Why I think Arabic is the hardest language in the world

I’ve seen a lot of articles out there proclaiming this and this language as being the hardest language in the world. So now 7 weeks into my Arabic classes, I’d like to make my case for Arabic.

Let’s start with the Arabic alphabet:

ArabicAlphabet

At this point, I still thought it was ok. Sure it looks different, but it’s nothing compared to the complexity of Chinese and Japanese characters. Japanese even has three types of writing systems (one for native Japanese, one for words that came from foreign languages, and kanji, or Chinese characters). The pronunciation is hard, with sounds that I’ve never made before in the four languages I’ve studied (English, Mandarin, French and Japanese), and includes the dreaded French “r” throat sound that I’ve never been able to make. Still, I’m sure with practice I’ll get it (so far I’ve gotten the “ghain” sound right once, and everyone in the class clapped). Reading right to left is also kind of jarring, but I got used to it pretty easily (I started out reading traditional Chinese, which is right to left and top to bottom).  So even though it’s like no other language I’ve ever seen before, I didn’t think too much of it.

Then the teacher showed us this:

arabic_alphabet2

There are four different ways to write each of the letters above, depending on its location in the word, and which letter it follows or precedes. Also, some letters can be connected in certain cases and not in others, while some are never connected. That also affects how to write the letter. Sometimes when two letters are next to each other, it creates a whole new squiggle not present in the alphabet.

I started to get a little worried…

Then we learned some accents that would help us learn how to pronounce the different letters.

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So now we can add the sounds “a”, “u”, and “i” to the original alphabet. For example, if you add “buh” to “a”, it becomes “bah” and so on and so forth. Sounds easy enough right?

Nope, WRONG. We only get these helpful accents while we’re learning Arabic. In regular Arabic, they don’t include these accents at all, and you have to rely on your knowledge of the language to know which sounds to make.

hope-word-arabic-caligraphy

This word is prononunce “al-amal” (hope). the “l” in “al”has combined with the “a” in “amal” to create a different letter. There’s no accent above “m” to indicate that it’s pronounced “ma” and not “mi” or “mu” or “m”. Because the “a” in “al” is the first character of the word, it’s a straight line and doesn’t have a squiggle in it like the “a” in “amal” (which was put in for stylistic purposes and may or may not appear in other pieces of writing).

Confused yet?

Now let’s get a little bit into grammar. I’ve studied grammar of four different languages, and I’d like to think that I know a little bit about it.  French has masculine feminine nouns (usually indicated with “la” or “le”) that requires conjugating adjectives (usually an extra “e” at the end for feminine nouns). English and French had singular and plural forms (just add “s” except for uncountables), while Chinese and Japanese use counters to indicate plurality. All four languages indicate possession with a possessive noun (my, mine etc).

Arabic has the masculine/feminine nouns that French has, except without the “le” and “la” to help indicate masculine femininity. It not only has a plural form that is completely different than its singular form, but it also has a dual form! To clarify, singular=1, dual=2, plural=3+. There are no possessive nouns in Arabic; they change the noun to indicate possession.

For example, friend is saudikuh.  Two friends is saudikan (صديقتان). Three or more friends is astikau (أصدقاء). My friend is saudiki (صديقي). And then there’s the feminine form, which I’m just not going to get into (it involves a different conjugation for each of those forms I’ve already mentioned).

Here’s a little chart I made to illustrate the differences.

English French Chinese Japanese Arabic
Singular Friend Ami 朋友 友達 صديق
Dual Friends Amis 朋友 友達 صديقتان
Plural Friends Amis 朋友 友達 أصدقاء
Fem. Sing. Friend Amie 朋友 友達 صديقة
Fem. Plur. Friends Amies 朋友 友達 صديقات
My + singular My friend Mon ami 我的朋友 私の友達 صديقي
My + plural My friends Mes amis 我的朋友 私の友達 أصدقائي

*Note: Japanese and Chinese does have counters to indicate plurality, but it isn’t necessary unless it you want to specify it.

If you look closely, every single one of those Arabic words have a different conjugation, and the plural and singular form doesn’t look like each other at all, which means you will have to memorize the plural form separately. The closest one in complexity is French, but at least it has a consistent root.

