Murphy's Law: Screwed By The Standard

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November 8, 2007: The sharp increase in training of Arab linguists in the American military has led to some unexpected problems. The main hassle is that Arabic is not one language. While there is a "standard Arabic" that is accepted everywhere, in practice few Arabs learn this standard. They can often understand it, but not speak it fluently. There are twelve major dialects of Arabic, and this is what most Arabs use, even university educated Arabs. This arises from the fact that most Arab speaking nations adopted the language after they were conquered by Arab armies over a thousand years ago. Arabic was imposed over another language, and the old language did not completely disappear. Thus the dialects have quite different vocabularies, and often differences in grammar as well.

So when the U.S. Department of Defense gave a new test to its Arab language students, less than 20 percent passed, compared to about 70 percent for those learning European languages. What was really scary was that many of those failing were native Arab speakers. But they were fluent in their particular dialect, not Standard Arabic. Even if you have aced Standard Arabic, you may not be much use in some backwater parts of the Arab world. If all any of the locals know is the local dialect, you are in trouble. Fortunately, cable news stations like al Jazeera try to do most of their broadcasting in Standard Arabic. This helps many dialect users to understand the "Standard." Unfortunately, many of the news shows, like interviews, start off in Standard Arabic, but eventually slip into a dialect if both the interviewer and interviewee are from the same region. But outside of a classroom, usually at the university level, al Jazeera is one of the few places where you will hear Standard Arabic. Most books, newspapers and magazines are written in Standard Arabic, but many people have to "translate" what they are reading into Standard Arabic. All this may account for the low level (relative to the rest of the world) of book publishing in the Arab world, as well as the popularity of radio as a communication medium.

The American military is putting a lot of money into laptop or hand held computer software that will translate spoken English into several Arab dialects.

 


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