NZADI FROM SCRATCH.

Patricia Yollin of the San Francisco Chronicle has a great story, “UC linguistics students get lesson of lifetime,” describing an unusual Field Methods class. A similar class was one of the highlights of my own linguistics education: we met every week to elicit forms from a speaker of Toba Batak (a language of Sumatra), and each had to produce a grammar by the end of the semester; we were not supposed to use English with our informant, although sometimes we slipped up. The difference here is that the language has never been described by linguists (except for a word list):

Nzadi is one of the most obscure tongues in the world. That’s exactly why a UC Berkeley class has embraced it.
“There’s nothing like the joy of discovering a language from scratch,” said Cal linguistics Professor Larry Hyman.
The 10 students in his course, Introduction to Field Methods, are focusing on Nzadi this semester – the first such effort in any college or university to examine this remote member of the Bantu linguistic family.
“It’s a chance to study a language that nobody has studied before,” said graduate student researcher Thera Crane. “That opportunity does not come around very often.”
Nzadi is spoken by thousands of people in fishing villages along the Kasai River in Congo, a country with about 220 languages.
The students in Hyman’s class have two goals. They want to figure out how to analyze an unfamiliar language and they plan to document Nzadi – a tongue so unknown that it cannot be found in the Ethnologue, a compendium of almost 7,000 languages across the globe….
Hyman also would like to produce a grammar by the end of the semester that could be published. Each student would be responsible for a chapter.

You can watch a minute-long YouTube clip with snippets of the class and talks with the professor and the informant; read the story for more (the informant, Simon Nsielanga Tukumu, “grew up in the Congolese village of Bundu in a family of fishermen,” has been ordained as a Jesuit priest, and “is now working toward a master’s degree in ethics at the Graduate Theological Union”). I will seize this opportunity to once more propagandize for the old-fashioned kind of linguistic training that emphasized intensive study of non-Indo-European languages as a necessary part of a linguist’s background. Thanks for the link, Eve! (Incidentally, Prof. Hyman founded the Comparative Bantu On-Line Dictionary (CBOLD), a very useful project.)

Comments

  1. Is it just me or are the ads by google on the left hand side of the page obscuring most of this piece ?

  2. Must be me – I re-loaded the page and they moved to the right side – panic over….

  3. It’s not just you, Paul. I’ve been having this happen sporadically and for no discernible reason here at languagehat for the last fortnight or so. A refresh generally fixes it for me, but not always. Sometimes I have to navigate away and come back or shut down Firefox and reopen to get the Google ads back on the right-hand side of the page.

  4. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    It varies according to the time of day, but sometimes I have to restart my whole machine to get language hat to move… of course, his wife says the same thing.

  5. My wife had this problem too. I wonder what’s going on?

  6. I was talking about a problem with Google ads, though of course Kron is perfectly correct about getting me to move.

  7. Sumatra? In the Congo?

  8. marie-lucie says:

    Back to Nzadi, I find it ambitious of the prof to think that his class can produce a whole grammar in a semester, even if each member specializes in one area. Of course, if the students are able to consult grammars of other Bantu languages, they will have a distinct advantage over others who might literally be starting from scratch (the fact that Nzadi has or had already been identified as Bantu shows that it it not totally alien). Produce a grammatical sketch with the major features of the language, yes, and that is probably what the prof means. A complete grammar dealing with the subtleties of the language, probably not.

  9. Sumatra? In the Congo?
    I studied a language of Sumatra 35 years ago. This class is studying a language of the Congo.
    Produce a grammatical sketch with the major features of the language, yes, and that is probably what the prof means.
    Yeah, I’m quite sure that’s what he means. As you say, a complete grammar would not be possible in this situation (and would probably require more informants; I got the impression from the YouTube clip that the guy has not routinely used Nzadi for a long time—he says his parents spoke it).

  10. There’s nothing like a little fieldwork on a previously unwritten language to show one how abstract a level of representation a standardized orthography is.
    My field methods class (back in the 1970s) worked on different aspects of the syntax of Saipan Carolinian in Micronesia, and I remember puzzling over the role of demonstratives as relative-clause markers, discourse connectives, and definite/specific articles. One of my Japanese classmates was determined to analyze speech levels, but had trouble finding what he expected to find.
    I took Hyman’s phonology text with me into the field in Papua New Guinea. It had a lot of good coverage of tone and even a bit about tonogenesis. Few Austronesian languages have tone, but I just happened to be in an area where a local Austronesian lingua franca had developed a simple register tone system. My first refereed publication in a major linguistic journal (Lingua) was an article on tonogenesis in that language. I think I even cited Hyman about consonant types affecting tone, but not vice versa.
    Fieldwork in the field is very different from field methods in a classroom.

  11. Fieldwork in the field is very different from field methods in a classroom.
    You want to make me jealous? Fine, you made me jealous. I wish I could have gone to an exotic part of the world to study a language!

  12. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Look at that, now you’ve upset him. He probably won’t come out of his box again all day.

  13. I wish I could have gone to an exotic part of the world to study a language!
    Well, I wish I could have studied field methods under someone who actually knew what they were talking about. Hell, I wish I could have studied linguistics under people who knew what they were talking about. I wish I could have studied linguistics somewhere where getting a book or an article I need for my studies didn’t involve a trip abroad.
    Life ain’t fair.

  14. Produce a grammatical sketch with the major features of the language, yes, and that is probably what the prof means.
    That’s what I took it to mean, too. But why stop there? I’m thinking the complete grammar as MA thesis, collaborative, of course.

