August 10, 2008

Knowing Hebrew is no help in learning Arabic

This gorgeous calligraphy spells "al Arabiya" — which means "Arabic" in English; at least I think it does.

Six weeks' learning to write and pronounce the Arabic alphabet, I'm feeling like a child. An illiterate one. And the feeling is lousy.

In Israeli-Arab towns and cities that I passed on frequent trips to the Lower Galilee last spring, the signage is in Arabic only. That's it, I decided somewhere between Tamra, Daburiyya, and Mount Tabor. I will learn Arabic basics, at least.

Now, between my Arabic 101 class at Evening at Emory and lessons on YouTube, I'm off to a great start. Here's what I mean.

I dream of watching Sesame Street in Arabic (5 days a week, with frequent repeats of each show). This way (I continue dreaming), I would painlessly learn not only the alphabet, numbers, and colors but also basic lessons in human relations: fairness, kindness, and respect for self and others.

Karen Armstrong writes (The Bible: A Biography), "... Modern philosophers of language have argued that 'the principle of charity' is essential for any form of communication... Even though [others'] beliefs may be very different from your own, 'you have to assume that [they are] very much the same as you are,' otherwise you are in danger of denying their humanity."

A core lesson that Sesame Street has been broadcasting nearly forty years.


Anonymous said...

Arabic is the language of hate.

The only good reason to learn it is to spy on the enemy and defeat him.

Tamar Orvell said...

Anonymous — Perhaps you were not paying attention when you were watching Sesame Street. Everyone knows that hate — and love — are expressed in every human language. How you think, who raised you, where you are going, and other factors determine whether you speak a language of hate or love.

Anonymous said...

If you were raised an Arab then you were raised to speak a language of hate.

Perhaps you were too busy watching Sesame Street to watch the evening news.

Anonymous said...

תמר שלום
אני שמח לדעת שאת לומדת ערבית.
אני אישית מאמין שכולנו חייבים לדעת איך לדבר בשפתו של האחר והשונה מאיתנו .
הסיבה האמיתית לעשות זאת היא: כולנו שונים זה מי זה ובאותה הצורה כולנו דומים זה לזה .
אנחנו לא נפרדים אחד מהשני, כולנו יחידה אחת שמתחברת לעוד יחידות שמרכיבות ביחד את השלם \ יקום\תבל.

אני מזמין כל מי שירצה לטייל בירושלים בעיר העתיקה ברובע היהודי ברובע הנוצרי וברובע המוסלמי.
אמא שלי היא ילידת ירושלים היא גדלה בארץ בתקופת הבריטים והיא גם מדברת ערבית, אני לוקח אותה פעם בשבוע או בשבועיים לעיר העתיקה בירושלים אנחנו מטיילים מריחים את הרחות של ירושלים העתיקה טועמים מהטעמים של ירושלים העתיקה ונהנים מאוד.

תודה רבה על השיתוף
אמיר אילני

Anonymous said...

How beautiful the innocence of these children is! If my little one (a blue-eyed blonde who is convinced he is Japanese) met these children, he would be intrigued by their differences and would rush to hug them and play with them. Why do adults so complicate things?

Tamar Orvell said...

Amir — Thanks for sharing your belief that we speak with others, including those different from us, in their languages. You reason that each of us is both different from and alike the other, each a unit joining the others. And in this way, we are assembling wholeness/ a universe/ a world.

Thank you also for inviting us to join you and your Arabic-speaking mother on your frequent visits to Jerusalem's Old City — the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Quarters. I look forward to smelling the fragrances, tasting the flavors, and enjoying the experience together.

Anonymous — Yes, differences are intriguing, and some adults and most young children not (yet?) poisoned by baseless hatred get to enjoy, among other rewards, discovering potential new partners to hug and to play with.

Lirun said...

more than intriguing - the similarities are amazing..

while hebrew and arabic are different they are structurally very similar..

our conjugations work in a manner that is based on similar models..

i love how we use the same prefixes for future tense..

the language is not based on hatred at all.. thats pure ignorance..

littlepurplecow said...

I am proud of you, my friend. It takes courage to walk through life with an open, curious and kind heart.

