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Arabic for Children Part 2: The Three Kinds of Arabic

Published

Part 1

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.

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(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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Nouman Ali Khan is the director of the Bayyinah Institute. He is well known for his contributions in the fields of Arabic and Quranic studies - most recently starting a full time on-campus institute for this purpose in Dallas, TX.

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. abu abdAllah, the Houstonian

    February 11, 2009 at 5:20 PM

    bismillah. i vote for Ancient/Qur’anic Arabic!!! can i vote over and over again, please?

  2. MR

    February 11, 2009 at 6:05 PM

    Classic / Ancient Arabic is ridiculously hard to understand and speak without a teacher.

    I’ll stick with Modern Standard as I learn.

  3. Nouman

    February 11, 2009 at 7:25 PM

    No one really speaks classical anymore. Its a language to understand and appreciate. Pretty much all communication in Arabic today is in contemporary Fus-Ha. Training to navigate Classical Arabic is a scalable goal.

  4. Ali Colak

    February 11, 2009 at 7:30 PM

    Do the medina arabic courses teach modern arabic?

  5. Arif

    February 11, 2009 at 7:42 PM

    Actually, since the Quran is classical arabic and an ayah in the Quran says that the Quran is easy to learn, that should mean that classical arabic is easy to learn, right?

  6. Mohammad S.

    February 11, 2009 at 7:51 PM

    As-salam `alaykum,
    I really want to real Classical; I want to experience actually understanding the beauty of the Qur’an; modern Arabic sounds so …uneleoquent. However, when I read the Qur’an, even a translation, it is sometimes heart-rending. Subhanallah
    BTW: Most of the Arabic words I currently know are Qur’anic Arabic, so when I try to communicate with my Palestinian and Somali friend, they sometimes don’t even understand what I’m saying, lol. There’s a HUGE difference between MSA and Classical Arabiyyah.

  7. Atif

    February 11, 2009 at 9:42 PM

    Br. Arif,
    I hope this answers your question: http://understandarabic.com/videos/video03cpo-29.htm

  8. Anisa

    February 12, 2009 at 12:12 PM

    Interesting! Didn’t know this, mashaAllah
    I think I wanna learn Modern Standard (fusha) insha’Allah

  9. AnonyMouse

    February 12, 2009 at 3:11 PM

    I was quite intrigued with your brief explanation of how Ancient Arabic evolved… it’s fascinating, really. Kinda makes you wish that we all had the opportunity to sit in a desert with nothing much better to do than devote oneself to the development of an intricate language :)

    For the serious student of Qur’an/ Islamic Studies, learning a bit of all three ‘types’ of Arabic is probably most useful… to understand the Qur’an, to read the classical texts, and to engage in discourse and dialogue with Arabic speakers.

    For kids, though, that’s a good question – what kind of Arabic DO you teach them? So far I’ve found through Islamic schools etc. that they teach Modern Standard/ fus_ha…

  10. TheLadyoftheHouse

    February 14, 2009 at 8:23 PM

    This subject is near and dear to my heart, so allow me to make a few points:

    No, there is not a “huge” difference between the three types of Arabic identified here. The difference between Old English and modern English is NOT analogous to the difference between Classical Arabic and MSA/dialects. Dialects are directly derived from the the Classical, just with lazier pronunciation and grammar observance. In fact, if you study dialects, you will often learn words from the Qur’an that are not taught in beginning MSA classes. About half of the Qur’anic vocabularly I personally leaned came to me by way of learning a dialect.

