and after their rescue.
Kirby’s strength is to stick to detailed observations, relaying what was going through the Italian optician’s mind, what he was seeing and hearing. It (re)connects the reader with the unvarnished reality of those being smuggled into Europe. It’s a unique account in its directness, and was a sober reminder of something that I had started to forget.
If I have one criticism of the book, it is the perspective. I would far rather have read a book by one of the survivors, or at least to hear the story in their words. I understand that European publishers feel like they need a white face to relay the stories of ‘the other’, I just wish it wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, this was a sensitively written account and one I will be recommending to friends and family.
[This is a continuation of Taylor's blog series where she details some of the week-in-week-out lessons that she learns through her Arabic studies and coaching work together with me. For other posts in the series, click here.]
If the first phase of my Arabic study in Jordan was intensive textbook fusha and the second was track-switching ammiya classes, this third and current could be called meaningful leisure, or, hanging out around town a lot and making friends.
When I went to Bombay for an extended stay in 2010, a journalism colleague gave me a piece of advice: "Take everyone up on their offer to hang out with you." It may sound "duh," but over the years living abroad, I've seen how foreigners spend their free time in ways that often diverge from how residents in a given city do so. When we, as gringos in Rio, may have wanted to go to foreign film festivals or paragilding over the beach, many of our Brazilian peers would be going to baby showers, a classmate's thesis defense, or Outback Steakhouse. All of those activities are great ones, and I think the spirit of my colleague's advice was: If you want to get to know a culture, let your host take the lead and show you how they spend their free time.
That means over the past few weeks, I've sat on the sidewalk in front of a gift shop with a delightful young sculptor and a store clerk, my partners in very unstructured language exchanges that break when one of them needs to pop into the shop to attend a client. I went for a 6:30 a.m. workout with two of the fastest runners in Amman, a pair of brothers I met at a sunset race in Wadi Rum as we waited in the dunes watching for headlamps of other runners finishing. I went to a capoeira performance at Jadal cafe that was held in commemoration of the nakba; I was pleased with how accessible the discussion after the performance was for me, particularly when an older man in the audience vigorously questioned the capoeristas as to why they needed to do someone else's sport when they could do dabke.
Alex often talks about "islands" of vocabulary, and I thought about that as I spent more time with the same people and can make good guesses about the words they're using. (As I crossed the finished line at the race, other runners asked me ايش كان مركزك؟ though I certainly hadn't run fast enough to place. It was satisfying, though, to deduce what they were saying.) The store clerk and I talk often about money and salaries, since she hustles to work two jobs to help her family out.
I could be more purist; I speak plenty of English in these interactions. I'm still searching for the point of equilibrium between taking advantage of each opportunity I get to speak in Arabic while (of course!) having genuine friendships with peers with whom I share interests (running, yoga, current events, feminism, vegetarianism, pets). Plenty of the vocabulary and references regarding those topics are in English, not to mention the people who are interested in them often read and speak in English about them. I don't believe every friendship needs to be instrumentalized for one's language-learning goals (though I believe even more strongly that such an attitude should not be a lofty cover for native English speakers kicking back and relaxing). When I told Alex about my happy sidewalk sessions, which qualify more as bilingual shooting-the-shit than a proper language exchange, he said: You're doing the real thing, rather than practicing for it.
Some working notes, now, on practice:
I've been happy with my second time around testing out language exchanges; I've used the website Conversation Exchange, which I had suspected could be out of use by its retro web design but is actually popping. I'm pretty strict about where I meet the person, i.e., it needs to be as quiet as possible (a first exchange at Indoor cafe across from the University of Jordan was really hard to decipher and, from my point of view, turned into disjointed monologues rather than a conversation because I couldn't hear her well).
I think the exchanges, for my current level, are less experimental zones and more consolidation ones. That is to say, I don't risk and try to reach for vocabulary I'm shaky on but work with what I know decently. That's why I like coupling the exchanges with private classes, which I go to twice a week and are a better place for reaching and experimenting. I also think that in a language exchange it is useful to ask my partner "is the way I said that correct?" but not productive to ask "why?" I save those questions for my teacher.
Alex encouraged me to discover certain transition phrases (على فكرة... على كل حال... بالرغم من) and put them into practice in my speech, which give the impression of being more fluent and conversant than I am. This has been a fun exercise with my private teacher, since I take the English phrases I want and try to describe to her a situation that I might use them.
