Understanding the structure of Arabic for ESL teachers
Monday, February 03, 2020
This article expands on some of the ideas presented in my August 2016 article, titled “Interference patterns: Applying linguistic theory to lesson production.”
An understanding of the basic structure of Arabic is useful to ESL teachers who have Arabic students or who are planning to teach in the Middle East. This knowledge will help instructors understand some of the problems Arabic learners will have as well as anticipate linguistic interference as well as crossover. Learners may try to translate from Arabic to English resulting in written and spoken errors.
The English learner often attempts to communicate by drawing upon translations from the native language. First-language influence is strongest in complex word order and in word-for-word translations of phrases.
L2 learners will draw on L1 when they are not sure of the correct idiom. For example, an Arab learning English will say "after tomorrow" or "before two hours."
The problem of diglossia
Arabic is divided into many different dialects spoken throughout the Arab world; these contrast with Standard Arabic, also known as Classical or Literary Arabic, the language of literature and religion. This contrast between the spoken and written languages, known as diglossia, presents challenges not found in other languages.
Literary or Classical Arabic developed as a specialized literary dialect used in pre-Islamic times whenever a colloquial dialect could not be employed.
It is now thought that side by side with the tribal dialects there existed a specialized literary language used as a koine for the intertribal affairs (Monroe, J., 1973).
This special dialect functioned as an idiom for literature and was understood by everyone; it developed together with the other dialects from which it borrowed extensively, and it had an ordered set of inflections which made it an ideal vehicle for poetry and rhymed prose.
When Muhammad began to preach the message of Islam, he used this form of speech for the Koran since this linguistic form had a wider appeal than any one of the dialects.
Thus, even though spoken Arabic differs from region to region, the literary language has remained basically unchanged (Perry, 1997). It is now called Modern Standard Arabic and is the language of written communication, broadcasting and diplomacy. A hybrid form, called Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA), combines elements of Standard Arabic and the dialects. Without the binding force of the Koran and the Islamic religion, Arabic would have branched out into separate languages as did Latin.
Arabic morphology is based on a tri-literal root system as is Hebrew, a related Semitic language. For example, words involving writing are derived from the root KTB. The verb-KaTaBa means “He wrote.” Kaatib means “writer,” and Kitaab means “book.” Other derivations include Maktaba (library) maktab (desk) kaataba (to correspond with) Kitaabah (writing).
Syntax: Word order
Arabic word order is V-(S)-O. If the subject is not expressed, it is included in the verb as in “He wrote” above. “He went to school” in Arabic would be “went to the school.” (dhahaba ila al-madrasah). Adjectives follow the noun that they modify and agree in person, number and gender.
So, the phrase “a small city” would be “city small” in Arabic (madiinah saghiirah). Ahmad wrote a letter would be “Wrote Ahamd a letter.” (Kataba ‘Ahmad risaalatan).
The verb “to be” is not expressed in the present. For example, “He is a student.” would be: “He student.” (Huwa Taalib.) The verb “to be” is expressed in the past: “He was a student.” (Kaana Taaliban) The “an” is a case ending used for objects and the predicate of be and its “sister verbs.” The present form of Kaana -Yakuunu is also used in the future: He will be a student (Yakuunu Taaliban).
The Arabic alphabet is phonetic. Each letter represents one sound. It is written from right to left, and short vowels are indicated by diacritics, but these are not commonly used except in The Koran, poetry, children’s books and texts for those learning Arabic as a second language. The word Kataba (He wrote) would be written KTB, which could also represent Kutiba (It was written). The word man (rajul) is written RJL.
There is only one contraction in Arabic: Allah (God) where the long form is al-Ilaah-The-God. There are no capital letters, so to definite article is used to indicate the difference between god and God. This word is used in the Koran and the Bible to refer to the Deity. Allah is also used in non-Arabic countries along with the native language terms. For example, Turkish uses Allah and Tanri, and Farsi uses Allah and Khuda.
Christian Arabs also use Allah to refer to God as that is the term used in the Arabic translation of the Bible.
The only silent letter is L (lam), which is assimilated to certain consonants as in al-Shams (the sun) pronounced Ashshams. There are no combinations like ch, sh, th as in English.
Arabic uses a relative pronoun, alladhi, for embedding. For example, al-wald aladhi saafara (The boy who traveled. This connecting is used for +human and -human antecedents. Also, it changes form for number and gender. One aspect that may cause some students to make errors is the resumptive pronoun in Arabic, -al-damiir al’aa’id. The whom I saw is al-walad alladhi ra’aytuhu,literally, the boy who I saw him.
In addition, there are some cultural concerns (Magrath, D., 2013). Social interchange and visiting patterns will be different. The concept of privacy is different.
A British resident in Beirut once complained that he and his wife had almost no time to be alone– Arab friends and neighbors kept dropping in unexpectedly and often stayed late. He said, “I have one friend who telephoned and said, ‘I haven’t seen you anywhere. Where have you been for the last three days?’” (Nydell, 2002).
So, both language and culture are intertwined.
Through the study of other languages, students gain a knowledge and understanding of the cultures that use that language and, in fact, cannot truly master the language until they have also mastered the cultural contexts in which the language occurs (National Standards, 2012).
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