    Arabs who “don’t understand you” when you speak MSA to them are most likely uneducated. (By the way, Somalis don’t speak Arabic, they speak Somali, although their language is significantly derived from Arabic, it is not an Arabic dialect but a completely different langauge… I have studied both.) This fact has led many people to believe that there must be huge differences between the dialects and MSA/CA for example. Even highly educated Arabs– we’re talking your doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc., are woefully uneducated in their own language. In fact, many Arabic teachers themselves cannot carry on a conversation in MSA, which they purport to teach! Many of them do not even speak Arabic as their first language in a way because they went to school in languages other than Arabic. Colonialism resulted in the preference for foreign langauges and general social and political unrest sent many educated Arabs overseas. With lower education levels in general the language situation becomes even worse. This is also because Arab countries have, as many Muslim countries have done, over-emphasized math and science achievement and have devalued language, literature, and the arts. Highly intelligent people are generally pushed into the hard sciences, while other fields are seen as “lesser” and are ignored culturally and are often the fields where the less intelligent and creative people end up.

    MSA and CA are treated as the same for teaching purposes. In the elementary stages of learning, CA and MSA learning will be identical. There is no significant difference. So I don’t believe these distinctions with respect to teaching are particularly useful. Also, do you deny that classical Arabic had any dialects? Any change? The early grammarians recognized that there were levels of Arabic even at that time, studied them and wrote about them.

    Do you propose teaching children Arabic as a Dead Language? Will they learn ONLY words and structures found in the Qur’an or will you allow them to learn words that will enable them to express ideas and concepts meaningful to them so that they may learn the language holistically? Some of what I have read out there proposes not teaching children words like “lemon”, “bus”, or “computer” because they are “not in the Qur’an” yet purports to support getting children “excited” about learning Arabic. I don’t know, do Jewish chidren get “excited” about learnign just enough Hebrew to read the Torah? I haven’t heard any Jewish kids jumping up and down about going to Hebrew school. On top of that, many parts of the Qur’an that utilize highly advanced vocabularly and structures are also so poetically advanced that young children will not be able to appreciate them anyway. Language does not exist merely on paper as something to read and write. Language is meant to be used in human interaction. The “grammar-translation” method of language learning is outdated as most practitioners have recognized that mere memorization and reading do not result in a student really retaining and understanding what they learn. Only when somebody can repeatedly use the language in a meaningful context can they really acquire it and remember it. I don’t believe this is any different if the goal is to understand the Qur’an.

    Finally, it is extremely unfair to characterize Classical Arabic as “extremely complex”. It is capable of expressing extremely complex ideas but the language itself is extremely easy to learn and it is a very logical language. The reasons most people have a difficult time learning Arabic include lack of teacher training and the fact that the Arabs themselves who are teaching don’t know their own language well, as I mentioned above. The reasons for difficulties in Islamic schools adds another set of issues that include allocation of funding, time, and attention.

  11. George Carty

    February 17, 2009 at 8:00 PM

    Aren’t the dialects of Arabic much further apart than the dialects of English? Would it more accurate to think of the dialects having the same relation to standard Arabic that the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) do to Latin?

  12. Nouman

    February 17, 2009 at 8:11 PM

    Assalamu Alaikum.

    I appreciate and at the same time strongly disagree with TheLadyoftheHouse in some respects, and Allah knows best.

    a. The classical language incorporates grammatical manipulations, rich word play and verbal + nominal idioms that are no longer applied in MSA. In this sense it is far more complex. Sentence structure connotations are different in MSA from CA significantly. Take قالَ and هُو قالَ for instance. They are virtually identical in proper MSA discourse. Not so in CA. The difference is significant and plays a critical role in interpreting language, particularly sacred language.

    b. I haven’t even started talking about what/ how to teach kids yet (CA/ QA or MSA or a fusion of all of them) so please don’t jump the gun in judging my position on the matter.

    c. There certainly did exist dialects of Arabic but ones that differ dramatically from what we have around today. Additionally, the Quraish were the center of Arabian society and their dialect, on account of them being the center of trade and religious pilgrimage, was the closest thing to a ‘standard’ even at that time. The Qur’an & Sunnah are obviously in the Quraishi dialect, but it isn’t just Quraishi. The issue of varying classical dialects also plays a role (in higher tafsir studies) in interpreting the variant readings.

  13. Nouman

    February 17, 2009 at 8:13 PM

    Dear George,
    not so. The dialects really aren’t far apart enough to make the parallels you did.