Tamar Orvell said...

Litun — And I love how the syntax is often similar, too! Still, the similarities don't help me with homework drills, declensions, grammar... ugh! Yet I persist, knowing that beginnings can be the longest parts of journeys and that the rewards of knowing ABC's (I mean... aleef, buh, etc.) include approaching familiarity with a rich language and its speakers.

littlepurplecow — Courage comes from observing folks like you — responding with compassion to self and others. No exceptions. No excuses. No made up, media-hawked biases.

Nizo said...

Bravo 'Aleki!

Bravo, as you know is a fine Arabic term of encouragement.

Nevertheless, I cringe at seeing my language represented by Indonesians who can't even pronounce the letters properly.

And the Islamic garb.. (you want to kill me ?)

There must be a better video out there..

Nizo said...

Wallah ya Tamar I've wronged you. You can't be blamed. I took a look at Youtube and most of the videos depicting the Alef-Baa are Islamic in nature.. The intention, of course, is to teach non-Arab speaking Muslims how to read the Quran. My only worry is that the pronunciation taught by non-native Arabic speakers is off. Arabic has some unique-sounding sounds and you need to be exposed to the correct pronunciation otherwise it'll be difficult to undo.

I'll try to incorporate more Arabic in my blog for your benefit.


ps. some Arabic words and expressions that have entered Hebrew slang are not always used idiomatically.

For example, Sahtain in Hebrew is congratulations while in the original Arabic it's Bon Appetit.

Tamar Orvell said...

Nizo achi — I love your encouragement and need your oversight. A neophyte can and does easily slip onto wrong paths and inappropriate influences. Linguists such as you who are native speakers are my best techers. Todah raba, shukran jazilan, thanks buddy.

Inspired by your comments, I added here online video sources for learning and practicing the aleef-baa.

NOTE: Muslim teachings, as with those of any religion, I am open to learning. The sole caveat: I require sources to show balance, rigorous analysis, and intentions.




jfrancis said...

by birth,
guilty or not
by choice.

JeSais said...

wow. I must be naive. Maybe I am happy to be so. I read your post and smiled. I thought to myself how brave is Tamar to attempt such a difficult language (at least to me, who only knows English and a few romance languages). The alphabet looks intimidating and cryptic. I have no cultural reference... but I would never classify it as a language of hate. littlepurple cow is right. you are brave walking through life with an open heart. and you are consistent in your response. thank you for sharing this.

Tamar Orvell said...

jfrancis — Your words evoke those of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society, all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.” (Heschel [1907–1972], a Warsaw-born American rabbi was a leading Jewish theologian of the 20th century.)

jesais — You polyglot "who only knows English and some romance language" ;-) I couldn't even attempt to keep an open heart without examples of those such as Emmett Tills' mother. When her son, Emmett [1941-1955], was murdered by a hater of a race [not unlike a hater of a language...], Mamie Till demanded that the federal authorities return her 14-year-old son's mutilated body to his hometown and placed on public view. The bereaved woman, who forced the nation to look at the horror of racism, years later said: "'I have not spent one minute hating.'' said...

As I fly through the day I notice this sensational blog post!!!!! The video is something to chirp about, it is SOOOO cute. I can't wait for the tales of Sesame Street, clearly the next adventure!!!!! Back to the nest!!!


BronzeBuckaroo said...

I would painlessly learn not only the alphabet, numbers, and colors but also basic lessons in human relations: fairness, kindness, and respect for self and others.

Your own humanity has expressed itself in a willingness to open your mind learning to understand other folks different and not so different than you regardless of collective and personal circumstances on either side. I am an Afro American wishing to learn Arabic, Hebrew, along with my Spainish which I should know since it is my heritage.

Ms. T, I read this blog long enough to know you are a better ambassador to goodwill than the professional idiots serving at the moment from any country as your heart is open and willing to embrace and respect.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tamar

I the best tools I have found for learning arabic so far are a combination of these:


followed by:

the second is quite a formal Arabic, so for conversational Arabic there is an excellent audio course available through the Michel Thomas website:|1&ms=1320&BV_UseBVCookie=Yes

whic I found excellent !!



