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.