the importance of learning Arabic

the buzz

Lately on social media there has been a lot of talk about learning Arabic.  The fact that World Arabic Language Day just passed certainly contributes to that, but it has been a frequent topic of discussion for a while now.  “Top ten”-style lists abound, extolling the reasons why Arabic is the language you should be learning.  It has close to 300 million native speakers, it is an official language in 25 different countries, it opens up many lucrative job opportunities, etc.  These are the typical reasons we’re given as motivation to learn a language.  The media likes to identify the “next big language” or the “language of the future” every now and then, and typically this has more to do with economics and business than anything else.  You won’t find articles encouraging the study of Telugu or Javanese (though they each have close to 100 million native speakers) because they just don’t carry financial incentives.  We’ve seen it with Spanish and Chinese as well – different languages, same rhetoric.  Speakers of large languages are seen as untapped markets, or worse, sources of cheap labour, that become more accessible when you learn to speak their language.  Notions of learning about a new culture, connecting with people, and expanding your worldview are all too often glossed over.  What matters at the end of the day is the money.

Though this type of thinking does a great injustice to the value of languages in general, I feel that it falls extremely short of conveying the importance of learning Arabic, particularly in our world today.

“Arabic speaking world” by Keteracel at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

the reasons

In the U.S., particularly in the past month since the Paris attacks, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric and acts are on the rise.  In November, two men were temporarily stopped from boarding a flight from Chicago to Philadelphia because they were speaking Arabic, and it made another passenger “uncomfortable”.  A self-defense class for Muslim women is started in New York after increasing reports of harassment targeting women wearing hijabs.  Irving Texas has seen the arrest of 9th grader Ahmed Mohamed for making a homemade clock that was assumed to be a bomb, as well as an armed protest outside a local mosque, staged by people who are against the purported “Islamization of America”.

An article from a right wing news website states that Arabic is the fastest growing language in the U.S., citing a 29% increase between 2010 and 2014.  The article warns of the high percentages of people in the U.S. that speak a language other than English at home.  These numbers are seen as a threat to the English language itself, which is referred to in the article as the “glue that holds our country together”.  This rhetoric feeds the myth of the “Islamization of America”, when in reality this 29% increase only brings the number of Arabic speakers in the U.S. up to about 860,000, or roughly .003% of the population.  Not exactly a large enough sector to warrant fear on a national level.  Nevertheless, anti-Muslim sentiment in the country grows.  A school district was shut down due to threats it received after a homework assignment featured Arabic calligraphy.  People are scared of what this language supposedly represents, and despite the fact that many Arabic speakers are not Muslim and many Muslims do not speak Arabic,  the Arabic language is perceived as a part of that so-called “threat” of Islam.

With hate speech and fear-based Trumpisms flying around at an alarming rate, it seems to me that the biggest reason to learn Arabic nowadays, is the need to support communities of Arabic speakers.  Polyglot and language learner communities are uniquely equipped to help turn the tide of intolerance through their study and use of different languages (emphasis on the “use”).  People tend to fear the unknown, but our skills enable us to help shed light on the Arabic language, and by proxy the people that speak it.  One of the “reasons to learn Arabic” lists I came across puts it very clearly:

“By studying Arabic and learning about the culture, you will gain a deeper and more nuanced perspective of the Arabic-speaking world than the typical themes found in U.S. mass media. As you share a more balanced perspective with your family, friends, and peers, you will encourage a greater understanding of Arab culture in U.S. society and more trusting attitudes towards Arab Americans and Arabs living in the U.S.”  (American Councils for International Education, Seven reasons why now is the time to learn Arabic )

In Israel this sentiment has recently been put towards a law mandating the study of Arabic in Jewish schools, starting in the first grade.  The idea is that language serves as a vehicle towards cultural understanding and the humanization of the “other”.

It’s also important to keep in mind that when practicing your new language skills with Arabic speakers, you’re giving direct support to the language community.  You’re allowing the other person to feel pride in their language and identity.  You begin to chip away at the dynamic that keeps those who are marginalized from freely and safely displaying their culture, speaking their language, or just being themselves.

the language

Needless to say, I have already jumped on the bandwagon and begun to learn Arabic as well.  It’s one of the “big languages”, so it was only a matter of time before I got around to studying it, but now it’s also a matter of urgency and importance.

The first decision every student of Arabic will encounter is whether to study Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the literary language based on the language of the Qur’an, or one of the many regional dialects of Arabic.  Benny Lewis has a good article hashing out this question on Fluent in 3 Months, so I won’t delve into the pros and cons here.  In the end I’ve decided to lean heavily towards dialects and just periodically check in with MSA as I progress.  I’m mainly using audio materials, as the regional dialects are not generally written, and am focusing on Levantine Arabic (because of the political situations in the region) and Egyptian Arabic (because of the vast amount of media available in this dialect).  At this early stage, there isn’t much confusion between the two dialects, but I imagine there might be as I progress, at which point I’ll just pick one dialect to focus on.

