The Intricacies and Joys of Arabic

I imagine that most people with a passing interest in linguistics read Maciej Cegłowski’s short essay in praise of the Arabic language when it was ‘rediscovered’ by popular social networks a few months ago.

As one who has studied Arabic (albeit MSA and only for nine months or so), the essay brought back fond memories of struggling to comprehend the strange-yet-wonderful intricacies of the Arabic language. Here are just a few the ways that Arabic “twists healthy minds”, according to Cegłowski:

  • The Root/Pattern System: Nearly all Arabic words consist of a three-consonant root slotted into a pattern of vowels and helper consonants.
  • Broken Plurals: Most of the time to make a plural you have to change the structure of the word quite dramatically.
  • The Writing System: The Arabic writing system is exotic looking but easy to learn, which is a rare combination.
  • Dual: Arabic has a grammatical dual — a special form for talking about two of something.
  • The Feminine Plural: Formal Arabic distinguishes between groups composed entirely of women and groups that contain one or more men.
  • Crazy Agreement Rules: e.g. [Maciej's] absolute favorite is that all non-human plurals are grammatically feminine singular
  • Funky Numbers: ٩ ٨ ٧ ٦ ٥ ٤ ٣ ٢ ١ – The names of the numbers come with truly terrifying agreement rules, like “if the number is greater than three but less than eleven, it must take the opposite gender of the noun that it modifies”.
  • Diglossia: This is where it really helps to love language study.

Accents and Second Language Comprehension

When teaching a second language, it may be better to speak in the accent of the student’s first language rather than attempting to imitate the accent of the target language, suggests research looking at how accents may hinder or expedite language learning and comprehension.

The study that discovered this looked at how much aural information speakers of various fluencies and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds required in order to understand Hebrew presented to them in different accents:

The findings show that there is no difference in the amount of phonological information that the native Hebrew speakers need in order to decipher the words, regardless of accent. With the Russian and Arabic speakers, on the other hand, less phonological information was needed in order to recognize the Hebrew word when it was pronounced in the accent of their native language than when they heard it in the accent of another language.

So it seems that British football manager Steve McLaren was helping English learners when he gave his infamous interview in the Netherlands following his move there!

Language Incomprehensibility Flowchart (It’s All Greek To Me)

Language Log was asked;

When an English speaker doesn’t understand a word one says, it’s “Greek to me”. When a Hebrew speaker encounters this difficulty, it “sounds like Chinese”. […] Has there been a study of this phrase phenomenon, relating different languages on some kind of Directed Graph?

To answer the query, Mark Liberman checks out Wikipedia’s ‘Greek to me’ entry (among other sources) and produces a rather elegant directed graph depicting what languages are stereotypically incomprehensible to others.

The accompanying discussion is also noteworthy. As one commenter points out, the fact that the resulting directed graph is acyclic implies a sort of ordering or hierarchy of language incomprehensibility.

via Kottke

Huge List of Free Online Langauge Courses

From Abenaki to Xhosa, Hmong to HungarianWord2Word provides a huge database of links to free online language courses.

An essential bookmark for anyone considering another language.

A Guide for Learning Foreign Languages (Resources)

Latin was probably the single most useful subject I was taught in school. I despised it at the time, but now I have come to realise its importance and many applications–the greatest of which is how it has helped me learn other languages.

In learning languages (although none to fluency… yet) I have found the following resources invaluable. This is the order in which I would suggest researching/learning:

  1. Choose a language to learnHow to Learn Any Language provides good language overviews and gives information on difficulty, popularity, and other metrics. However, don’t be put off by stats!
  2. Deconstruct your desired language – Tim Ferriss provides a good overview of how to quickly deconstruct a language – an important step that will give you a great insight into the workings of a language.
  3. Understand the deconstruction – Yes, you may have deconstructed it, but do you really know what it all means? Study the linguistic typology of your chosen language to really understand it.
  4. Find high-quality free material
  5. Hit the books – Start learning using all the material you acquired in the previous step. There’s a specific order in which you should do this:
    1. Pronunciation: From the very beginning you need to know how to pronounce words correctly. Find some native speakers or learn the IPA and do it phonetically.
    2. Vocabulary: Learning grammar becomes much easier with spaced repetition. Don’t translate from your native language: use a combination of images and target words (translation will limit your use of the words). Choose your words wisely: word lists that are tailored to your situation are always good.
    3. Grammar: Again, spaced repetition and good material is the way to go.
    4. The Rest: Reading and writing, speaking and listening… now that you have a grasp of the language (however small), it’s time to immerse yourself.