Allen Clark’s students have different reasons for studying Arabic at UM. Some want to increase their career prospects. And some are Muslims who want to read the Qu’ran in its original form. Then again, for others, it could be just plain old curiosity.
“Many Americans are curious about the language and culture,” said Clark, instructional assistant professor of Arabic.
UM began offering its first class in Arabic during the fall 2008 semester. Similar to the intensive Chinese program, UM received federal funds for this language because it is seen as critical to national security.
“This is really exciting because the funding we are receiving allows us to offer another critical language,” said Donald Dyer, chair of the Department of Modern Languages. “In these times, being able to offer Chinese and Arabic is the sign of a strong and pragmatic language department.”
Leah Nodar, a sophomore linguistics major from Mobile, Ala., has been fascinated with languages since childhood. “I want to learn as much about the structure and workings of as many languages as I can,” she said. “Arabic was far too wonderful an opportunity to pass up.”
Dyer said he believes the difficulty in learning a language is determined largely by the will of the student. Even so, Arabic is often thought to be one of the most difficult languages for English-speaking students to learn—mostly because of the myriad dialects within the language, Clark said.
Clark teaches his students modern standard Arabic, which is commonly understood throughout the 30 nations where Arabic is spoken. Yet countries, regions and cities have their own dialects, and speaking the wrong dialect has its consequences, Clark said.
“Every regional dialect carries with it cultural and political baggage,” he said. “If you were speaking a Syrian dialect to someone from Beirut, Lebanon, it could be construed as tacitly siding with Syria’s policies toward Lebanon. You could be carrying on a normal conversation, but just speaking in that dialect might put people off.
“In the Middle East, language and culture are so enmeshed that people can draw conclusions about you just from the dialect you speak,” Clark added. “Learning standard Arabic isn’t that difficult, but learning how and when to speak a dialect makes it challenging.”
Nodar said that despite the vast differences between Arabic and English, there is a certain logic to Arabic that makes it easy to catch on to.
“Picking up any small part leads immediately to greater understanding in dozens of other areas,” Nodar said. “Learning ‘sun’ also teaches you ‘sunshine,’ ‘sunny’ and even ‘umbrella.’ In many languages it’s hard to see connections, but in Arabic the words flow together—it’s very precise, very mathematical.”
After graduation, Nodar hopes to practice her Arabic in the Middle East as a freelance translator. “Beyond that, I don’t know where Arabic will take me,” she said. “But I’m certain I’ll enjoy the journey.”