Tamar Orvell said... — Double thanks for landing here. We share affection for much, including Sesame Street and each other! In your next blog lesson (Sunday OK?), remind me to show you how to delete your own comment (that is, if you want to). And how to delete a spammer's comment on your own most sweet new blog!

bronze — You make me blush. I take my cues from you, gifted narrator of your own rich heritage. BTW: I notice with keen interest that recently you swapped your earlier blog photo (of yourself), from the Brown Bomber to Huey Newton. I'm curious: Why? What are your reasons?

anonymous "B" — Shukran jazilan for the marvelous links... now, I need to locate the tomes on Amazon, where ordering and pricing are suited to my whereabouts;-) I have found in my local library multimedia products and print matter, too.

My current companion is a thin, dusty book: "The Arabic alphabet: how to read and write it" by Nicholas Awde and Putros Samano. (Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publ., 1996, c1986.) Under 100 pages, it delivers the essentials the authors promise, using an eye-to-eye level tone absent the snootiness and corny jokes I've encountered in other such books. And, a big plus: This book includes the word "Israel" and alludes to "Israeli-Arabs" in the list of places where Arabic is spoken and by whom. To date, other books I have read do not mention the country or specific demographic — a repugnant twisting of language instruction into the noose of politics (to use a polite term).

A nit: While the authors say that Arabic is spoken by the Arab populations of Israel and the occupied territories [sic], they overlook my Israeli Jewish friends' grandparents, parents, and elders who were born in Arab-speaking countries and who continue to speak, write, watch TV, read newspapers and books... in Israel... and all in Arabic.

Beachdiary said...

for learning arabic (which I don't speak because i'm lazy) i think the best way of learning it is via the great beautiful songs out there. those catch your heart and something that catches your heart - you will learn more easily to understand :)

Tamar Orvell said...

beachdiary — I'm with you on this one. Often, I surprise others (never myself!) when I know a top-tier Hebrew word. Chances are it's from a Hebrew folk song, Bialik poem, Mishna tractate, or Torah verse that I learned early in my life. Hooked on the melody and/or meaning associated with the word ensured its retention. Not coincidentally, the word became part of my core vocabulary (and the context, part of my core values).

Anonymous said...

Tamar, good for you for learning Arabic. I've been to a few courses and have some advice:
1. DON'T enroll at Ulpan Akiva. Big disappointment
2. Nice three-day mini-intro at Almutada Altakadumi run by Waji Sedawi in Wadi Ara
3. There's a week-long program in Darijat, near Arad
4. Keep watching Sesame Street and other shows.

Yam Erez said...

Hey, why did my comment get published as "Anonymous"? I'm Yam Erez

Anonymous said...


I hope your Arabic lessons are going well since you posted. Well done, you are an example to be followed.

I am also studying Arabic and have been thinking of studying Hebrew as well. I studied biblical Hebrew a long time ago and keep being surprised by the similarities between these two languages.

Shalom Salam
Salam Shalom


Syed Tayyab Ali said...

Well I am not the native speaker of Arabic.
What I know that Arabic and Hebrew have same structure but different style of writing. Just like Urdu and Hindi, both have same grammar structure but different writing style.

Malak said...


I'm an arab woman and I'm learning hebrew. I was just so literraly chocked by similarities between the two languages. I learned to write and read in one week, in the next week I could already have a normal conversation in hebrew. That's incredible, I wouldn't have believed it, I feel like almost speaking in Arabic.

I feel sorry for the haters in your article, who say that arabic is the language of hate. May God guide them.

Anyway, peace to every nation and... I'm sure you'll understand this one : Let's seek peace, YAD in YAD :)

(For those who didn't get it, yad is a letter in both languages and means in the same time : HAND)

Tamar Orvell said...

Thanks for commenting, Malek. And applause to you on your quick learning! I studied Arabic 1.5 years, yet could never read, speak, or understand this beautiful language and calligraphy except utter or recognize a simple expression or two. I agree with your call for peace: Yad in Yad (Hebrew: יד ביד, or yad b'yad).