Battle of the Languages: Arabic vs. Chinese

by on Monday, 30 September 2013 Comments

The Arabic language has been my principle subject of study, and means of employment, for the past eight years. Recently I came to Taiwan to have a go at Chinese. Four months on and I can say that Chinese is inordinately easier than Arabic! Why? Perhaps some of has to do with improvements in my own language learning method, but I think it is mainly differences in the languages themselves, and in the approach each culture has to teaching its own language.

The principal difficulty with learning Arabic is the disparity between what we learnt in the classroom and what we would hear on the street. In class we learnt what was called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a formal language used for books, newspapers, on the news, but rarely for speaking. This meant that though we might be able to write at great length about American foreign policy in class, we could not make ourselves understood when asking for a cup of tea in the cafeteria. To further complicate the problem, the spoken language (aamiyya) varies widely from country to country, city to city, and even sometimes street to street. So even if we were taught to ask for a cup of tea, "I want" can be "aawiz", "biddii", "ureedu", "widdi", "nibbi" and many more variants depending on what region our teacher was from. So in some ways I can understand why aamiyya was considered off limits in the classroom.

Indeed, after five years of Arabic study, and three years working as a translator, I still regularly met people who I could not understand a single word of what they were saying. Here, it is a relief that whether I am in Taipei or Tainan people's accents -to my ear- are more or less the same, and unless one is speaking Taiwanese, I have an equally good chance of understanding either of them.

Another difference is the reading. Arabic, with 28 phonetic characters, compared to the thousands of Chinese characters each with a pronunciation that cannot always be inferred from reading, and sharing only 400 different sounds between them, should be easier, right? The problem is that in standard written Arabic, vowels are not expressed and in Arabic more than in other languages, vowels are very important. This basically means that every unfamiliar word I come I still end up guessing at the pronunciation (meaning aside!), and in Arabic there are a lot of words! It is embarrassing that after all this time I still cannot really read a newspaper or a novel without the help of a dictionary. At least in Chinese, once you have learnt the meaning of a character, and its sound, you can be sure it is a friend for life.

However, the biggest difference for me in how easy it is to learn a language is how well this language is taught, and Arabic for the best part was taught pretty appallingly. Think 1970s textbooks about conferences in East Germany and visits to the Middle East by President Bush (Sr.), long dictations, reading aloud, all the things that it has been agreed are not beneficial to language acquisition. The first words we learnt in our Arabic class, as I recall, were "Foreign Minister", "Summit" and "communiqué". By contrast my Chinese class –in a small, newly-opened language school- is fun, fast-paced and the emphasis is placed squarely on being able to speak Chinese and not to read and write it. Also, because there is a smaller gulf between written and spoken language –當然 for example, although used colloquially, can also be found in newspapers and books. In Arabic, similar expressions would usually be used only in oral communication, and confined to a small geographical area, so would certainly not be found in teaching materials- it is much easier to learn common oral language and to feel like I am fitting in- in linguistic terms!

Living in the Middle East and trying to get by in Arabic required me to become incredibly stubborn, mendacious and sometimes downright rude just to be able to speak Arabic and not English in my day to day life. One time in Yemen we pretended to be Kazakhs for a week. In contrast, trying out the Chinese I have learned so far –while shopping, at work, at the many regular language exchange events held in Taipei-I have received nothing but encouragement, and nothing but Chinese! I have found that people are generally patient, and if it is necessary to resort to English, people do so reluctantly. However, my flat-mate, who is fluent in Chinese, repeatedly complains that he finds the opposite, so perhaps it is just a question of perspective, and beginner's enthusiasm!

One sure way in which Chinese has been much more instantly rewarding is the advance of technology there has been since I was studying Arabic. There are now plenty of new ways to acquire a new language, all of which Chinese has embraced. For one thing, smart phones have been a revelation for me. Gone are the days of piles and piles of tatty paper flashcards scattered around the house and stuffed in my pockets. Downloadable dictionaries like Pleco also have the facility to create and test flashcards. I am using the AV Chinese textbook series and I can even download flashcard packs which correspond to the chapters so that every time we have a test, all it takes is an hour or two of scrolling through the flashcards- when I am walking, a spare few minutes at work, before I go to sleep- and that's vocabulary learning sorted. Social apps like LINE also are really good for keeping in touch with the new friends I've made here and a great way of trying out what I've learnt.

I do in fact like Arabic. I have had some amazing experiences, met unforgettable people, and discovered a treasure of literature and poetry. Yes, it is hard, but it was taught using the wrong methods. The way to learn a language today-or perhaps ever- is not to do a university degree in it! Advances in technology, ease of communication and travel, mean that universities often seem outdated compared to the many more ways to learn a language there now are.

Paul Jacob Naylor

From Leeds (UK). Graduate in Arabic language and Creative Writing. Freelance writer and translator who lived in Taiwan 2013-14. Now studying for a PhD at the University of Birmingham (UK) on the spread of Islam in West Africa.

Website: pauljacobnaylor.wordpress.com

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