  15. Fieldwork in the field is very different from field methods in a classroom.
    The whole idea of getting someone with expertise to sit down with you and concentrate on the language sounds fascinating. It would probably be easier to accomplish in an academic setting than informally. After all, why would someone talk to you unless they were getting paid. Even then there can be difficulties. I remember trying to study Arabic while the tutor I was paying–the only one for miles around–tried to play footsie with me under the table. My tentative explorations for a new tutor in my present neighborhood have yielded similar results.
    So why the focus on producing a “grammar” instead of producing a “conversation guide”? After all, the way second language acquisition is taught these days is with conversation (“communicative method”). Our school has plenty of grammar exercise books but they’re all in the back room and admin says they’re just for the teachers.
    So what is the goal of sitting down with a native speaker? Documenting some obscure point so you can get published in a journal? Or providing a roadmap for someone who wants to acquire the language? My school loan for my graduate work isn’t paid off yet, so my chances of taking a linguistics methods class right now are slim and none. So how can I elicit the kind of information I want about my target language?

  16. So why the focus on producing a “grammar” instead of producing a “conversation guide”?
    Because the goal is documentation and description, not second language acquisition. And even if second language acquisition was on the team’s mind, which I doubt (seriously, who – except for us here, naturally – would want to learn Nzadi?), a conversation guide would be pretty much useless without a grammar. And by grammar I don’t mean an exercise book, but rather a comprehensive description of phonology, morphology and syntax.

  17. Yes, grammars (in the linguistic sense) and conversation guides are pretty much entirely different things produced for entirely different audiences.

  18. Jealous! My field methods class sucks. When our informant says she can’t think of what word she’d use, the professor pulls out his Dholuo dictionary and tells her what it should be. Sigh.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Why stop at a grammatical sketch and not go for a complete grammar? Because a few months of study by 10 students with a single consultant will not equal four or five years or more of study by a single person, especially one who lives in the place where the language is spoken. “Elicitation” methods taught in field methods courses will teach students to get and analyze answers to their own questions but not necessarily what might come up unexpectedly in actual exchanges between speakers. For instance, there are many grammars (some of them mere sketches) of Native American languages done in the 20th century, which have long sections on the phonology and morphology but are very skimpy on syntax except for short sentences, and those might not be very reliable if they were given as equivalents of English ones, because most people try to translate as literally as their language allows, while the true equivalents (even if culturally appropriate) might be quite different.
    For instance, I am familiar with one language which has also been studied by graduate students in field methods classes. One example I remember is a sentence which had been given as an equivalent for English “I cut myself”. You just don’t say that literally in the language, you would have to specify the body part and say for instance “My hand was cut”, since you are unlikely to have cut your hand deliberately. So the consultant’s response to “I cut myself” literally meant something like “I myself cut my own self”, a sentence which reflected how bizarre the ordinary English sentence sounded to him. Even though he was bilingual, “I cut myself” would not have been part of his English competence.
    There are field method courses which attempt to get around such pitfalls, but there is a limit to what can be done just in the classroom with one consultant, especially one who has been extensively schooled in a dominant language and may not have mastered his own language to a fully adult level.

  20. John Emerson says:

    I like the prescriptivist field methods class Morgan describes. Linguistic field work has always been held back by the amateurish, uneducated nature of its informants. Now it can become a proper science.

  21. John Emerson says:

    I like the prescriptivist field methods class Morgan describes. Linguistic field work has always been held back by the amateurish, uneducated nature of its informants. Now it can become a proper science.

  22. Ultimately, the unsatisfactory human informant can be replaced by a robot programmed to produce just those forms which will lead the student towards the correct understanding of grammar.

  23. What marie-lucie said. I remember a LinguistList posting from a few years back where someone asked what the others thought was the biggest step forward made in linguistics in the past 50 years or so. The author of the post himself/herself suggested that it was the use of elicitation, especially in documenting syntax. Now I’m not an expert on fieldwork, but that seemed fishy to me back then and still does now, precisely because of situations like the one marie-lucie described.

  24. Ultimately, the unsatisfactory human informant can be replaced by a robot programmed to produce just those forms which will lead the student towards the correct understanding of grammar.
    And wherever such machine is invented, its name will inevitably include the word “Chomsky”.

  25. phonology, morphology and syntax
    Just this week I was drawing little pictures of tongues and teeth on the blackboard, complete with little drops of spit (amidst giggles) to show where the air was supposed to come out, in a prolonged attempt to get my students to differentiate between the pronunciation of third/turd and doing/dong. We also discussed the difference between bathroom and bathrobe, between counter and count, and between repeat and rewrite. Then we discussed how you have to say in English “the white hat” when in Spanish it’s “el sombrero blanco”, and why you have to say “What time is it?” instead of “What time is?” (¿Qué hora es?) as you would in Spanish. But I would never, ever include anything about phonology, morphology or syntax in a practical language class.
    Classroom linguistics must remain pure. Heaven forbid someone doing fieldwork in a language should actually try to learn that language; I should hope another mutual language, preferably English, should suffice. And heaven double forbid that any classroom techniques should find their way into armchair linguistics or instructional materials. If Allah wanted us to study colloquial Arabic, she wouldn’t have invented Modern Standard Arabic.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, you may not use the words phonology, morphology etc in your class, but what you are teaching bears on each of those aspects of language. And there is no incompatibility between the theoretical and practical aspects of learning or teaching a language, just a different focus.