  14. dev

    February 18, 2009 at 12:56 AM

    check out the following:

    http://www.80percentwords.com/

  15. Angie

    May 6, 2009 at 9:58 PM

    Part 3??

  16. language learning software

    June 7, 2009 at 12:52 PM

    Very well written post however, I would recommend that you turn the No Follow off in your comment section.

    Keep up the good work.

  17. Mouloud Alouane

    June 22, 2009 at 4:24 AM

    Thank you for your interesting article.

    My contribution to your question vis-a-vis which Arabic should we teach our children is discussed in this section. However, my concern is more related to who, how and where the teaching of Arabic is delivered in such a way that encourages – rather than forcing- our children to enjoy and learn such a beautiful language. A positive learning experience will undoubtedly help to educate our children in the elements of the faith. We should also give priority to the teaching Arabic and avoid conflation between what is religious and what is cultural.

    Human / social communication, interaction and cooperation would be very difficult, if not even impossible altogether, without (civilized) human language. Language has a very important role to perform in human society. One of its very meaningful tasks is to educate and civilize human beings so that they can be reasonably responsible world citizens, useful to themselves, their families and communities, as well as human civilization, in general. All human languages, and particularly those with a potential (and history) to make significant contributions to human knowledge and civilization, assume and must assume such responsibility. Human language must be allowed to get on with the purposes of its “raison-d’être” and the work it is supposed to undertake to serve humanity everywhere. It must not become a tool of human exploitation, deprivation and injustice. Some communities transform their own languages into instruments of their own gradual destruction and prevention of healthy civilized development. This is very unfortunate indeed !

    The Arabic language has a number of roles and objectives to fulfill : linguistic, cultural, educational, societal, civilizational, etc. On the linguistic level, for instance, it demonstrates a linguistic need on the group level within the specific context of the Muslim Minority Community in the British Irish Isles just like other parts of Europe, etc. (a) It is the first language of a great many Muslim people, (b) it is the second language of others, (c) and definitely the third / foreign / community language of quite a few, several of whom belong to one or other groups that constitute the British Irish Muslim Community in the European continent.

    These three groups all need the Arabic Language for a wide range of reasons, the most meaningful of which are the socio-educational, the linguistic, the epistemological, and the cultural – including the religious, the ideological, where they apply, and the civilizational (in the true universal sense of the term).

    Thus, we may ask if Arabic language is a religious or linguistic need? and whose responsibility it is to provide and facilitate the teaching of Arabic.?

    Relevant academic and other studies carried out in different circles in Great Britain and elsewhere indicate that Muslims and others want the Arabic language to become taught in schools as a “modern language” like German, French and Spanish, not just as a second / community language taught in private and community or denominational schools and colleges. In Muslim schools, for instance, it is taught alongside the first language of non-Arabic speaking children and often in addition to a compulsory modern language such as German, French or Spanish. If Arabic were justly classified as a MODERN LANGUAGE (in educational terms, only, since ‘MODERN’ can simply imply A HIGHLY SOPHISTICATED DIALECTICAL DEVELOPMENT in certain contexts), the Muslim children would all opt for Arabic and would all have to learn it besides their first language, if it happens to be different, and the English language that is the majority language and language of the future for international communication and dissemination of a healthy useful knowledge and civilization. That is just one of the most meaningful reasons why it is taught initially everywhere in the Muslim World, in more than seventy countries, throughout the Planet, and in most cases, at the expense of Muslim universities, ministries and departments of education, from setting up the schools (throughout all stages of education) to the training of teachers and production of teaching and learning materials. In sharp contrast, Muslims in minority communities in the West and elsewhere, even when they struggle to remain self-reliant in every possible respect, the Arabic language remains deliberately marginalized (by those in charge of making decisions on behalf of others), even though it is a very well-known fact at least in intellectual circles, that the language is a very important language of civilization and classed as a world language, of the UN, and one of science, technology, and human / social development on all fronts.