I'm on board with the many lines of criticism telling us that we need to make an active effort to start unplugging our lives before we turn into cyborgs; that said, having a round of friends here I chat with on Facebook or Whatsapp has indeed been great practice for seeing spelled out how people are saying what I hear each day. In conversations, I still feel like I rarely could repeat back word-for-word what someone has said to me, even if I usually get the message through key words and context.
I bought Diwan Baladna, an ammiya vocabulary book organized by subject matter. I really like it – my hope is that it will help me turn a lot of passive vocabulary into active vocabulary. I have a quibble with the audio component (read too fast in long audio files that make it tedious to isolate the word I want. And having sample sentences is far better than English translations!).
And finally, as per Alex's encouragement, I continue to avoid dictionaries and translation apps. I make ample use of Reverso Context, but only after I've read a message or passage several times through, and usually I'm using it to confirm my guess of a word's meaning is true. Especially when it comes to Whatsapp and chatting, the majority of messages I am receiving are ones that involve words I know well (Want to meet at this time? How far did you run today? I have foul and rice my mom made, want some? It's veg.)
[This is a continuation of Taylor's blog series where she details some of the week-in-week-out lessons that she learns through her Arabic studies and coaching work together with me. For other posts in the series, click here.]
Another cycle is coming to an end – my eight-week Sijal evening course will soon finish, which means I'll be cobbling together a mixture of private lessons, independent study and activities, and perhaps a language partner again in the upcoming weeks and months. In these recent weeks taking evening courses and private lessons, I've been very glad to have guidance from Alex about how to structure my free study time – doing a single textbook, like we did at my previous course at Qasid, gave us a routine and filled our evenings with homework, but switching to a more self-directed study has given me both the freedom and responsibility to use it productively.
I feel that my weakest area is my ability to chat and that my speaking is trailing my listening and reading comprehension. Two points Alex has driven home to me is to make time to read out loud and to practice "shadowing," lip syncing to a recording and trying to imitate its intonation. I remember this being a wake-up for me when I was learning Portuguese in Brazil – somehow, not thinking "I am Taylor constructing the best sentences I can after semesters of Portuguese classes" but instead "I am imitating how a Brazilian would emphatically say this" both greased my confidence wheels and led people to pay attention and understand me, because it "sounded right." When I review my Anki cards over breakfast, I both read my sample sentences out loud and, when I've included an audio clip on the back of the card, try to say it in real time along with it. I've also worked on "shadowing" with the Colloquial Palestinian Arabic textbook, which includes nice long dialogues (some of which are too fast for my level, or, I can't lip sync speedily enough to them!)
I still feel like I have something like a "deer in the headlights" reaction when someone speaks to me and I don't have a response ready. Practicing when I know I have a certain phrase coming up, even if I just run through it once in my head (what Alex has called "planned spontaneity"), makes all the difference.
I generally have ants in my pants (hence going on seven years freelancing and fleeing office work), so I've been taking advantage of any interesting Arabic events or activities that come my way. For the past few weeks I've gone to a Thursday evening Evangelical church service, which has blown me away by how accessible both its sermons and songs are for my Arabic level. There's so much to be said for knowing one's context and making educated guesses at the words we're hearing – that's how I picked up that the ١٢ تلاميذ must be disciples and the word مجد repeated in our songs seemed to mean glory or glorify. It's also a nice mix of dialect and fusha, seemingly varying on whether the song leader/pastor is going for a charismatic or reverent tone.
Alex has also encouraged me to not let reading go to the wayside even as I focus on speaking, and he suggested I work with a play from Tawfiq al-Hakim, since the dialogue structure of a play is nicely accessible to a learner. It makes all the difference to have a lengthy text with a coherent story – there's many words I would not spell correctly or I'd waffle if asked to produce them on my own (or I wouldn't recall them at all), but a story full of coherent clues leads me to understand a pleasantly surprising amount. I've been reading الأيدي الناعمة, which is nice social commentary with easily recognizable themes and characters.
As my current Sijal course comes to a close, I've also been thinking about what kind of activities I want to take on next. I'm game for all things athletic, and the pocket-full-of-tricks coordinator at Sijal gave me a nice playlist of workout videos from the program دنيا يا دنيا.
