Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Level 1 (Part A) - Modern Standard Arabic

This is my seventh week in Cairo and the going is getting tougher in my study of the Arabic language, in particular the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). After taking 64 hours of lessons, I regret for not keeping a diary of my progress to summarize the heavy textbooks and help in my revision. It's still not too late to take stock and start blogging about my progress.

The Arabic Alphabet

MSA Level 1 started with the introduction of the Arabic alphabet, which comprises of 28 letters. Most of these letters take four different forms depending on the position of the letter in a word, first letter, in the middle or the last letter or standing alone. The basic requirements were to recognise the letters in the various forms, to pronouce each letter and to pronouce simple words formed by the letters with the voweling. Recognising the letters was the easiest task among the three. Pronoucing the sound of each letter proved to be more difficult than in English or Chinese. Unlike the latters, pronoucing Arabic requires the use of the lips all the way to the back of the throat. There is no easy way out as the meaning of each word can change by the sound of a letter. I am still having problems with the "kh - " and the "gh - ".

Vowels of the Arabic Language

There are basically three vowels in Arabic - "a - ", "i - " and "u - ". They are known as the fatha, kasra and dumma respectively. The three are also letters of the alphabet and they normally give a long vowel in words that contain them. Each letter of an Arabic word may take one of the three vowels or a sokon which indicates the pronunciation of the letter without any vowel. The challenge is that most Arabic script are written without the vowel markers. So the "f" in a word can be pronounced as "fa" or "fi" or "fu". But if the next letter is one of the three vowels, the preceding letter will take the same vowel. For beginners like me, I will need to mark the script with the vowels in order to read the words correctly.

Unlike languages like Chinese, which are based on pictorial characters providing no hint at all to the sound they make, the Arabic script can be understood simply by reading the words according to the sound they make plus the vowels. An interesting part of the lesson was the reading of a passage of Arabic script which were essentially English if read.

Building Vocabulary

Building vocabulary is the key to attaining proficiency in any language. Knowing the grammar rules is as important but without the vocab, it's impossible to make significant progress. Besides picking up new words from the lessons, I also bought the Modern Standard Arabic Vocab Clinic® from http://www.egyptianarabic.com/ to help build up this key foundation. I also bought the clinics for Egyptian Colloquial Arabic® as well as the MSA Verb Clinic®. These software were really useful for my self-study at home as I could listen to the pronunciation of words by authentic Arabic speakers and record my own pronunciation. The software enabled me to compare the waveforms of the two pronunciations and help identify my errors. But memorising new words quickly and internalising them proved to be challenging.

Nisba Adjectives and Gender

At Level 1, I was only learning to make sentences without any verbs. So the words were limited to nouns and adjectives. One special form of adjectives is the Nisba adjectives. There is grammar for converting certain nouns into adjectives, for example, industry صناعة > industrial صناعي, Egypt مصر > Egyptian مصري. That was the time when one of the most critical aspect of the Arabic language was revealed - gender. Every noun is either masculine or feminine. Feminine words normally end with a "ta marbuta" (or ) but there are exceptions. Gender is important because adjectives have to agree with the nouns in gender and number. If the noun is feminine, the adjective will have to take its feminine form. The issue of plurals will come later.

Demonstratives and the Definite Article

Demonstratives "this" or "that" were next and they too come in two different forms, feminine and masculine. Demonstratives helped me make simple sentences like "this is a chair". In Arabic, there is only one definite article "ﻞﺍ" or in transliteration "al" or "il" or "el" depending on the map you are holding. This article can be attached to any noun to make it definite. This is just one of the many ways we can make definite nouns. Prepositions like behind, in front, on, under etc. was next and by using them to connect two nouns, I could make more sentences like "the cat is under the table".

The above basically summarized first half of the 138-page text of MSA Level 1. Tomorrow I will continue with the other half.

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