Sunday, March 23, 2008

my arabic book sucks

Course materials for learning Arabic are apparently famously awful and doubtless contribute to the perception that it's a difficult language. Put another way, it's a difficult language made even more difficult by lousy course materials. There are enough examples of this awfulness to fill a separate blog, which time creating however would be better spent studying the language. Here is one example though.

Here's the word for "feminine", introduced on p. 7 of the textbook Al-Kitaab fii Ta'allum al-'Arabiyya. It's pronounced more or less, "muwa'nnath". It reads right-to-left. The sperm-shaped thing above the first loop (letter m) is a damma indicating the short vowel "u", thus "mu". The little slashes are fatHa indicating the short vowel "a" thus "wa", and "na". The single dot and the triple dots are part of their respective letters taa and thaa. The backwards 2 is a hamza which is a glottal stop, like a little coughy "eh" sound. The little w is a shadda which means you hold the consonant underneath (in this case the n) a double beat.
All well and good. This is a "fully vowelled" word which is how kids and foreigners first learn to read. Actual normal writing however dispenses with the short vowel markings because adults don't need them anymore thus, once introduced, the book presents the unvowelled form in the next para, as part of the weaning process:

Now the helpful sperm thingy (damma) and the two slashes (fatHa) are gone. The dots remain because they are part of the letters. I'm not sure why the backwards 2 hamza remains but the little w shadda is gone. I guess the shadda is considered part of vowelization but the hamza isn't. Okay, you're the textbook.

Just be consistent, is all I ask.

But what's this! Next paragraph:

Now, the sperm guy is back (the damma, short vowel for "u"), but the slashes aren't back (the fatHa, short vowel for "a"). And the shadda is back! Er, now...what the heck is the pattern here? What are they trying to demonstrate?

But wait, there's more! Turn the page and:

A variant of the second version, with no short vowel markings (sperm and slashes gone), and with the shadda back again!

I know, I'll look in the glossary in the back! And find this.

Hmm. This time the damma is missing, the first fatHa is missing, but the second one is there!

Five variations. This is indeed "hard" because there's no pattern--but it's not the language's fault.

Here's a pedagogical principle to try that's so nutty, it just might work: present words in a particular way and stick to it. If there's a reason to change the presentation, say so, then stick with the change.

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