Monday, September 14, 2009

Arabic Language in Damascus: A Natural Blend

September 14, 2009
DAMASCUS, Syria During the last few years, Syria has increasingly emerged as the most important cultural center for teaching Arabic. As a matter of fact, every Arab country uses two different languages: Modern Standard Arabic (M.S.A.) and colloquial Arabic. This phenomenon is called "diglossia" and consists of utilizing two forms, which sometimes are very different, of the same language according to context.

M.S.A. is used in journalism, in modern literature, on radio, on television and in formal occasions like conferences and official speeches. M.S.A. is based on Classical Arabic, which is also known to be the language used in the Koran as well as in many numerous literature texts of the Omayyad and Abbasid eras (between the 7th and 9th centuries A.D.). On the one side, differently from Classical Arabic, which today is a static language, M.S.A. is a living language and continuously evolves. Moreover, between Classical Arabic and M.S.A. there are lexical and stylistic differences. And differences exist regarding some language innovations on which the classic authorities have not ruled upon. On the other side, M.S.A. is identical from Morocco to Oman and therefore it allows a perfect understanding among people from different countries. If the native dialects of two educated Arabic speakers from two different countries are incomprehensible (for example: Moroccan colloquial and Levantine colloquial), the two speakers will revert to M.S.A. and they will perfectly understand each other. M.S.A. is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations (U.N.).

However, there is no colloquial Arabic language that works well from Casablanca, Morocco to Muscat, Oman. Indeed, we found a number of local dialects. Among these one of the closest dialects to M.S.A. is the Levantine dialect (Lebanon and Syria). It should be noted that there are many sub-dialects across the Levant (in Syria they are three) but the Levantine dialect permits an almost perfect understanding among people from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine and even a good understanding with people from Egypt. Small problems begin to arise with the dialects of the Persian Gulf. But, also in this case, if a Levantine speaker may have some little understanding problems when dealing with the Persian Gulf dialects he may need just some time to be accustomed to different sounds — Gulf Arabs will immediately understand him. So, the Syrian-Lebanese colloquial Arabic is really a kind of passe-partout  valid for almost the entire Arab world, except for Morocco. Indeed between Syrian-Lebanese colloquial Arabic and M.S.A., there are differences especially in the usage of verbs (it’s very interesting the usage of the so called "helping verbs" in colloquial Levantine), but at the same time there are many vocabulary similarities allowing a student of Arabic to improve fast both M.S.A. and Levantine during a Damascene stay.

With reference to this point I want to debunk, once and for all, the bias that who wants to speak Arabic needs to decide whether learning M.S.A. or instead a dialect. In reality, it’s necessary to continue exercising both languages at the same time. Keeping going an everyday conversation in M.S.A. sounds really hilarious and deeply embarrasses the ears of native Arabs. Many of them might not even answer you. In addition to this, not being able to speak an Arabic dialect means losing everyday color and humor, which are present in songs, jokes, stories, films and in all the other aspects of popular culture.

My choice to come to Damascus prevailed over the option of going to Lebanon. In Beirut the Arabic dialect is very close to the dialect of Damascus, but in addition to Arabic a good part of Lebanese people speak English or French, if not both languages. Very often when a foreigner has some difficulties with Arabic, Lebanese people will immediately switch to English or French according to what their second language is. Syria has understood very well its language privilege and in the city of Damascus, many schools and centers that teach Arabic have sprung up in the last years. The main teaching centers are the University of Damascus (one-month courses), the Arabic Teaching Institute for Non-Arabic Speakers (three-month courses) and the French Cultural Center (much more expensive courses). These schools are perhaps a bit “messy”, because in the same classes there are students with very different Arabic skills, but in the end they really let you have a daily commitment of at least three hours, pushing the student to work with a language that especially in the beginning is very complex and has nothing in common with neo-Latin languages. Plus, a lot of Syrians offer to tutor students with face-to-face sessions for very reasonable prices. Some tutors are just offhanded professors who require cheap money, but that in the end do not teach well, while others are extremely well organized and allow students to get positive results in a short timeframe.

The motivations pushing students to enroll with the mentioned schools or private tutors are quite different as I have noticed myself. There are people who want to know Arabic for reading Quran and get closer to Islam, people who have to work with Arabic and, last but not least, (and this is not a small category) half-Syrian people (in general the father or the husband is Syrian) who want to learn Arabic because they do not want to lose their Arabic cultural heritage or because their family recently moved back to Syria.

The most difficult moment when studying Arabic when a lot of people quit studying is exactly at the beginning when students have to memorize a different alphabet, fresh sounds, unknown words and unheard grammatical constructions. But in the end, it’s living in Damascus that allows breaking the initial barrier, which is always present when the studied language does not have any overlapping points with students’ mother tongue. The key ingredient to speak Arabic after few months is mixing lectures in school, sessions with private tutors, radio, television and street chats. And in the end, as people say in Middle East, Inshallah (God willing) students will speak Arabic. 

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