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Arabic for Children Part 2: The Three Kinds of Arabic

Nouman Ali Khan

category: Family Life


reads: 4736

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The following simplification is needed before we engage in a healthy dialogue about the proper scope, strategy and execution of Arabic educational ventures regardless of the target audience being adults or children.   Please note that my writing style is un-academic, popular science-ish by design.   So be not offended if it doesn’t cater your suave intellectual taste for good writing.

Colloquial Arabic is basically street Arabic.  It is spoken in casual settings in contemporary Arab society.  It varies from country to country (much like English does from the U.S. to Scotland).  Learning colloquial Arabic is great if you are seeking to become a member of a particular Arab society, tourism, breaking the ice between yourself and some Arab acquaintances etc.  On occasion, colloquial Arabic is so drastically different from standard Arabic that قلم QALAM can be pronounced ALAM or even LAM.  Another simple example of this variation is the standard phrase كيف حالك KAYFA HAALUKA transformed into CHAYF HAALICH in a particular colloquial Arabic dialect (Palestinian Fallahi to be precise).

(a)   Modern Standard Arabic is basically your proper Arabic. It is the language of choice for Arab newspapers, news broadcasts and formal settings.  It is grammatically much more sensitive and far more annunciated than colloquial.  Its use in most casual Arab settings like the home or restaurants is considered pretentious.  I’ve even seen it used in comic relief in Arab media plays.  This is the Arabic you will learn when you study books like the Elementary Modern Standard Arabic (Cambridge), Al-Kitaab Fi Ta’allumi Al-Arabiyyan (Georgetown) etc.  In my understanding, it would be fair to say that Modern Standard Arabic (commonly termed Fus-Ha in Muslim discourse) is a simplified, skimmed version of Classical Arabic. Most contemporary Arabic lectures, articles and books today are written in this, Al-Arabiyyah Al Fus-Ha.

(b)   Classical / Ancient Arabic is basically the Arabic of the pre-Islamic era up until no more than the first century of Islam.  This is the highly nuanced, intricate, sophisticated and imaginative Arabic with which the Arab before Islam prided himself.  Its grammar is complex and involved, its vocabulary is layered and sensitively contextualized, its literary beauty is arguably unmatched by any other language.  The peak of Ancient Arabic is the Qur’an.  As incredible as the language was to begin with, the Qur’an took it to a completely unrealized level; one that had never been reached & one that will never be reached again.

Why did Classical Arabic deteriorate in its relevance and application in the Muslim world? The answer really is quite simple.  The Arabs before Islam were isolated socially for the most part. They hung out in the desert of Arabia and only some traders went around to the Persian, Roman and other empires.  Their language developed in this sheltered environment.  The Arabs also didn’t have much to look at in the desert and perhaps this contributed to the picturesque and imaginative nature of Arabic words.  Their entertainment, their pride and joy (instead of great monuments or a glorious past) and their greatest means of self identification was Arabic.

After successive victories, Muslim civilization came into contact with numerous non-Arab cultures and languages.  As a result the sheltered Arabic of ages was now experiencing the contamination of foreign influence.  Just think of the drastic evolution of English over the last few centuries.  So many words in English come from other languages and even its grammar has experienced significant transformation.  Anyhow, Islamic scholarship quickly realized that this contamination is making even the Arabs less sensitive to the beauty of the language and as a result the great danger is that we will be less sensitive, perhaps even oblivious to the beauty and intricacy of the Qur’an.  Islamic scholarship from very early on formalized the efforts of preserving ancient Arabic.  Lexicons, grammatical works and archiving of poetry were as important as preserving the teachings of the religion because after all, the medium IS the message.

This basically explains why an ancient Arab would hear the magnificent Qur’an and be blown away by its supernatural beauty while an Arab today can hear the Qur’an and wonder what the big deal is.

In our next installment insha Allah, we will be truly ready to tackle the question of which Arabic we want our children studying.

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