Tuesday 12 February 2013

Musings on Spoken and Written Arabic

I borrowed a couple of dual-language books from our library, in Arabic/English and French/English.

So, at bedtime, BK2 and BK1 asked me to read them التيوس الثلاثة الاخوة جروف , better known as The Three Billy Goats Gruff. 

The girls already know the story in English and French. While I was reading the Arabic version, they kept asking what words and sentences meant, particularly BK2. I found myself translating into colloquial Arabic as I went along.

After a while, BK1 asked:
"Is this book written in Qbailia? (Berber language common in Algeria)"
Me: "No! It's Arabic, can you not tell?"
BK1: "Yes, but why is it different from the Arabic we speak?"
Me:  "I agree, it sounds similar yet different. This is classical Arabic, whereas we speak Algerian Arabic, a colloquial form of the first".

At one point, I read طار في الهواء (tara fil hawaa) and I remarked: "Surely you understand this? We say the same thing: طار فلهوى (tar flahwa)" only to be met with a quizzical look: it's totally different!
Thinking about it, it's akin to similarities and differences between English and German (earth vs Erde) or between French and Spanish (terre vs terra). Being able to map words from one idiom to another does not necessarily mean understanding and mastering both languages.

BK1 reads French and German quite fluently, with no effort from our part other than providing her with books that elicit her interest.
It turns out that achieving literacy in Arabic is going to require quite a lot of input from me. The alphabet is the easy bit. Because of the pronounced differences between the Arabic we speak at home and classical Arabic, it is like learning a whole new language almost from scratch...

ps: BK2 is turning 5 this month, and BK1 will be 8 next month.


  1. I've struggled with the practicalities of teaching our boys classical vs Moroccan Arabic. Practically it makes more sense for them to master spoken Darija but the long term benefits of reading and writing classical Arabic are important. Thanks for pointing out this issue - something to keep in mind for sure.

    1. It is a special issue, isn't it? I have heard of someone who remedied to the situation by speaking in classical arabic to their children from day 1. How they could sustain it long-term, I don't know...

  2. That's really interesting. We have similar problems between American and English. I realized that sometimes my kids just don't understand me because they get English English at school. But language is amazing !

    1. I can imagine if you say sidewalk, the puzzled looks you might get from your english-english-speaking children :)

  3. I agree that it's like two different languages - different vocab, different word order, different plurals... The natural way to learn would be both classical and dialect together like children in Arabic-speaking countries, but I imagine it is twice the work.
    What's your opinion on these books in both Arabic and English? Do the translations read well? I can read Arabic slowly but am no judge of the quality.

    1. The translation reads well, although I thought it should have had "tashkeel" (signs marking vowels in arabic) as it is destined for young readers.

      I agree, children should learn both at the same time. I am trying to instill a bit of basics ion BK1 and BK2, need loads of time and discipline...


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