  27. “and why you have to say “What time is it?” instead of “What time is?” (¿Qué hora es?)”
    Sorry for gatecrashing this, but this reminded me of a question I’ve been wondering about for a while. A young NZ-born Punjabi friend of mine, who has grown up bilingual but with a definite preference for English invariably asks “how much o’clock is it?” This is basically a literal translation of the equivalent phrase in Punjabi/Hindi/Urdu. Even though he is profoundly reluctant to speak Punjabi and only does so with those of his family who can’t speak English, this construction has come into his English. In the five years or so that I’ve known him, since before he started school, it’s also the only Indic construction that I’ve detected in his English. Apart from this one construction his English is very much plain vanilla standard NZ English. He doesn’t, for example, have the Indian English fondness for the “I am (verb)-ing” construction which both of of his India-born parents do, and which is probably the most strikingly obvious example of Indian English’s having imported constructions from Indic languages.
    My question is, does this sort of apparently random borrowing into an individual’s idiolect (his younger sister asks, “what’s the time?”) have a name?

  28. marie-luce: exactly.
    That was supposed to be reducio ad absurdum.
    stuart: I love digressions and I’m sure Mr. Hat does too. We’ll probably have to wait for a genuine classroom-baptized linguist to find a fancy name for it, but when was studying Spanish, we just called it “Spanglish”. Quite easy, really, just take the English word and add “o”.
    Arabish is a bit harder, but I managed to coin a funny one. As anyone might gather, the Arab culture is a bit conservative. Arab women don’t talk to the men and I don’t blame them. When Arab guys do finally manage to talk to a western woman they usually say something that would be quite offensive in our culture. Also there is no just hanging out with Arab guys like you can be comfortable and relaxed with American guys. I’m not complaining though, since Arab guys are attracted to older women–the over-40 expat women over there say thank Allah for the Arab men.
    So my word in Arabic is shabobs. The word for man is shahb; the plural of shab is shebab. But Arab guys are so unique, they need a separate word. I always link the word shebabs with mish quais (not good) so the Arab women will know I understand their ways enough not get them into what could be for them a compromising or dangerous situation.
    If you think about it, people take a lot from their first language in learning other languages. That’s why you can hear the accent someone speaks English with and tell where they’re from. It doesn’t seem surprising to me that someone might insert a format from their own language where there is a knowledge gap. After all, you understood exactly what he was saying, right?

  29. “After all, you understood exactly what he was saying, right?”
    Oh absolutely. It only caught my ear because I knew whence it came, and because it is the only such borrowing I’ve heard him make. It’s the random uniqueness of the borrowing that struck me. Hinglish is a much broader and more intricate code-switching kind of thing than this isolated boorwing, and that’s why I was wondering if this phenomenon had a name. Not that I want to be one of those “there must be a word for everything” people wenn I grow up.

  30. As far as I can figure out, filling in something from your own language is just a normal part of learning a language, whether it’s your first, second, or third. In Jordan we spoke English with a lot of basic Arabic words sprinkled in, since the English speakers all understood them.
    I encourage my students to make mistakes because they won’t improve if they don’t start somewhere. I ask them if my Spanish grammar is perfect and they don’t hesitate to say no, since they are always spelling things for me or correcting my endings. Then I ask if they can understand me and they say yes very emphatically. Your friend probably makes few mistakes because he has a successful learning style.
    I have to say I used to intentionally make mistakes if someone started talking too fast in Spanish, like reverse the noun and adjective order just to remind them of my skill level so they would slow down, but now I tend to rephrase what I think they said.

  31. “Your friend probably makes few mistakes because he has a successful learning style”
    That seems likely. He was born into a household in which English is commonly used, and at the ripe old age of eight and a half, has spent much time in English-only environments. That’s why I described him as bilingual with a strong preference for English.
    I like your comments about the role of mistakes in language learning. That’s what tell the friends I work with, too, and it’s how I try to learn myself.

  32. Nijma,
    I’m afraid that disconnect between the theoretical and practical aspects of language research exists only in your head. If you look at efforts of linguists like Claire Bowern (of Anggarrgoon) who work with small and endangered languages very much like Nzadi, you will see that their aim is not only to provide a linguistic description of the language, but also to create teaching materials for the community and outsiders as well. All of that is lot of hard work and you can’t expect the same from a bunch of undergraduate students.
    Heaven forbid someone doing fieldwork in a language should actually try to learn that language
    You can’t document and describe a language without actually learning it.
    But I would never, ever include anything about phonology, morphology or syntax in a practical language class.
    And how then would you teach your students how to make past tense or how to turn a statement into a question? To teach a language, you must understand what it’s made of. And while you may not use the professional lingo, you actually are talking about phonology, morphology and syntax in your class all the time.

  33. michael farris says:

    Coming here late, but some random observations.
    If the language you’re using in a field methods class is a minority and/or low status language in the informant’s own country there are liable to be gaps in what the informant can easily remember (especially if the prestige language of the informant’s culture is not the language you’re eliciting in).
    The best policy is never press too hard. No single lexical item is that crucial, especially in the beginning stages. At the first sign of difficulty from the informatnt move on (keeping it light, you don’t want to make those gaps a source of guilt). The key is to balance your interest in the language (which should be obvious and on display) with a ‘that’s okay’ attitude towards things they can’t dredge up from memory right away. What’s really important is what they can remember and supply. Typically a lot of the information that’s hard to remember at first will surface eventually.
    The US structuralist approach to linguistics fieldwork is still one the great accomplishments of linguistic history and when done well provides the best descriptive grammars for under-described languages. It’s a terrible shame that the methodology fell so far out of favor that the skills were lost to some degree. Bullying an informant with a dictionary is awful behavior and Morgan’s professor should be ashamed of himself.
    I’m sure what the students are producing is basically a grammatical sketch than a full reference grammar. There are limits on what even the best single informant can provide.
    I enjoy field methods so much I led a field methods group last year on Sundanese from West Java) and now two of those students are continuing with the language and their masters theses will be the first Polish publications on the language.