I've also decided I want to give a language partner another shot. It helps that I met someone, a store clerk, whom I thought would be great – for several weeks after we first chatted about each learning Arabic and English, I thought about how dynamic and fluid our conversation was, and decided to return to the store to ask if she's like to meet up for an exchange. Some lessons I learned from my last attempt at this: choose a very quiet place (some coffee shops are not!), be stickler on dividing English and Arabic speaking times, decide on some topics beforehand, and be patient and resist the urge to finish someone's sentence for them, because very often we can find another path to express ourselves.
I read From English Teacher to Learner Coach only recently. I received a glowing recommendation from a fellow language coach, Lýdia Machová, and the more I read, the more enthusiastic I became. The methods described in the book mesh pretty well with those I developed through my own studies of various languages. This was an approach suited not only to those learning English, but rather something that could (and should!) be adopted by the thousands of native English-speakers who struggle to learn a second language each year.
Indeed, the general message of the book – one I interpreted as ‘we don’t have to wait to be taught; we can learn for ourselves’ – is something that I believe has important implications for how we go about education in the coming decades. (I was especially pleased to learn a new word – heutagogy – for this somewhat hard-to-define practice of self-education). Seth Godin has written about the demise of the system of factory education and others are tackling this from various angles.
[This is the second post in a series on the importance of reading when studying Arabic (or any other language). Read the first post here.]
It is notoriously difficult to study and show which are the most efficient methods to study second languages. For starters, everyone is slightly different, so it's hard to compare between individuals. Learning a language is also such an involved pursuit (taking place over all hours of the day, and in the mind, where microscope or dictaphone can't usefully reach) that it is impractical to follow the student for all twenty-four hours of the day.
Having given the pitch for why I think reading is so important for students of Arabic, today I wanted to summarise a study that was carried out from 1970-1977. This study, by ElSaid Badawi, is entitled "In the quest for the Level 4+ in Arabic: training Level 2–3 learners in independent reading" and can be found as an article in Betty Lou Leaver and Boris Shekhtman's fascinating (and underrated / underred) edited volume, Developing Professional-Level Language Proficiency. Given its somewhat obscure provenance, it's unlikely you'd come across this fascinating article in the normal course of your day, hence my interest in summarising it for you here.
Badawi offers an overview of his experience running the CASA (Center for Arabic Study Abroad) programme between 1970-1977. This programme was originally started in 1967 for advanced-level students and the idea of it was to give a year of intensive study in order to really catapult students into real competency in being able to read, speak and use Arabic in a professional capacity. (Badawi begins his article with a justification for reading, but I'll skip those details since their is a great deal of overlap with what I've already written).
The original CASA curriculum in the 1967-era programme was established around a 3000-word vocabulary list, reading of some short passages using those words in context, a grammar book and two long 'authentic' texts that would be covered over the course of the year. The students found this dull and unrewarding, however, so CASA's administrators decided to design a new course based around familiarising students with a 'language domain of their interests'. In other words: allowing them to read things that were related to their interests and professional trajectory.
Students taking part in the programme were assessed (prior to joining) as being at a high level, but their vocabulary was generally limited to political subjects. They had a poor understanding of morphology and little to no facility with semantics. They had, Badawi writes, bad reading habits in Arabic: too much focus on sentence structure, engaged in 'parsing-based reading' and with only a minimal grasp of the "semantic role of punctuation". In that last case, this is the way Arabic uses words, phrasing and sentence constructions to signify the meaning of a sentence, whereas in English a lot of those meaning structures are conveyed through punctuation. Most of all, students suffered from an 'excessive / crippling' use of the Arabic-English dictionary, which was identified as an obstacle to spontaneous and contextualised language learning; words were quickly forgotten.
The programme sought to encourage a switch in its students: "a change of attitude toward Arabic from that of a language they are being taught to one which they should start learning". The responsibility, at this level, generally should switch from the teacher to the students.
The programme was split up into three semesters / terms:
- Semester 1: 8-week summer programme
This was made up of introductory cultural classes (based around Cairo, Egypt, where students were living. It offered classes to bring students up to a competent level in functional colloquial Arabic. (Students could solve all their problems and interact with Egyptians in a functional way, following the course). There was also a component of media Arabic where students would become familiar with the formalised language used in printed and spoken contexts.
- Semester 2: 14-week autumn programme
This semester was for allowing students to gain a higher competence in MSA. Reading was one of the core elements here (news reading became effortless and there was some inclusion of classical language as well). Colloquial Arabic was encouraged through the reading of plays (which often used colloquial/dialect expressions and language). An intensive reading programme was added alongside this to boost confidence.