As for Modern Standard Arabic, I decided I would get some very simple workbooks to start to get the basics of the written language.  I have used modified versions of the Arabic alphabet in studying Urdu and Uyghur, but it’s my first time seeing how the writing system functions in the original language (but that’s a whole other article unto itself).  So with Syrian Arabic dialogues playing in my headphones, I walked over to a section of Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, where there are a couple of Arabic language bookstores.

Maktaba Dar-Us-Salam has a great selection of beginner level books for MSA – I picked up a reader and a few workbooks.  Though I was eager to try speaking Arabic in the store, I actually just ended up practicing Urdu.  I think this brings up an important point though.  Arabic speakers are not the only ones feeling the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.  Learning Bengali or Farsi or Urdu can make just as much of a statement.  The key question is what signal do your linguistic pursuits send out to the world around you?

As I left the bookstore I was stopped by a reporter who asked me if I was buying books on Islam and if I was Muslim.  She said she was interviewing people to find out about any anti-Muslim behaviour experienced in the wake of the Paris attacks.  It was a nice reminder of my original motivation for coming to this store.  It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of glossy new books and beautiful scripts, but it’s essential to remember that the extremely rewarding study of languages can have far-reaching positive effects with the right intention and practice.  If you are a student of Arabic, or if you decide to become one, I hope that you will keep this in mind.

preserving Jewish languages in Brooklyn

In my last post I wrote about the presence of Yiddish in Brooklyn, but Yiddish is by no means the only Jewish language spoken here.  So while we’re on the topic I’d like to talk a little bit about the phenomenon of Jewish languages in general, as well as a few that have found a home in this city.

Let’s start with a little history first.  Hebrew ceased to be the vernacular of the Jewish people around 200 BCE, first giving way to Aramaic and later to various other languages as Jewish communities spread throughout the world in diaspora.  Here in New York, Yiddish is indeed the most well-known example of these diasporic languages.  Jews in Germany around the 9th century spoke varieties of Middle High German but were literate in Hebrew and Aramaic, a source of many loanwords.  As time progressed, many of these communities migrated to Eastern Europe.  Over the centuries the variety of German that they continued to speak became heavily influenced by slavic languages, resulting in what we know today as modern Yiddish.  But what about communities in other parts of the world?  What did the Jews end up speaking in the Middle East, Spain, North Africa or even India?


The Jews from Spain spoke Judeo-Spanish (also know as Judezmo or Ladino).  In North Africa and the Middle East, many spoke varieties of Judeo-Arabic and Jewish languages related to Persian.  In India, one could find Judeo-Marathi and Judeo-Malayalam.  Do you see the pattern here?  Time and time again Jewish communities have adopted a language and modified it in certain ways while maintaining a distinct cultural identity, giving rise to a uniquely Jewish form of the original language.  What is remarkable is how similar this process has been for so many Jewish languages throughout the world.

There are two characteristics that all Jewish languages share.  First, all Jewish languages started out as already existing, non-Jewish languages, i.e. none of them developed from Hebrew or Aramaic.  Second, these adopted languages took on Jewish characteristics in the form of loanwords and expressions from Hebrew and Aramaic.  These borrowed vocabulary items tend to refer to concepts or items of religious importance, though Hebrew words or biblical expressions are often used in colloquial speech as well.  (It should be noted that this phenomenon varies in degree, depending on the language.)

There is also a third characteristic shared by most, though not all, Jewish languages:  the Hebrew alphabet.  Languages, such as Yiddish, Ladino, varieties of Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Berber, Bukhari, and others were or are written in the Hebrew script, often modified to accommodate sounds not found in Hebrew.  Judeo-Malayalam and Judeo-Marathi are not written in the Hebrew script, though many community members are able to read Hebrew for religious purposes.

Finally, another set of characteristics common to many Jewish languages, has to do with the mobile nature of diasporic life.  Many languages that were adopted and reshaped by Jewish communities around the world were then taken on further migrations to new regions of the world.  After the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Judeo-Spanish was taken to Morocco, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans.  Bukhari, a form of Judeo-Persian, was taken to areas of modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.  This kind of movement often results in many archaisms being preserved in the Jewish language as it travels.  The language crystalizes to a degree, maintaining vocabulary or grammar that eventually drops out of the original language.  It also results in a tertiary language or set of languages that serve as a source for new borrowings, e.g. Judeo-Spanish that flourished in Turkey took on many Turkish loanwords.  In all cases, the end product is multi-layered language, often exhibiting di- or triglossia, whereby each register may have a different language source that it draws from most.  For instance, Ladino, the religious register of Judeo-Spanish is basically a word for word translation of Hebrew into Spanish-origin vocabulary, whereas secular writing is more throughly Spanish-based.  Finally, in the colloquial register of everday speech, one finds an abundance of loan words from Turkish, Greek or other local languages, depending on where the community is located.  Jewish languages have many ingredients.