  34. The US structuralist approach to linguistics fieldwork is still one the great accomplishments of linguistic history and when done well provides the best descriptive grammars for under-described languages. It’s a terrible shame that the methodology fell so far out of favor that the skills were lost to some degree.
    Thank you; it’s nice to hear someone besides myself say that.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, Bulbul,
    I should add that you need to have a good grasp of the structure of a language (and of that of the learners) in order to produce good teaching materials, so that you have some idea of what will be simple or difficult for the learners, and you can establish a suitable progression in presenting the material (apart from taking into account the age of the students, the local conditions, etc).
    For instance, Spanish is much easier for a French or Italian person to learn (and vice-versa) than for English speakers: besides a fair amount of common vocabulary, speakers of Romance languages are not surprised to find that every noun has a gender, that adjectives agree with nouns, and that verbs come in a large variety of forms, all things which English speakers find very strange at first. The difficulties of English for a Romance language speaker are quite different. I remember when I first started to learn English (at age 10): I did not find it hard, but disconcerting, especially the fact that English verbs so often needed an extra word (get up, sit down, etc). The formation of negative sentences and of questions is particularly complex in English even though such sentences are part of everyday speech.
    A well-designed textbook or program does not mix everything up in the early stages, but spreads difficulties gradually. For frequently taught languages, there are dozens of learning aids to choose from, which for each given language follow basically the same suitable progression for that language (and if possible for the language of the expected learners), but when you have to prepare a program (which may include figuring out how best to write the language, as well as determining its structure) without any models for that particular language, you most certainly need a good background in linguistics. And you do need to learn the language and make it part of yourself.

  36. Other than many, many vocabulary items, I didn’t actually elicit all that much while out in the field. Instead, I would often ask people to explain stuff I heard, or try using their language and inspire helpful corrections.
    The best thing I did was to record some long narratives — on women’s work cooking food, on the process of making sago, on people’s personal experiences during WW2 (where they were on the front lines near Salamaua and Lae in PNG), a local creation myth — and then get other people to help me transcribe them while I was still in the field (using pencils and notebooks in those days). Every helper offered comments and criticism, some of it enlightening.
    It was only by recording, transcribing, and analyzing these long texts that I discovered the subtle differences between, say, na ‘this’ and nato ‘that’ to mark definite referents, or that when the bare question word and relative clause marker manu ‘which, where’ was appended to a noun it was best translated ‘the aforementioned’. That’s not the kind of stuff you can elicit (unless you already know the language, of course). And translation is way more fun than writing a grammatical description, anyway.
    BTW, a language documentation linguist recently converted those old cassette tapes (from 1976!) to WAV files (6GB), which I will convert to MP3s. (I’m so glad I didn’t use the reel-to-reel recorder my department sent with me! They’re more trouble to digitize — the equipment being rarer.)
    I’m now struggling to find a way to get this old fieldwork monkey off my back by producing something resembling a fulsome grammatical description of the language. I’ve produced plenty of articles, but nothing resembling a comprehensive grammar.

  37. The US structuralist approach to linguistics fieldwork
    What is this? It sounds like exactly what I need to prepare a program for myself to study this language (colloquial Arabic).
    In spite of being spoken by everyone in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, oh, and Palestine, as well as Detroit, California, and several Chicago neighborhoods, Levantine Arabic is indeed what Michel Farris calls a low status language. There is not even one newspaper printed in this language. In-country language classes focus on huge “vocabularies” lists and verb conjugations without context. Courses in the U.S. are either of the Modern Standard Arabic university level variety or mosque-based programs geared towards the Arabic alphabet and writing, as most of the potential students in Chicago speak Arabic at home already.
    I’m thinking about just taking an English ESL text with nice pictures and finding someone–maybe a succession of pre-pubescent schoolchildren? –and trying to elicit the conversational Arabic forms. (The women in the neighborhood are preoccupied with childcare and too fluent in English already to be interested in language trading, and the men, well, they’re shabobs)

  38. It seems that some people are still taking seriously the remarks I made about not teaching phonology, morphology or syntax in the classroom. I should be more careful about trying to be subtly tongue-in-cheek when so many of the readers don’t speak English as their first language. The examples of what I do in the classroom I chose particularly to try to illustrate that these elements are an integral part of any language class.
    Reducio ad absurdum is a rhetorical device where you carry an argument to its illogical conclusion. Apparently my little rhetorical device has worked, since so many people are making my argument for me more persuasively than I could have made them myself.

  39. Nijma,
    It seems that some people are still taking seriously the remarks I made about not teaching phonology, morphology or syntax in the classroom.
    Probably it’s just some of us, i.e. me, being too thick to pick up on the subtle irony :) I blame the headache.
    As for Levantine Arabic, I have some teaching materials I found quite helpful I can share with you. If you’d like, drop me a line.
    marie-lucie,
    so that you have some idea of what will be simple or difficult for the learners
    That’s a very important point. A friend of mine has recently started teaching Arabic (MSA) and he’s having a hard – but fascinating – time trying to explain the concept of roots to a bunch of teenagers most of whom have very little idea of how their own mother tongue is structured and of linguistic terminology.

  40. Nijma: “I should be more careful about trying to be subtly tongue-in-cheek when so many of the readers don’t speak English as their first language.”
    Even native English speakers trip each other up with attempts at “subtle tongue-in-cheek” online, thanks to the absence of the cues we normally use to help discern the intent, ugye?

  41. Bulbul, message sent, thanks, I would be very curious.
    Humor is probably genetic as well, some people are very literal and just don’t have an internal sense of the absurd. I sometimes wonder if anyone else here finds Kron and John Emerson as hysterical as I do.
    Arabic Roots! Those were never part of the structured classes I took and not dictionary work either. Another student who had taken MSA for four years told us about them. Can you believe, in order to look something up in an Arabic dictionary, you have to know the three letter (or sometimes four) root. Now why would you want to look up a word you already knew?