- Semester 3: 14-week spring programme
The final semester included three graduate-level courses in subjects of the students' interest / choice. There was also some training in 'Educated Spoken Arabic' (i.e. the discussion of high-culture topics).
The Intensive Reading Course
The core belief behind the programme was that reading was important to the students' knowledge of Arabic in a fundamental way. All the other skills would benefit and develop alongside the reading done as part of the programme. There were different kinds of texts available and a selection criteria for what kinds of reading took place:
Finding materials for intensive / analytic reading was easy. The harder issue was finding materials suitable for extensive reading, i.e. the kind of wide-reading that students are able to do with some level of ease. Arabic poses a particular problem in this regard, given its 'wide range of active vocabulary in use', and the 'complexity of the morphs-semantic system'.
Plays were believed to be the best for extensive reading. They carried a "high degree of word and sentence redundancy", usually had only a single theme and were of moderate length. (It was found that reading two 200-page books was much more satisfying than reading a single 400-page book). Plays also lend themselves to real-life activities. There is also the possibility of watching the plays being performed (or, now, on YouTube).
Novels were also considered useful, but the fact that dialogue is used only minimally means that they were kept for later in the semester. Short stories were denser in meaning and language use and thus harder. They were included in the programme, though, for the sake of variety.
Overall, texts were chosen for the language structures used rather than for their literary value / content.
The course had students reading three items each week. Usually one novel or a play (a long item) and a short story and a 1-act play (i.e. two short items). These were generally from the same author, and difficulty would escalate over time. All texts were authentic and unabridged. Ideally they were selected from leading literary figures and they would all be texts for which no English translations already exist. Selecting these texts was hard at the beginning, but over the years they settled into a broad pattern, escalating in difficulty:
- Group 1 (first three weeks)
Plays by Tawfiq al-Hakim (short and long). These were good because he uses a lot of redundant vocabulary, follow familiar thematic sources to those with which students would have been familiar, used a lively dialogue and generally contained "straightforward language".
- Group 2 (5 weeks)
This consisted of works by Ihsan Abdul Quddus, a journalist, novelist and short story writer. These works tackled themes from social phenomena and thus were appropriate to a young audience. They referenced local customs and expressions. They included fewer dialogues in the novels and short stories. They had a lucid structure and controlled range of vocabulary.
- Group 3
This was works by Yusuf Idris, blending MSA with colloquial idioms, Qur'anic citations and quotations from the hadith literature. These were at a higher difficulty level.
- Group 4
This was a mix of items chosen for special topical interest or artistic value. For example, in the final week, students read Fathy Ghanem's 1958 novel Al-Gabal. They also tackled some of the non-famous novels by Nagib Mahfouz.
Mixed in these various groups were shorter items: one-act plays and short stories. There was generally a balance between length of a text and its linguistic difficulty.
I found this section of the article the most interesting / instructive. Students were told the following:
- The beginning of a story / text is always the hardest. You don't know what's going on, who the characters are and what the context / scene is. Bear with it. A lot of this will be scene-setting. You can always return back to it later on.
- Arabic has a lot of redundancy. Compare what you are stuck on with what follows and check if you can figure out the meaning that way.
- Continue reading as long as you can make out a story or theme for yourself. Don't worry or second-guess yourself as to whether what you understand from the story is the same thing as what the author intended you to understand.
- If you find a word or part of the structure you don't understand and stop, DON'T look the word up in the dictionary unless:
- you have failed to guess the meaning
- there is nobody around to ask the meaning
- Mark / highlight the words you were able to guess in the text. Mark the words you were able to do without understanding.
- Make a list of cultural features that you'd like to be addressed in class.
- Mark and make a list of any expressions and grammatical features or constructions that you want addressed in class.
Class sessions were essentially there to ensure that students were keeping up with the reading volume. Students would narrate their understanding of the texts they had read, and would raise any issues they wanted to learn more about.
Classes were also a good time to increase students' semantic understanding -- allowing students to identify shared roots and usages in different contexts and forums.
Students submitted written responses / follow-ups to the text in the class with the teacher present. A weekly conference with students gathered feedback on the choices of texts, allowing teachers to adapt the programme depending on the ease/difficulty perceived by each individual cohort of students.
