Fuzzy logic obscures Arabic path

Standard Arabic - Standard Arabic
November 24, 2000

It is only in recent times that Arabic has been treated as a modern language with a classical past. Forty years ago, little modern Arabic of any kind was taught in universities and less than 20 years ago, many undergraduates studying Arabic did not spend a year abroad as an integral part of their course. This was not entirely the fault of universities. Arabic departments were small and chronically understaffed.

Thus many of the most important developments in the teaching of Arabic came from outside universities. The Foreign Office's Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (Mecas) at Shemlan in Lebanon was particularly successful. Its approach was to run two parallel courses: one in spoken Arabic, the other in written Arabic. Apart from vocabulary coordination, the courses were kept separate. The written course did not take in classical Arabic, but the teachers knew classical Arabic well and drew on their knowledge to explain linguistic developments.

Another innovation was "the language break", where students went to live with an Arab family - the forerunner to the undergraduate year abroad.

Since then the initiative in devising Arabic courses has been given to universities, in the United Kingdom and abroad. Several departments have produced courses with the ambitious aim of providing all the linguistic material, both spoken and written, that a student of Arabic needs as a basis for an undergraduate degree.

Arabic courses have been written with two basic premises: that it is possible to integrate courses covering both written and spoken language; and that spoken language should be given priority over written. I have yet to be convinced that this is a better approach than that at Mecas.

The Cambridge Arabic course, as the books under review will inevitably become known, is the latest of these new courses.

The course makes greater efforts than its predecessors, such as Elementary Modern Standard Arabic or the al-Kitab course, in its presentation of the written language; and the advanced course raises the overall level that a student can reach, covering on the way a fair amount of classical Arabic.

Meticulous presentation is crucial in the early stages of teaching Arabic, when students come up against most of the features that are likely to cause difficulties. If these are not dealt with precisely in a textbook, there will be problems for teachers and students. In this regard, the new elementary course disappoints. It is a large work that sets out to take students through to the point where all the basic grammar has been covered. It is divided into 28 lessons, each with a recommended class time of seven hours, with at least as much time again for private study. Both recommendations are likely to be underestimates.

The course, based on a German original, gets off on the wrong foot by making the assumption that students will know something about grammatical terminology. That may be the case in Germany; but here it is not uncommon to be asked, "What is 'the accusative'?" and even "What is an 'object'?" In addition, the odd Latin grammatical term is occasionally thrown in. I can think of only one Arab teacher of Arabic who might understand such terms as consecutio temporum or nomen vasis . A glossary of grammatical terms should be provided.

Other drawbacks come from a lack of judgement about presentation. Of the various ways of presenting the Arabic definite article, for example, the one chosen is that most likely to lead the student into error. Also, the introduction of vocabulary seems related neither to frequency nor to good sense. I would not have expected nawm - "sleep" (the text has "sleeping") - in the first full vocabulary nor "electrocardiogram" and "electroencephalogram", the Arabic phrases for which are transposed as early as lesson 13, if ever.

More seriously, the grammatical wood is often indistinguishable from the trees. Thus, in dealing with the cardinal numbers, memorably described in Arthur Tritton's otherwise awful Teach Yourself Arabic as "the nightmare of a bankrupt financier", the authors start with an irrelevant remark about abstract counting that only adds to the strands that the student has to bear in mind. As if to compensate, they then omit a crucial element in the rules on the three-to-ten group; and for good measure, the lesson also misspells the Arabic for "12" with fair consistency.

Another key topic unconfidently handled is that of conditional sentences. Here the authors have much, if not more difficulty in setting out how English conditionals work. With hypotheticals they set off brightly enough:

"Sentences in which the condition has not been realised or cannot be realised are called unreal conditional sentences." But they go on: "In English no particular conjunctions for the introduction of such sentences are known, but the latter are expressed by means of certain combinations of tenses and by modal auxiliary verbs (eg were, had been, would (have done), could (have done)). They are mostly introduced by 'if'." It is difficult to think of a less lucid formulation.

In the circumstances, it is a relief that the aural and oral material seem to be well designed, though to be certain, one would have to hear the accompanying cassettes, which were not submitted for review.

For me a final sadness about the elementary course, which my computing friends would class at best as a beta version, is that the Cambridge University Press should publish it with American-English spelling (center, analyze and so on).

James Dickins and Janet Watson do a much better job, though their advanced volume contains a lot of errors that the proof-readers should have removed. A few of these are in the English ("apodasis", "Maimonedes" and so on), but the majority occur in vocalised Arabic texts. Embarrassingly, Koranic texts suffer particularly badly. The book is intended to cover much of the final two years of an undergraduate course.

Its 20 topic-based chapters are well thought out; and if all but the linguistic background is a little shallow, it is a language course, not a social and cultural introduction to the Arab world.

One could argue about the choice of many pieces, but all may be said to serve a useful function. Similarly, the grammatical reviews often contain moot points, but they normally convey something valuable (including, incidentally, the missing rule about the three-to-ten group of numbers). Students who are taken through it, or a good proportion of the course, should become pretty competent in Arabic. As it is independent of the elementary course, I hope that it will be widely used.

That leaves the question of a suitable elementary course. I recommend the one that Owen Wright produced for internal use at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Unfortunately, it is not generally available. If it cannot be obtained, some may feel that a heavily annotated version of the Cambridge elementary course is the next best option.

Alan Jones is professor of Arabic, University of Oxford.

Standard Arabic: An Elementary-Intermediate Course. first edition

Author - Eckehard Schulz, Gunther Krah & Wolfgang Reuschel
ISBN - 0 521 77313 X and 77465 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £52.50 and £18.95
Pages - 641

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