  42. michael farris says:

    Nijma, the key is to try to make it as easy as possible for the informant to give you good info (much easier said than done). Prompting of any sort is a bad idea.
    At the vocabulary stage, ask “how would you say X?” (or a similarly open ended question in your contact language – in Polish we decided on “Jak można powiedzieć X?” Later we found a target languge equivalent and used that. But trying that to soon is not a good idea.
    Don’t ask “how do you say X?” “what’s X?” “what’s the word for X?” etc as they all impose constraints that can work against good data collection.
    “how would you say X?” leaves open the maximum possibilities for unpredictable answers including the possibility that they wouldn’t say it (valuable info on its own).
    I’d strongly advise against using any kind of ESL materials as the status of English is liable to make them feel the low status of Levantine all the more acutely and they’ll immediately switch the highest status variety they can think of – fusha.
    My advice is to start by eliciting simple texts. Ask _them_ for pictures (most informants take this part seriously and choose something better than you would) and then ask them to explain them to you. Warning: what they see in the picture will be different from what you see, don’t ask about things they don’t volunteer. Also, with a collqouial the temptation to fall back into fusha will always be there and that’s not a problem (or rather it’s your problem, not theirs). It’s your responsibility to learn how to separate it out from colloquial without making them uncomfortable.
    Don’t start off trying to elicit conversation that’s much harder than simple texts which will get straight into the heart of descriptive language.
    I’m not sure if I’ll be doing a field methods work with a consultant but if I do, a likely candidate is a colloquial Arabic so I’m already thinking of possible problems with MSA influence and how to minimize them. For one thing until I find a reason not to, I’ll have the students _always_ refer to the name of the colloquial and not use the word ‘Arabic’ at all.

  43. some people are very literal and just don’t have an internal sense of the absurd.
    And some people just aren’t very clean, or artistic, or smart. Funny, you know, how people can just be different.

  44. jamessal,
    And some people just aren’t very clean, or artistic, or smart.
    Funny, you sound like my ex-girlfriend…
    michael,
    Also, with a collqouial the temptation to fall back into fusha will always be there
    Fall back? There will be a whole lot of interference, sure, but since it’s MSA that had to be learned, that’s not exactly falling back, is it?
    One think that would help to control the influence of MSA would be a good selection of subjects – one is more likely to employ colloquial when talking about one’s family or home town than in a conversation about politics.

  45. michael farris says:

    “but since it’s MSA that had to be learned, that’s not exactly falling back, is it?”
    I was thinking of falling back to the default idea that foreigners (if they’re interested in local language at all) should be taught MSA and not colloquial (something I’ve heard often from Arabic speakers.
    Also, I’m assuming that some degree of MSA is almost always lurking around ready to pop up in formal situations (again by definition contacts with foreigners are usually formal).
    I’m thinking (wrongly?) that the situation in Arab countries is often similar to the creole continuum where ‘pure’ MSA is restricted extremely formal situations and ‘pure’ dialect restricted to children and the very unschooled and that many/most people fall somewhere inbetween a lot of the time (a few months ago there was a speech by an Arab diplomat at my university and I was told it was ‘mostly’ MSA but with a lot of colloquial features).
    “one is more likely to employ colloquial when talking about one’s family or home town than in a conversation about politics”
    Pictures of family and home (including importnat life/family events) are usually the sort of pictures informants supply on their own.

  46. jamessal, you sound unhappy.
    I do think cleanliness is more a function of some combination of learning, resources, climate and motivation. On the other hand things like math and spelling abilities and probably athletic skill I consider innate. There are supposed to be some 7 different learning abilities that are innate and independent of each other, if you can believe the theories. I think dry humor is in this category. For instance my father: spelling-yes, math-yes, humor-yes. My brother: spelling-no, math-yes, humor-yes. My mother: spelling-yes, math-no, humor-no. For a while I thought humor was related to verbal skill, but a roommate who was very verbal and analytical turned out not to understand the standard Jordanian bumpkin joke.

  47. Levantine Arabic is indeed what Michel Farris calls a low status language.
    There’s an excellent Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic by Mark W. Cowell if you can find it (I got it at the French & Spanish Book Shop in Rockefeller Center in 1991, but it was published in 1964), and an equally excellent Dictionary of Syrian Arabic: English-Arabic by Karl Stowasser and Moukhtar Ani; Routledge has a short but useful Colloquial Arabic (Levantine).
    Humor is probably genetic as well, some people are very literal and just don’t have an internal sense of the absurd.
    It’s probably best not to assume that someone who doesn’t laugh at the same things, or in the same way, as you is lacking a sense of humor. I’m pretty sure all of us appreciate the humor of John Emerson and the King of Mars.

  48. jamessal, you sound unhappy.
    I actually am a little cranky, but I didn’t mean for that to come out it my comment. I just thought you said something slightly outrageous, and decided to poke fun of it. Hat seems to have taken a more sober and (as usual) effective course.

  49. the default idea that foreigners (if they’re interested in local language at all) should be taught MSA and not colloquial
    A very deeply ingrained idea. The local newspapers stopped taking ads with non-MSA words like yalla. When was the last time you saw a newspaper refuse advertising revenue? Maybe it’s connected with the whole we’re-all-Arab-brothers nationalistic thing, but as far as I know, that’s yesterday’s politics. I fought this battle more than once (if you get your master’s degree they told me, you have to do it in MSA) but maybe also partly because my tutor was Palestinian.