By the end of the 14-week programme, students had read an average of 2500 pages of authentic Arabic texts. Graded text levels showed that their language was improving. They were encouraged by managing to review words and structures that had been marked as 'hard' earlier on in the semester. (Usually 25-40% of these words had become intelligible to them, despite no vocabulary learning strategy specifically targeted at learning these words.) The graduate-level courses (all taught in Arabic, obviously) of the final semester were also a proving ground for students.
This reading programme increase students' competence and was transferrable to their other skills. (Yes, even their spoken Arabic.) Reading helped with writing. Reading 'complete texts' did a lot for the morale of the students at the intermediate-level, too. And the literary focus of the content was useful for students even if their interests didn't lie in that particular area.
My next post about reading Arabic will detail some options that are available to the intermediate-level student of Arabic, and some practical considerations resulting from this article.
“Millions of language students are trapped in vicious circles. They complain that they cannot understand what they read in the foreign language because they do not know enough words. So they do not read and they do not increase their vocabulary, and so they continue not to be able to understand. Then perhaps someone tells them how important reading is and persuades them to try again. So they sit down with their dictionaries, and they look up every single word that is new to them, and very often many words that are not new but that they 'want to be quite sure about'. At the end of three hours they have got through half a page in a book, or half a column in a newspaper. They do this for three or four days, and then give up in despair, oppressed by the tediousness of it all. They are convinced quite correctly that they do not know enough words to understand ordinary books and newspapers. As a result their vocabularies stay more or less the same size as they were, and they complain that they are making no progress. They either become permanently frustrated and depressed, or just give in and give up. And it all happens because they have spent more time with the dictionary than with the language itself.” (Source: Gethin / Gunnemark - The Art and Science of Learning Languages, p. 89)
Reading is unjustly maligned. Lots of students of Arabic pass through Amman, Jordan, where I'm currently based, and it's not uncommon to hear the refrain, 'I'm interested in learning how to speak, not to read and write.' This blog post is about how you should be reading, EVEN IF spoken is your ultimate goal. I hope I can convince you of this fact, and entice you with some of the ways reading will enhance your study and understanding of culture and history.
A large part of my book on getting out of the intermediate plateau in Arabic language learning is about the importance of reading.
Reading is the most useful activity to help an Arabic student stuck at the intermediate level. Even if your priority is to be functionally competent in a dialect, reading is still useful because it brings holistic improvements to your language abilities as a whole. The basic approach that I outlined in my book runs as follows:
1) Find good materials
2) Read lots of material at an appropriate level
3) Keep going and be regular
4) Cross-check for performance
Only the final point needs explanation. When you are reading lots of things in Arabic over a period of a few months, you may not be aware of how you are improving, or at what rate. For that reason, it’s worth putting in place some checks and points to review every month or two.
There are a number of different tactics we can use when reading, and I’ll get into the details of these below, but for now you should bear in mind that it helps to switch around the reading tactics that you’re employing every so often. At a very high level, you can shift from deep / intensive reading to wide / extensive reading. You can find ways to write and speak that will help you ‘activate’ the words and topics that you’re learning.
The primary benefit of reading is that it increases your vocabulary. After you’ve done a few years of Arabic study, you will probably realise that the way the language works (particularly the way the verb system supports how words are generated / derived) means you really need to work on your vocabulary if you’re going to emerge into the advanced levels of comprehension. Moreover, the size of this challenge — the number of words, that is — is such that whatever tricks or skills that got you this far aren’t going to be useful or efficient in surmounting the problem.
This is where reading comes in. If you can split the words you know into active and passive categories, reading is immediately helpful in increasing your passive vocabulary. (Active vocabulary are the words that you can produce easily in writing or in conversation, while passive vocabulary are the words that you can recognise when you see them in Arabic, but couldn’t necessarily produce or use them yourself). When you read books at the right level, you can figure out the meaning from the context. (This is how we learn new words and figure out meaning in our native tongues). This will rapidly increase your passive understanding of texts (and, to a lesser extent, things you hear). There is some transfer of these words into your active vocabulary, but that transition is not guaranteed and it usually takes a bit of extra work. This work usually involves writing of some kind.
At its core, the work of increasing your vocabulary comes down to how many times you are exposed to a particular word (or words). The more you are exposed to it, and the more contexts in which this happens, the better that will be for your ability to feel comfortable with the word. For example, if you hear the word for dish in a kitchen, a cafeteria, or in a restaurant, you will remember it when you have to order a meal at a restaurant.