That’s it for today! Next time we’ll do numbers (I’m learning to count past 10 now) and possibly more grammar…I’ll need some time to make more charts!

Disclaimer: I’m just a beginner in Arabic, so if I got something wrong, please let me know and I’ll fix it!

The Language Barrier – Can you speak English?

So this year’s been kind of crazy travel-wise, so I think I’m going to start out in China. In June 2010, I moved to China, fresh out of school and no idea what I wanted to do. So I did what many young would-be travelers do: I became an English teacher, packed my bags and went to Beijing.

Now this is where my experience starts to differ from all the other foreigners in China. My father’s lived in China for years, and he was nice enough to help me get set up. I didn’t have to worry about finding an apartment, figure out how to pay for utilities, or any of that other new country stuff. Oh, and I speak fluent Mandarin, so stuff I didn’t know I figured out pretty quickly.

Because of my unique perspective of being both a foreigner and having near-native language skills (yeah, I’m not very modest), I’ve learned some things about China from both locals and expats. From conversations with fellow expats, I figured out that I had it good. Really, REALLY good.

The first thing that goes wrong is language. Yes, everyone knows that when you go to China and you don’t speak Chinese, it’s going to be hard. Some have taken Chinese classes, and feel confident that they can get by. It’s not that simple.

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On the left in traditional Chinese, used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. On the right is simplified Chinese, used in Mainland China.

For example, rental contracts are only valid in Chinese. If you’re lucky, they may have an English version for you to read, but the Chinese version is the only one that will count legally. Essentially you’re signing something as important as a rental contract in a language you don’t understand at all. If you’re lucky, maybe you get a  trustworthy agent and an honest landlord. If not, the contract could include a number of things that imposes on your right as a tenant. The landlord may impose a clause that allows him to raise rents whenever they want (Chinese law requires that they can only raise rents after the contract is up, usually a year), take back the apartment whenever they want, or ask for two-months rent as a security deposit (it’s supposed to be only one). Many landlords say that renting to foreigners is more of a risk than renting to a local, because supposedly we can up and run whenever we want. Therefore they try to impose restrictions such as asking for a year’s rent upfront or higher security deposits. While the former is legal, the latter is not. The agent has no incentive to warn you of these things. For most of them, the important thing is to get the contract signed and get their commission.

Real estate agents survive on commission; their fixed salary is pretty much minimum wage, or sometimes even lower. When it comes to renting, the agent usually get a month’s rent as commission. If the rent is under a certain amount (it differs between cities) the tenant has to pay the agent their commission. If the rent is above a certain amount, the landlord pays the commission. Now you can imagine, knowing that you don’t Chinese, an agent can easily double-dip, taking a commission from both the landlord and you. Since expats tend to rent higher-cost housing, this happens quite often. If (and that’s a big if) you finally realize you’ve been duped, you’ll find the contract says that the landlord pays the commission, and you have no proof that the agent double-dipped.

The best way to counter is to make a trustworthy Chinese friend (one of my former colleagues told me that his roommate in China helped him sign the contract, then realized the rent was 1000 yuan cheaper than what he said it was 2 years later. Guess what happened to that 1000 yuan?). They can help you navigate the contract, as well as tell you what’s reasonable and what’s not.

Even eating out can be intimidating when you don’t know the language.

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It’s actually just fried fish.

While Beijing has apparently come out with a list of “standard” translations for food, you’ll see names like the picture above all the time (http://www.chinasmack.com/2012/stories/official-translations-of-chinese-food-names-announced-by-beijing.html).

As if it weren’t difficult enough to navigate, sometimes the menus are poorly designed and have pictures matching the wrong dish name. You could totally end up ordering chicken feet, bull testicles or rabbit head. Unless you like that kind of thing, then it’s no problem.

You should probably try to keep track of how much each of the dishes are. Some restaurants tack on food you didn’t order (or eat), and add it to the bill thinking you wouldn’t find out. Usually when you point out it’s too much and try to go over it with them, they apologize and change it. Some servers also don’t give you a receipt and only tells you the inflated total, then pockets the difference.

Google translate is very popular in China. How do I know?

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Taken in a novelty shop in Beijing. Actual translation: Would it kill you to like me a little bit?

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Taken in front of my community in Beijing. I think I kind of get it…

Moral of the story is, don’t trust English translations.