  50. It’s probably best not to assume that someone who doesn’t laugh at the same things, or in the same way, as you is lacking a sense of humor.
    I remember watching the Rocky and Bullwinkle show as a child with my brother and father, and noticing that while we were laughing at the pratfall type of visual jokes, Dad was not laughing in the same places we were. Of course, Rocky and Bullwinkle has an adult subtext and now we would probably all laugh in the same places. My mother would not laugh at all; I am certain of this. But do you suppose it’s all just a question of values and there is something different she considers funny? What a frightening thought, after all these years.

  51. Mr. Hat, thanks for the book recommendations, the Syrian ones I’ve never seen but they are still readily available if I ever get my Amazon account unlocked.
    jamessal, I totally understood your remark was directed at what I said and not at me–I just didn’t understand what exactly triggered the reaction. Upset I can deal with, crabby I can deal with, offended I can deal with. A father-knows-best reaction or a STFU is a bit more difficult as it sounds authoritarianistic and cuts off communication. Internet communication is a different beast though, and I try not to read between the lines too much.

  52. I just didn’t understand what exactly triggered the reaction.
    Well, if you really want to know, the some-people-just-don’t-have-a-sense-of-humor-comment was the first of three that made me raise an eyebrow. The first implied that anybody who didn’t follow your “tongue-in-cheek” subtlety wasn’t a native speaker (who calls their own writing subtle?), and in the next you explained reductio ad absurdum as though LH readers were your students (you’re big on politeness, and that ain’t polite). Maybe I’m just crazy, or cranky, or not reading well and totally misunderstanding you, but if you wanted to know there it is. I hope you won’t hold it against me. I’m sure we’ll get along in a different thread.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    Non-native speakers, especially those living among the natives, have been known to perceive shades of humor, but sometimes the writer is the only one who perceives the humor.
    About Arabic textbooks, Georgetown University Press has published a number of textbooks for varieties of Colloquial Arabic (eg Egyptian, Moroccan, Lebanese, Iraqi, and more, as well as MSA). I have not seen their catalogue for a while (I guess it must be online now) but I had considered buying myself a textbook, and was daunted by the variety. If I had known a potential tutor I would gladly have started with that person’s variety. Following a textbook makes it easier for the novice tutor and for the student as it gives a basic framework, which can be supplemented by more personal questions and activities.
    Learning languages with pictures: this is a very good idea, but picture sets made for ESL will portray typical Western clothing, locations and activities, which will not always be appropriate, and will miss relevant non-Western cultural items. Better collect pictures appropriate to the culture of the language (eg from magazines or picture books) since family pictures are likely to concentrate on the family on special occasions, not engaged in ordinary activities.

  54. marie-lucie says:

    Non-native speakers, especially those living among the natives, have been known to perceive shades of humor, but sometimes the writer is the only one who perceives the humor.
    About Arabic textbooks, Georgetown University Press has published a number of textbooks for varieties of Colloquial Arabic (eg Egyptian, Moroccan, Lebanese, Iraqi, and more, as well as MSA). I have not seen their catalogue for a while (I guess it must be online now) but I had considered buying myself a textbook, and was daunted by the variety. If I had known a potential tutor I would gladly have started with that person’s variety. Following a textbook makes it easier for the novice tutor and for the student as it gives a basic framework, which can be supplemented by more personal questions and activities.
    Learning languages with pictures: this is a very good idea, but picture sets made for ESL will portray typical Western clothing, locations and activities, which will not always be appropriate, and will miss relevant non-Western cultural items. Better collect pictures appropriate to the culture of the language (eg from magazines or picture books) since family pictures are likely to concentrate on the family on special occasions, not engaged in ordinary activities.

  55. Jamessal, When people didn’t get what I said, I figured maybe it was a language barrier. But I don’t know what everyone speaks, so maybe not. And after I explained it again, they still didn’t understand. Why do YOU think it wasn’t understood? When there is so much misunderstanding, isn’t it up to me to try to figure out why and offer clarification?
    Maybe it’s just that people don’t do close reading of threads. I figure today alone I have gone through close to 3000 comments on different blogs–although the comments here I tend to read more closely. Or maybe they weren’t responding to my comment as much as riffing off the general theme of the thread.
    Anyhow, everyone picked up on what I was trying to say about the relationship between language theory and practice. The idea of this field work I find exciting not just for the pure abstract knowledge but for how the techniques might help unlock a language I enjoy.

  56. marie-luce, here is the Georgetown University Press list:
    http://press.georgetown.edu/products.html?&cat=7
    The Brustad listed first is the latest MSA.
    What variety of Arabic you study depends on why you want to learn it. The most obvious is Palestinian. Because of the misfortunes of this country, their people have spread out over the world and this is the variety you will be most likely to come in contact with, whether in Amman or Chicago.
    Morroco is so different that Jordanians cannot understand their form of Arabic.
    Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon have very similar language.
    Egyptian is in a category by itself, and I found the Egyptians always telling me to speak English, (except for the bedouins, who make better tea anyhow and I seem to be able to understand them better).
    The emirates are usually classified as a separate Arabic group. A friend of mine from Jordan went there to teach, but I don’t know how different their language is.
    Personally I would not want to study Moroccan, Egyptian or the emirate form of Arabic unless I was planning to travel there.
    Some of the books in the list use some form of alliteration to teach Arabic. So you learn their special symbols for the letters–and there is no standard format for that–instead of actually learning the Arabic alphabet. If you’re going to study the language, you should study all of it, not just the sounds. I really feel strongly about learning the writing system.
    There is a book for Saudi Arabic produced by the state department I tried to use for tutoring once before it got borrowed permanently–it’s okay if you can get used to saying “telata” instead of “thelatha” for the number 3, and it uses the Arabic characters, but no pictures, but the dialogs are not good for an inexperienced tutor.
    I think part of what I am trying to overcome is the changes in language learning that come with aging. When I was 16 I could soak it up and retain it, but it’s much more difficult now. Perhaps I need a different strategy.
    Does anyone have any experience/opinions about the Pimsleur materials?