From this perspective, reading is cost-effective and time-efficient. It is much faster to pick up a book and read it than to have to schedule a lesson, or distract someone from what they’re doing. You are also much more likely to find a varied stream of content by using written materials than if you solely rely on conversations or videos.
Being able to read is a valuable skill. Numerous studies have shown that your ability to be professionally useful in a language benefits far more from reading skills than spoken ability. Many people tend to discount reading from their skill set because they feel like it will take them too much time to learn how to read. And even though this book discusses listening and reading practices, reading is key to intermediate Arabic study. By not reading Arabic you are missing out on a great opportunity and a great way to distinguish yourself from your peers. Think what you could do and add to your work, career or discipline if your reading ability in Arabic was as good as that in English.
Reading connects you to other people, generations and eras. It’s the easiest way to mind-read and time-travel on the market! If you’re stuck in a country outside the Arab-speaking world, this is how you can get in touch with people, their culture, their history, their entertainment and all sorts of other dimensions. In terms of efficiency, reading is at the top of the list in this sense.
Reading is a badge of competence, both in how peers see you but how Arabic-speakers perceive you. If you are able to confidently navigate the written word, you’ll have more opportunities, people will take you more seriously and you’ll have a generally better quality of engagement as a result. Given that the way to reach that is enjoyable and — all things being relative — not too time-consuming, it’s harder to see reasons why you wouldn’t want to be reading more.
If a command of dialect / spoken Arabic is important to you, or your writing, perhaps, reading offers a break from that skill work and affords great opportunity for cross-training. The words you learn while reading can and do transfer over to other domains.
Arabic written by professional writers (whether fiction or non-fiction) often has the unfortunate tendency to be very verbose, using multiple synonyms for a similar meaning. In fact, finding an obscure yet beautiful adjective is almost a badge of achievement for many writers, particularly in older generations. This makes taking the dive into authentic reading materials for language students much harder. Luckily, publishers have been busy at this and a large number of intermediate- to advanced-level readers are being released. This is good news as you can now easily bridge the gap between basic textbook sentences and authentic material, whereas this wasn’t as possible even a few years ago. (It wasn’t the case when I first studied Arabic, for example). There are also a number of useful technologically-enabled services which allow you to ramp up and gradually increase this difficulty level. Moreover, you can follow your interests much more, whether you’re interested in fiction, politics or history, there are appropriate materials available. When you don’t read Arabic, you’re actually missing out on this huge conversation and discourse which is happening right this moment - whether its on Twitter or in op-ed columns - and which has been happening for as long as there have been Arabic speakers and writers.
Reading is an incredibly flexible skill to practice. You can do it almost anywhere, using physical books or digital materials. It works for short as well as long time slots, and, best of all, it’s fun! Particularly when you’re working on extensive reading, you can really lose track of time when reading a good novel or following whatever blog covers the topic that really interests you.
[This is the first in a series of posts on the importance of reading in learning Arabic. The next post will summarise an academic study of the role of reading in bringing students up to the highest levels of achievement in their Arabic proficiency.]
[This is a continuation of Taylor's blog series where she details some of the week-in-week-out lessons that she learns through her Arabic studies and coaching work together with me. For other posts in the series, click here.]
For some Arabic students (myself, certainly), when we first start to learn about the diglossia in Arabic, we feel somewhat cheated, like, "I signed up to learn a language, and now you're telling me that I need to learn some second, shadow language if I'm actually to use it?" It's like the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet, like we'd be studying Shakespeare and are frustrated to find that real people actually speak Singlish. Colleagues who work in journalism/research repeatedly encouraged me to study dialect, which led me to leave my last fusha course for an ammiya one at Sijal.
Happily, it doesn't feel nearly so intimidating as I once imagined when I turned on some ammiya YouTube videos and despaired that a year in MSA classes seemed to do me no good. Indeed, the listening comprehension and vocabulary I learned at Qasid feels like a swiss army knife I now use to pick a new lock. Also, another useful tool from my MSA classes – an extreme comfort with not understanding many of the words I'm hearing but still staying engaged and hanging on for the ones I do.