    Thus, Arabic language, as a religious need is arguably the responsiblity of Muslim communities within European Union(EU), for instance to organise language schools, Arabic language programmes delivered and taught by qulaified teachers and linguistics in this field. French and Spanish languages are taught in most schools across EU, and Muslim children learn, and speak them fluently before leaving the secondary education. Arabic language should be taught in an academic, appropriate and happy learning environment, and by competent trained teachers. Unless they enjoy learning it, they will not deliver , as their parents may expect then to do. This is our responsibility. if they understand , speak and write Arabic, this will put them in an advantageous position: this will benefit their Islmic knowledge, research, and could be the future teachers, bilingual educators. for their own children.

    Islamic centres should also contribute to such teaching and introduce relevant material, resources (Qur’an, Hadith and an appropriate learning learning environment., and according to children’s level of understanding of Arabic language, age.

    In conclusion, Muslim children will learn better if the teaching of Arabic language is delivered in a very happy, learning, educational and academic environment (Islamic of course), by professional male and female Muslim staff , and this will contribute to the development of their religious and linguistic identity.

    Thank you
    Mouloud Alouane

  18. Manal

    November 4, 2009 at 7:14 PM

    Asalaamu alaikoum,

    I’m a homeschooling mom of 3 (soon to be 4 insha’allah) and I’m battling with the whole ‘which arabic do I teach’ idea…Is the next part of the article out? I’m really feeling I must start NOW, especially since I’m highly motivated and getting organized this ‘school year”

    I’m torn because I speak dialect which is very far from what I see/read in the Qur’an, so do I teach what I know, or do I learn something new along with my kids?

    jzk allahu khairn

  19. reeshiez

    July 8, 2010 at 12:34 AM

    I completely agree with TheLadyoftheHouse. The division of arabic into three categories is a western creation. In the Arab world there are two divisions only: fus-ha and amiyaa (colloquial). Fus-ha is proper arabic. It is the Arabic of the Quran, books, newspapers etc. For some reason, westerners like dividing Fus-ha into two categories – MSA and classical (quranic arabic). Like I said, no such division exists in the Arab world. Creating such a division is akin to separating the english of magazines and newspapers the the english found in a Charles Dickens book for example. Both the arabic and english of magazines use simpler vocabulary. However the arabic and english of great literary works and the Quran use richer vocabulary. Fus-ha has one grammatical structure and that grammatical structure exists in both the Quran and in newspapers, magazines and books. Amiya is colloquial arabic. Each country has its own arabic dialect. The grammatical structure of colloquial arabic is a simplified version of fus-ha but is very similar. There is a huge overlap in vocabulary also. Arabs who speak their own dialect and learn fus-ha in school are likely to understand the dialects spoken in other arab countries. Think of the difference between dialects as the difference between say american english and australian english. Of course the difference between some dialects is larger than that.

    Manal – I suggest using all for your children. The overlap between the two (I will not say three because as I explained there are only two divisions) is huge unless your dialect is a north african one. Speak to your children in colloquial arabic but try to incorporate as many fus-ha vocabulary words as possible. Read books to your children in fus-ha everyday. Al Salwa publishers, Al-Siraj.com and Kalimat all have excellent arabic books for children. Also have your child memorize and learn the meaning of short quranic arabic.

    • Hassen

      February 1, 2013 at 5:03 PM

      as-salaamu alaykum,

      reeshiez, with all due respect, I think Shaykh Nouman knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t just randomly study a little Arabic here and there- it’s is focus and specialty, masha’Allah.

      *Didn’t see part 3 of this series unfortunately … :(

      • Reeshiez

        May 10, 2018 at 9:29 AM

        @Hassen No he doesn’t. It’s not his specialty. He does not have a PhD in Arabic language studies or something similar. Let’s stop with the preacher worship okay?

  20. Jawaad Ahmad Khan

    August 17, 2010 at 6:45 PM

    Did brother Nouman write a Part 3??

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