  57. Michael Farris says:

    “Better collect pictures … from magazines or picture books) since family pictures are likely to concentrate on the family on special occasions, not engaged in ordinary activities.”
    That’s partly true, on the other hand, family pictures are more liable to engage the informant emotionally so that they’re more interested in _what_ they’re saying than _how_ they’re saying it.
    This can be important since interference from high prestige language varieties is liable to be strongest in the beginning (likely a very new process for the consultant). Also looking at other people stresses the teaching impersonal aspect of the encounter and the temptation to switch to MSA will be higher. Once the consultant is more comfortable in giving information in the colloquial less personal topics can be approached.

  58. Why do YOU think it wasn’t understood?
    A combination of fast reading and your being a little too ambitious with your comment, trying to write a paragraph-long joke on phonology, morphology and syntax. Nobody’s fault really, but when people mistake my meaning in a blog thread, I find it’s best to assume that I wasn’t clear, not that others lack familiarity with the language.
    Does anyone have any experience/opinions about the Pimsleur materials?
    I’ve got the French lesson 16 cd in car right now; it’s been there about four months. I liked it, and I do mean to get back to it. My only complaint is that I wish it gave more instructions about accent; I’m always scared that I’m practicing something, alone in my car, that will prove laughably strange whenever I work up the courage to speak in public. Obviously, though, I haven’t been much of a student, so my criticisms probably aren’t worth very much.

  59. When there is so much misunderstanding, isn’t it up to me to try to figure out why and offer clarification?
    Figure out why, yes. Offer clarification? To yourself, sure, but why to the rest of us? If I’m not being understood, I figure I must be doing something wrong and I try to express myself differently. You seem to be assuming something is wrong with your audience. Now, if you want to think that someone you’re interacting with is a troll or has no sense of humor, that’s your right, but to say so is almost always a bad idea. A word to the wise.
    Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon have very similar language.
    One of those things is not like the others. Yemeni Arabic is not part of the Levantine dialect area; it has its own unique form of the language. See the Wikipedia article for details. Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian Arabic (grouped together as Maghrebi) indeed have a very distinct form of the language that is harder than most for outsiders to understand. Egyptian is the dialect with most prestige thanks to Egypt’s dominance in the fields of music and movies.
    it’s okay if you can get used to saying “telata” instead of “thelatha” for the number 3
    I don’t understand this. The fricative “th” is preserved only in a few, very conservative, dialects like Iraqi and Yemeni. Levantine Arabic has /tlaate/ for ‘three.’

  60. michael farris says:

    “When people didn’t get what I said, I figured maybe it was a language barrier”
    I think this might be ESL teacher behavior inadvertently slipping over into areas where’s it not optimal. Your queries seemed straight out of the classroom (trying to diagnose the hole in the reader’s knowledge that led to misunderstanding).
    As useful as that is in the classroom, on this kind of online forum there’s a high probability that people will find it condescending and/or irksome.
    The tendency for teachers to adopt teacher behavior outside the classroom is ever present (and I’ve been guilty of it myself).

  61. SnowLeopard says:

    Nijma was asking about Pimsleur…
    I love Pimsleur. Being a bit of a glutton, and having peculiar habits of time/project management, I’m at various points in their Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, Farsi, Cantonese, and Arabic programs and tend to hit an average of one lesson in each series every week. (They make for great multitasking with household chores like ironing. I typically have to repeat each lesson a few times before moving on to the next, and try to review regularly.) I recently switched over from Egyptian Arabic I (which I had completed) to Eastern Arabic I (based on the Damascus dialect) because Eastern Arabic II is already out and Eastern Arabic III is due out next spring. Pimsleur’s renditions of Eastern Arabic and Egyptian Arabic are much more similar to each other than are, say, Mandarin and Cantonese, but have enough differences in vocabulary, verb forms, pronunciation, and word order that the transition has been challenging.
    Pimsleur tends to focus on grammatical structures rather than vocabulary, and you learn just enough vocabulary to get comfortable building new sentences on the spot. So I find it to be an effective prelude to the dialogues used in a lot of books, where you learn a lot of vocabulary and get explicit grammatical instruction but don’t get much listening to increasingly complex dialogue, or engaging in spontaneous sentence-building. I like the fact that it’s all audio, because I’m naturally a visual learner and tend to get tongue-tied when put on the spot, and this forces me to make up and spit out sentences quickly, right or wrong. Also, I like the fact that all Pimsleur courses follow roughly the same order of instruction, so you’re guaranteed to cover greetings, ordering food/drink, asking for the bill, telling time, asking for directions, etc. fairly early on. My main complaint is that although the sound quality is always very good, I sometimes have trouble (probably for idiosyncratic reasons, and depending on the language) identifying the consonants in new vocabulary. The Pimsleur approach of “repeat after the speaker, part by part” is no guidance when confronting Korean consonants for the first time. My wife very gently pointed out to me at one point that I was making a “T” sound when, to her ear, all the speakers on the recording were saying “S”. That said, I completed Korean I before a business trip last year and despite somehow forgetting 80% of what I had learned between the two airports, I felt very comfortable asking for directions and ordering food in downtown Seoul. The goodwill I earned from shopkeepers and passer-by by obviously trying very hard made up for some mistakes, I’m sure.