On a related note, Alex has encouraged me to keep up independent reading even as I'm in a course that largely focuses on speaking and listening. That's another skill that I appreciate from my time at Qasid – the willingness to dive into a text, even when many of the words are ones I don't recognize, and look for the keys that will give me some clue about it. I'm a pen-and-paper learner, so I've been printing out media articles and reading them through twice, no dictionary, then underlining words I don't know and making my best guess at what they mean.
For example, this week I read one in the Huffington Post about scientists questioning whether we need to drink eight cups of water a day. The piece mentioned drinking a sufficient amount of water so that "البول" is "واضح اللون أو خفيف الصفرة." I didn't know that first word, but I was delighted to know exactly what it was as soon as I read the rest of the sentence. I'm convinced that process of discovery is a powerful learning tool, more so than having translations readily at hand to answer our doubts as soon as we have them.
Also, having a bit more free time, I've been able to take advantage of events going on around me to get extra-classroom contact with the language. I sat in on a Sunday morning lecture from an Al Jazeera filmmaker who produced an extraordinary documentary, "The Boy Who Started the Syrian War." His discussion afterwards was well above my level, and I only got the outlines of what he was saying, which is still far more than I would have gotten just three months ago when I came to Amman. It was still, of course, a very useful experience. For example, he used the word نظام always when I was expecting him to say حكومة, which led me to ask and confirm with my teacher that it seems to be used like we say "regime" in English, or, a disdainful/pejorative word for a government.
Being someone who spends plenty of time in the kitchen (because organic vegetarian food doesn't make itself, at least not anywhere walking distance from me =) I'm a big podcast fan. Alex's on Jordanian ammiya is great listening for me at my current level – when I tried this just a few months ago, it was beyond my grasp. I also like the BBC Arabic service and DW's current events discussion panel.
And repeating what I wrote in my last post – an upcoming post will be some reflections on accents and errors and embarrassment and the ways we as language learners judge ourselves (and others? I hope not. I indeed only judge myself when it comes to foreign language ability, which may point to, as Alex says, how much language is a confidence game). I'm on a scale between sheepish and chatterbox depending on what situation I'm in, and I've been chewing over what it is about a given situation that makes me feel either of those ways.
After two-and-a-half intense months, I've finished my course at Qasid. Though this didn't always feel easy to see on a day-to-day basis, it's extraordinary how much students there learn over a short period of time. On my first day, I couldn't produce full sentences other than my go-to greetings and "I'm an American journalist in Brazil," and over the weeks there, comprehended and participated in discussions about women's rights, marriage customs in different cultures, literature, colonialism and occupation.
Even if it kicked my butt (or because it did), I leave with a great opinion of the school. Qasid's teachers are extremely well trained in how to instruct students in an immersive method – we only occasionally resorted to English words when, say, our teacher wanted to make sure we really understood a grammatical point at hand. My listening comprehension soared, as did my ability to read texts (each week's lesson in our textbook revolved around one or two native texts). Also, I had the great fortune of my class whittling down to only two students, which meant that for three hours each morning, my classmate and I were responsible for answering every question and participating fully in every discussion. So much opportunity to speak in a comfortable, mistakes-are-fine-and-expected environment turned me into something of a chatterbox, though my enthusiasm is several steps ahead of my accuracy.
Also, a delightful unexpected benefit about Qasid is that a group of students and teachers stay the afternoon there in their study halls. That meant that while I worked on my computer after class, I was often surrounded by chatter in Arabic, both teachers engaging their students in fusha and many students who were native dialect speakers chatting amongst themselves.
That said, after speaking with several other language students and journalist colleagues, consulting Alex, and thinking about my goals, I decided to switch tracks from my original plan to study two terms at Qasid and then move back to the U.S. for a summer language institute to instead focus on ammiya here in Amman. I work a part-time job to support my studies, while most Qasid students are full-time exchange students. If all students there were exhausted from their homework load, I was 150 percent so. Journalist after journalist tells me they wish they had better dialect skills and, not being someone who has a "good ear," i.e., I don't pick up much language without studying it in a methodical way, I think it will be important to focus on a dialect in a structured setting.
Still, I'd consider going to Qasid again in the future. In fact, I was part of a test group to try out a new study tool the are developing that would supply easy-to-access audio and videos to accompany texts and vocabulary we study in Qasid's textbooks. It looks like a promising way to bridge the gap between reading comprehension and pronunciation of the words in the text, i.e., I often recognize words in a text based on their consonants and long vowels but am mentally (and inappropriately) filling in a fatha each time I don't know the short vowels.