Now that someIMG_1197 of these langauges have arrived in the U.S., they are transforming further and acquiring yet another layer due to borrowings from English.  And this brings us to the event that inspired me to write this post in the first place.  A couple of weeks ago the Endangered Language Alliance organised a Jewish languages walking tour in Brooklyn.  The idea of the tour was to give some insight into the lesser-known Jewish languages in our city, and it featured members of communities that speak Syrian Judeo-Arabic and Juhuri.  Needless to say, I was extremely excited.

A young member of the Juhuri speaking community, Roza Shamailova, and her Juhuri teacher, Simon Mardakhayev, spoke to us first.  Juhuri, sometimes referred to as Judeo-Tat, is a language spoken in Azerbaijan and Dagestan and now in Israel and the United States.  It is most closely related to modern Persian, but still has characteristics of medieval Persian, borrowings from Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Azeri, and Russian.  It even exhibits the phonological phenomenon of vowel harmony, common to Turkic languages such as Azeri.  Juhuri also has sounds not found in Persian to accommodate the traditional Mizrahi pronunciation of Het (ח) and Ayin (ע).  Written Juhuri has undergone many changes, first having been written in the Hebrew alphabet, then a modified Roman alphabet in the 20’s, and finally the Cyrillic alphabet under the Soviet Union.  You can find in Juhuri all the multi-layered characteristics of a typical Jewish language.

Juhuri has not been widely passed on to the younger generations in recent years and has less than 100,000 speakers worldwide.  In Azerbaijan and Dagestan pressure to speak Russian and Azeri, as well as mass emigration, has reduced the usage of the language.  In Israel and the U.S., pressure to speak Hebrew and English has done the same.  In response to this, Roza and other young members of the Juhuri community in Brooklyn have organised classes to learn the language of their parents and grandparents.  She said she has attained an intermediate level in the language and is motivated to continue learning, but it is certainly an uphill battle.

Before moving on with the tour, we were given a short Lezginka performance, a style of dance from the Caucasus popular with Juhuri speakers.  The children who performed the dance were obviously proud and enthusiastic about their heritage, and I could imagine them taking an interest in learning Juhuri as they get older.  Let’s hope the community’s efforts in teaching the language yield more resources and social relevance for Juhuri in years to come and that teachers like Simon (featured in the video above) continue to share their knowledge.

The ELA recording a conversation in Juhuri.

Our next stop on the tour was Bnei Yehouda, a small house synagogue within the Syrian Jewish community, led by Cantor Yohai Cohen.  Cantor Cohen grew up in Israel with family from Syria and Tunisia, each speaking their own version of Judeo-Arabic.  He said that the major difference that he notes between Judeo-Arabic languages and other varieties of Arabic is the use of Hebrew loanwords and expressions.  If a person speaking Judeo-Syrian Arabic, for example, is careful to not use Hebrew-based words, their language could be mistaken for non-Jewish Syrian Arabic.  He also commented that on Djerba island in Tunisia, where part of his family is from, the difference between Judeo-Arabic and non-Jewish Arabic often has more to do with how things are said and the choice of words, rather than the origins of the words themselves.  This is where the debate between dialect and language comes in, as often happens with Jewish languages due to the nature of their development.  Some will consider varieties of Judeo-Arabic just to be dialects of Arabic, not languages.  Judeo-Arabic is distinct, though, in its use of the Hebrew alphabet, which has been employed in Judeo-Arabic literature throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Cantor Yohai Cohen playing the Oud.

Cantor Cohen is also a master of the maqam musical tradition, a system of melodic scales, found in traditional Arab music.  In Jewish communities this melodic system has been used for centuries to sing religious songs in both Hebrew and Arabic.  This usage of maqams is as much a blending of different elements as Judeo-Arabic itself.  Cantor Cohen takes great pride in the music and language, and the community is lucky to have him keeping both alive.

The tour continued on to Mansoura Bakery, run by a Moroccan French-speaker, whose family originally spoke Haketía, a variety of Judeo-Spanish.  After loading up on sweets the tour continued to the final destination, Mizrahi Bookstore, housing a large collection of Sephardic/Mizrahi-focused books.  I had other commitments and wasn’t able to make it to the bookstore (this time), but the tour left me with plenty to think about.  How strong must a group’s cultural identity be to develop and maintain (across time and space) a language that is all their own?  Certainly cultural isolation and the “otherness” imposed by outsiders play a role in strengthening a group’s hold on their language and identity as well, but I think the speakers’ sense of self is key.

It is amazing that Juhuri speakers’ ancestors spoke Hebrew, then Aramaic, then Persian, and were exposed to Arabic and Azeri and Russian, and today’s speakers still carry all of those layers on their tongues.  It should only make sense that the language would continue to morph and add more layers as it moves to different parts of the world.  But a very strong cultural identity and real conviction is going to be necessary to give Juhuri (and most of these other languages) any place in contemporary New York City, let alone in the future.  Minority languages are not spoken out of need or convenience in today’s world, but rather because of the sense of belonging and history that they provide.  I think that as more people realise this, we’ll come closer to preserving and cultivating the linguistic richness that still exists around us today.