19 de junio de 2012

One grammar to rule (out) them all

Professor Allon J. Uhlmann, about whom I have spoken here before, has been so kind as to point out to me a new paper of his, entitled "Arabs and Arabic Grammar Instruction in Israeli Universities: Alterity, Alienation and Dislocation" (Middle East Critique, 21:1, 2012, p. 101-116), which deals with Arabic grammar classes at Israeli universities as (p. 101):
[...] Sites of an effective cultural/sectarian clash that presents itself as a profound underperformance of Arab undergraduate students in university Arabic grammar. These students do poorly both in absolute terms and in comparison with their Jewish counterparts. Yet, Arab university students are immeasurably more proficient in Arabic than their Jewish peers.
And which I strongly recommend: although some of the issues Uhlmann addresses may only pertain to the Israeli setting, I guess many Spanish readers with a background in Arabic Studies will recall the misadventures of some Arab classmates in their attempt to fit in. I still remember an Iraqi teacher of mine, who had made his try, revealing to me and some other students how he was given a rather low grade in a first-year reading-aloud exam (where I myself, as a beginner, got an A later on), or a Libyan fellow who could not speak Spanish, the language of instruction, very well, but dared not switch to Arabic, certain as he was that he will not be understood by many of the faculty. Years later, in the course of a conference at SOAS where I delivered a paper about the teaching and learning of Arabic as a foreign language in Spanish universities, Professor Sabry Hafez (صبري حافظ) would remark how puzzled he was too when, as a student in the UK, he realized that one of his professors had started avoiding him at all costs, seemingly for fear of being addressed in Arabic (which is something I have witnessed myself now and then).

Moreover, Uhlmann's remarks on Westernized (as opposed to Arab/native) grammar of Arabic and its alienating effects on Arab students will remind some of us too of the syllabi for the competitive examinations to recruit Arabic teachers for the Spanish state-run language schools. These official syllabi are purportedly set by a committee of university professors, then published in the Official State Gazette; yet far from being motivated by the state of the art of teaching Arabic as a foreign language, they are much like the tables of contents that one can expect in traditional European grammars of Arabic, with their Latin-inspired terms that make no sense at all to the average Arabic-speaking candidate. Much as these syllabi have been disapproved by sensitized colleagues in recent years, and some native terminology has been haphazardly added in transliteration, they still stand as a proof of the "dominant position", as Uhlmann describes it (p. 115), accorded to the Western system. Furthermore, if we consider that these examinations have, legally, to be carried out in the foreign language, would it not be simpler to issue these syllabi thoroughly in Arabic? Why should candidates, both native and non-native, be forced to translate the contents from Spanish into the language of the exam?

Strange as it may sound, I remember being told, while at university in the early 90's and after demanding of our teachers that courses be taught in Arabic, that Arabs themselves were not used to teach Arabic grammar in Arabic... for lack of proper terminology! No wonder, perhaps, that a fellow classmate and I were also warned that, in assuming that one native assistant at least was needed to help us improve our oral skills, we students were somehow "racist"... against non-native Arabic teachers!

In this same vein, there is the prejudice that Arabs themselves do not master their own language, which, on the one hand, clearly overlooks the fact, among many others, that normative (classical, modern standard, literary) Arabic is more of a second language than the formal register of their mother tongue; and which, on the other hand, merely attempts to justify its adherents' own lack of competence in such an unlearnable and unmasterable language. Whether this prejudice might be fuelled by some Arab (even Arab-heritage) students' poor grasp of the minutiae and niceties of traditional Arabic grammar or not seems rather irrelevant to me, as long as these students usually are not only "immeasurably more proficient in Arabic" than their Spanish peers, as in the Israeli case and as expected, but also than most of their non-native teachers. Yet some picky colleagues, trained in the grammar-translation method and whose fluency in any kind of Arabic seems far below any professional standard, still take a morbid delight in pointing out every single error a native speaker makes (from a narrow prescriptive view).

Connected with this, there is the cliché, touted by national and foreign scholars alike, that "Arabic is a mathematical language", save for its oral form:
Arabic is a language with a highly regular grammatical structure; its skeleton components are of a nearly mathematical simplicity, and barely worn out by use. Its writing, shorthand and short, can be learned in few hours; yet… the trouble with this language is the trouble with the talk of the children who are just starting to babble: not a soul understands them, except their mothers!
---Julián Ribera, Disertaciones y opúsculos, II, 1928, 466. (See the original quote here and note the comparison of native speakers with babbling children in a colonialist context.)

Which clearly testifies to the Westernized approach that, in Uhlmann's words, can be "fundamentally [...] described as algebraic" (p. 112).

As in previous publications, Uhlmann's depiction of Arabic instruction in Israel, when compared with this same field in Spain, reveals a core of shared features which can be easily traced to a common Orientalist tradition. What is striking is how persistent and pervading this legacy can be, even in circumstances where it proves self-defeating in practical terms (e.g. for the teaching of Arabic as a foreign —and a living— language). While "the institutional structure of Israeli education [...] restricts Arabs' control over their own grammatical destiny" (p. 115), in a sense it also keeps Jewish students from undergoing Arab Arabic grammar instruction, thus restricting, if I may be allowed the expression, their grammatical future as well.

(Thank you, Allon, and please forgive my English.)

2 comentarios :

Pablo dijo...

Nunca me había parado a pensar en la traducción al inglés de "BOE". :p

Abu Ilyás dijo...

Well, that would be the official translation according to the English section of the Gazette site (which, funny enough, seems rather pointless, as English content is nowhere provided).

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