  62. maybe it was a language barrier
    Why would anyone assume that a language barrier is always on the part of the listener? Why can’t it be just, you know, a barrier? If you don’t believe me go down to whatever department where they train ELS instructors and ask whether they recommend using comic strips as realia. Or try to explain the comics at majoob DOT com. And invoking the t-word?–sheesh. My little bookshelf guardian with the pointy ears is upset–says he isn’t being appreciated enough.

  63. language hat’s Arabic remarks
    Yemeni Arabic is not part of the Levantine dialect area
    That’s interesting. My experience with Yemenis isn’t that extensive but I never picked up on that. Egyptians are real easy to spot; they always ask “min fin intee” instead of “min wen intee” when they want to know your nationality, and they live on Gebel Ashrafiah, not Jebel Ashrafeeyah (jebel ﺟﺒﻞ meaning hill–like Rome, Amman is built on seven hills). My information about Morocco comes from a Jordanian Christian who lived there several years.
    Jordanians listen to a lot of Egyptians like Um Kalthoom or Ehab, but there are a number of Lebanese musicians too, like Fairuz.
    Levantine Arabic has /tlaate/ for ‘three.’
    I have never heard this pronunciation, I only saw it in a book. I lived in Amman, the Madaba area (Bene Sakr and other tribes), and the Jerash area (Bene Hassan tribe), both within an hour of Amman by bus. My tutor was Palestinian; the group that hung out together included Bene Hassan and others I don’t know who were English teachers, had at least a BA education level and did Arabic tutoring on the side.

  64. Pimsleur
    Thanks for the firsthand information SnowLeopard, you make it sound interesting. I can’t seem to learn without a pen in my hand, so maybe it’s time to get away from my comfort zone and check for Pimsleur in the library.
    Like jamessal I’ve had language tapes languish in the car. I’m starting to see a pattern here.

  65. /tlaate/
    I’m now listening to a Syrian voice saying Hat’s /tlaate/ instead of “thelatha” for the number 3 (thx, b). And thirty is tlaatain instead of the theletheen I’m used to. A lot of other things I can’t quite put my finger on are different too. I understand the speaker, sure, but can the language really be so different in areas that are only an hour away from each other by cab? I suppose they have been politically isolated from each other since the days of King Abdullah I.
    Another dialect (?) curiosity:
    ﻛﻴﻒ ﺣﺎﻟﻚ ‘kafe hallek’ (How are you?) I have heard pronounced ‘chafe hallech’. This seems to be at the same time a rural accent and teen slang (if that can be), and associated with the north of Jordan. Then there’s ‘schlornick’ based on ﻟﻮﻥ ‘color’ (How’s your color?, How are you?) that I’ve been told is Iraqi, but I suspect it’s more widespread or maybe urban and some Iraqis just picked it up.

  66. A.J.P. Crown says:

    A hallik is a pimp, in Norwegian

  67. I have heard pronounced ‘chafe hallech’.
    Yep, the k > ch palatalization is common in northern Jordan, most of Iraq, the Gulf and parts of Saudi Arabia. It’s social status differs – what is standard in Iraq is rural in Jordan.
    شلونك is usually identified as Iraqi, but it’s also often heard in northern Syria, some parts of Jordan and the Gulf. Remember, it’s a continuum with fluid borders, not a bunch of discrete areas with discrete dialects.
    can the language really be so different in areas that are only an hour away from each other by cab
    Praise the Lord, yes. Another village, another dialect is what we call it where I come from. And sometimes you don’t even need to take a cab, just walk a few blocks.

  68. And bear in mind that most Bedouins do not speak Levantine Arabic, which is basically urban.

  69. A hallik is a pimp, in Norwegian
    ‘el-Hahl’ is health, -ek is masculine possessive ending and -ick is feminine possessive, although I pronounce them both identically with a schwa. So ‘kafe halleck’ is an inquiry into one’s health.
    I don’t know a word for pimp in Arabic; half the men act like they’re members of the junior anti-sex league ready to kill their sisters for talking on the telephone and the other half are quite improper indeed (if that’s not an oxymoron), but only on behalf of themselves.
    I can’t hear any speech difference between the urban Palestinians, the rural refugee camp Palestinians, the bedu in the south like the B’dul and the Howeitat tribe that ranges into Saudi Arabia or the felahin in the north two blocks away from Syria. I CAN hear a speech difference between South Dakota and Wisconsin.
    The Areesh bedouins in Egypt I can understand better than other Egyptians, but they sound somehow different from Jordanians. Many times I have had the experience of not understanding individual words but knowing what was being said, or knowing when I was being given an incorrect translation.

  70. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Another village, another dialect is what we call it where I come from. And sometimes you don’t even need to take a cab, just walk a few blocks.
    In Manhattan, in the nineteen-eighties, when I walked home from work, whatever clothes I had on I stuck out: ten blocks of not blue-suited enough for Wall St, twenty of not enough black for SoHo and Tribeca, and a final five of not gay enough for the West Village. I felt like putting a sign on my head saying Don’t be afraid, I’m just an anthropologist.

  71. This Rosetta Project divides Arabic into separate languages based on political divisions and to some extent religion. Syria’s spoken language they call “Arabic, North Levantine Spoken language” and the Jordanian flavor is “Arabic, South Levantine Spoken language“. The Palestinian spoken language falls into the second group.

  72. When I take a bus to work I hear standard English in my own neighborhood (even though it’s mixed Hispanic/Arab/African American/Polish/Swedish), further north in the commercial districts I hear all Spanish, and when the high school kids get on the bus it’s–is Ebonics a language?–and half of them are wearing (or not wearing) those trousers that show the underwear. These different language patterns are from waves of immigration though, and not from a single common language diverging over time.

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