As for my next steps: I've enrolled in a twice-a-week ammiya course at Sijal and am already enamoured with the class. I tested into the advanced level, though the other students in the class are far ahead of me in dialect. That said, unlike with Qasid the first time around (when I asked to be placed down a level because I was having difficulty following the class), I felt comfortable sticking to this level since I indeed understand the majority of the lesson. I'll also be taking private lessons to complement the group course.
Another choice I've been happy with is that I've also moved to a far more happening place than my last home in Shmeisani, which has meant a world of difference in terms of just having daily interactions. I try to look up the words of things I'm looking for before I hit the streets (most recently, شمعة، سبانخ، و لوز بدون ملح). I find most people are very willing to speak with a foreigner in Arabic, though this sometimes involves my telling strangers who respond to me in English "بحكي الإنكليزية شيء، انا برازلية). I will reflect on the merits of this and some broader thoughts on expat language learning/daily usage in a future post.
I've also become a social media and technology ascetic, logging out of my accounts and using them only when something necessary is at hand. In addition to being an old soul who believes that technology is eating away at humanity and rewiring our brains like substance addiction, seeing the Facebook I see every day anywhere else in the world is not one of the reasons I came to Amman. It's pleasant to let my eyes wander while I sit in a taxi or service and try to speed read the signs around me before they're out of sight. I don't think I risk جهالة anytime soon – I read plenty of news (it's part of my job), but it's confined to a couple of hours of work a day, and then I'm free.
And as for that free time, another upcoming blog will be about independent study methods post-Qasid that I will develop with Alex to make sure I keep up the reading skills I learned there even as I switch into a dialect course.
Anyone who's ever studied Arabic and attempted to increase their exposure to the language through the internet will have encountered this problem: Arabic fonts are always two or three sizes smaller than their English/Roman alphabet equivalent. This can make navigating the web a dispiriting experience. Most big websites take a lot of time and effort to get their browsing experience just right, with fonts that are appropriately scaled and optimised for reading. (Get a sense of how much thought goes into typefaces here, for example, at the New York Times.)
So why does this happen? At first I thought it was just a case of Arabic fonts being very much a sideshow in the what-doesn't-everyone-else-speak-english show that encompasses so much of Silicon Valley's design mentality. The most-used products are generally designed for an English-speaking audience, with people writing from left-to-right. Apple and Android's operating systems both work and function much better / logically when set to a Roman alphabet / layout. I happen to have my phones and computers set to an Arabic alphabet, and it's blindingly obvious that less thought went into designing the experience for such Arabic-speaking users. (For a more detailed explanation of some of the deficiencies of Arabic fonts, read this and this.)
What's worse, the consistency is subject to random change. To give one small example, iOS's 'Save to Evernote' dialogue box allows me to save articles from Instapaper into Evernote. (This is part of my somewhat laborious workflow for getting articles into DevonThink. Read here for more.) For years, I clicked a button in the right-hand corner to 'save', but a few months back they switched all the boxes around and now I have to click in the left-hand corner. The muscle memory is such that this is a hard one to fix. It's not the end of the world, but it still is an indication (along with the many other times this happens, seemingly without plan) of how little thought goes into this design and user interface work.
Coming back to fonts, the real reason for why this happens has to do with the amount of vertical space that letters take up. Thomas Phinney of FontLab explained it clearly over on Quora when he wrote:
"Arabic letters have a smaller body relative to the extenders above and below, so the most common elements are smaller relative to everything else. Because the height of the font needs to more-or-less fit within the body size, Arabic looks smaller than Latin at the same point size."
There are three main approaches to solving this problem:
- Deal with it. A lot of internet 'advice' tends towards this attitude. It's probably wise, but not especially practical for those early on in their studies of Arabic, nor even particularly practical for general audiences who want a pleasant reading experience.
- Zoom in on the page. CTRL+ or CMD+ will do this on most browsers. Unfortunately, it messes with the rest of the design and functionality of the page, so you'll usually have a pretty unpleasant experience if you do this.
- Install something to make the Arabic letters bigger. There are some scripts that will do this for you that you can have Greasemonkey (in Firefox) or Tampermonkey (in Chrome) handle. These two (here and here) seem to be the best known. I have tried both and couldn't get them to work. Needless to say, this is pretty fiddly and not at all ideal.
For now, it seems we're stuck with a poor browser and operating system experience.