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jiaoshou

comparing the study of Chinese and Arabic

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jiaoshou

I'm a long time student of Arabic (going on 11 years now) and I live in the Middle East. I have been studying Mandarin for about 9 months now and plan on coming to China within a year for some language courses.

I am curious about comparing the experience of people who have learned Arabic very well vs. those who have learned Chinese and its regional variants very well. Or simply even those who are learning both at the same time.

I have a number of questions. If anyone has some reflections on any of them I would love to read your thoughts.

-Which one did you learn first? was it chance? choice?

-I know فصحى as well as several Arabic dialects (Levantine, Tunisian, as well as some Algerian and Egyptian). Can anyone out there compare the experience of learning MSA and its dialects to that of Mandarin and regional languages, besides the obvious comment of a standard shared written language. Is it possible to learn both Mandarin and a regional language simultaneously and even mix them in speech as a foreigner as it is possible with Arabic?

-What are the best ways to take the standard language that you learn and "pepper" it quickly with regionalisms to make it more palatable to native speakers?

-For those of you who have learned both, which one did you find easier to reach proficiency in? I ask this because I read the frustrations of people getting Chinese actually to speak Chinese with them and I felt transported back to my early days in metropolitan environments of Beirut or Algiers or Tunis or Cairo.

-Besides the obvious problem of characters versus an alphabet, which language did you gain a reading knowledge of more quickly (for novels, media, etc)?

-Did anyone sense a difference at the social level of acceptance (or even excitement) either by Chinese people or Arabs about learning their language?

-I noticed that both changing region and class of my interlocutors (away from big Mediterranean coastal cities or from bilingually educated people) made it very easy to progress in Arabic.

-As a long time learner of Arabic I am struck by what seems like an explosion of materials for studying Chinese at all levels, from beginning to very advanced, which seems in stark contrast with Arabic for which the beginning to the intermediate learners are well served and the more advanced students are left to fend for themselves. Is my impression right?

-I think that with Arabic a good solid 2 years of MSA is important before travelling abroad to study, lest you end up in a foreigner ghetto. What do you think the ideal "entry" level for Chinese is? Hours of instruction? Number of words?

I'll stop there, but I have many more questions and I am fascinated to hear your experiences.

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atitarev

Hi Jiaoshou,

I have experience learning Japanese, Chinese and Arabic, in this order. I am no expert in either but I still want to share.

Like yourself, I am struck by the amount of material for learning Mandarin. Besides, the software availability is quite different, which makes learning or at least using Chinese language much easier than Arabic.

The availability of the material makes a huge difference.

1. There is a great difference between الفصحى "(al-)Fuṣ-ḥā"on one hand and 普通话/国语/华语 on the other. The Modern Standard or Classical Arabic (MSA, CA) is no-one's native language but Standard Mandarin (Putonghua, Guoyu or Huayu) is at least, a model language for many Chinese and you are encouraged to learn and use this version not only at the beginning of your Chinese studies. In my opinion, you don't need to pepper your Mandarin with regionalisms. Some Chinese "dialects" are almost completely different languages (as far as the sounding goes) form Mandarin, no good idea to mix Mandarin and Cantonese together, you speak either one or the other. Foreigners are almost expected to speak Mandarin, not a dialect.

Basically, even a shopping list is normally written in standard Mandarin, not a regionalect, so written standard is omnipresent in China.

Unlike MSA in any given Arab country, standard Mandarin is promoted and is also used as a spoken language in mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore and unlike MSA is used in entertainment - movies, songs, games. An important exception is Cantonese, which is a standard spoken variety in Hong Kong and Macao. The formal written standard is still Mandarin, even in HK/Macao, although.

You can easily find people to practice a more or less standard Mandarin, it's not only the language of the educated people on TV (like "al-Fuṣ-ḥā"). You can also find material for different levels, although, it's always harder for more advanced levels because your level may not match exactly the material provided.

Diglossia exists in China but unlike the Arab world it is limited to non-Mandarin areas or areas with a remote variety of Mandarin.

2. I find Chinese people are quite friendly and welcoming, if you learn/use their language but they often tend to switch to English, if they know it and if you fail to convince them that you can communicate in Chinese.

3. You will see from this forum that many learners prefer North-East of China or other places where the local dialect is closer to standard Mandarin (PRC variety 普通话), in Taiwan it's less of an issue, standard Mandarin is spoken almost everywhere (Taiwan variety 国语).

4. Although I only spend about 1.5 years part-time in Arabic, I can tell that reading short-stories in Chinese is easier than in Arabic. Hanzi are both an obstacle (you need to know the meaning and the pronunciation) and a blessing, it helps to get the meaning of the word. Word boundaries is another obstacle, less serious.

As for the difficulty of both Arabic and Chinese, thinking twice, these 2 completely different languages are comparable in difficulty (in their own way) for a Western learner IMHO, perhaps if Arabic were more standardised and if the learning material were better and clearer than it would require a little less time than Chinese. Actually, producing first correct sentences in Mandarin, when you learn pronunciation and some words will take much less time as grammar is a breeze (no need to figure out which root patterns to use ever!).

--

EDIT:

I had to finish the post too early. Let me welcome you to the forum. :) I am not sure I will continue with Arabic now, I am learning Chinese and Japanese, which takes a lot of time.

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jiaoshou

Thanks a million for your response.

The comments about the difference between MSA (as a standard backing up educated speech in Arab countries) and the Mandarin which is promoted as a spoken language in many parts of China is a useful one. The comparison of the two languages is of course a personal interest informed by recent personal experience. But I think it will be of interest to people also since the two languages are often flaunted (by Westerners) as being the world's two hardest languages whether that is right or not.

I would like to push the question a little further on what you said about MSA being "no one's native language". MSA is of course a standard which is more or less agreed upon for the media, for the written press and it to some extent derives from the historical roots of Arabic, which sometimes match the language of the Qur'an and other times not. This being said, many people would actually claim that their regional variants are "closer" to standard Arabic than others' regionalisms, etc. MSA is not only educated or textually-based speech, but it is thought about historically. Some Arabs will go so far as to say the alphabet and the lexical pool of MSA derives from certain areas of the Arab world. So alot about the claims about MSA and native language depend on identity positions taken about the language.

There are some contexts where it is perfectly acceptable to speak MSA (maybe with some slight regionalisms or syntactically simplification), others where there will be people who try, but ultimately fail, to speak BACK to you in that language, and even others where people will stare at you with a wierd look (and depending on whether they think you are a foreigner and their language skills, might just switch to a foreign language). As a foreigner, Arabs are used to you speaking formal Arabic. The exception is someone who knows a dialect very well (if you do, you usually are taken for a diasporic Arab who is back visiting).

On the other hand, strangely enough, a foreigner who has a strong influence of regional language like myself, when s/he speaks MSA in a far away region, has some kind of "authenticity" about the way he speaks. It's almost like the pan-Arab TV programs where Arabs don't use a foreign language to ommunicate with each other, but use what they know of each others dialects to meet each other half-way in order to communicate.

Question #1: How do Mandarin or Cantonese speakers communicate with each other? Do they reach a middle ground of common words? change their pronunication? all switch to Mandarin? I ask the question because the way it happens in Arabic has replaced the "academic purity model" in my mind and has become a model for me dealing with the wide variety of speakers one can encounter. Perhaps this is inappropriate for the foreign speaker of Mandarin.

I can completely understand your point about foreigners studying Mandarin preferring to go to NE China to study. It's a bit like foreigners loving to study Arabic in Syria (or Iraq once upon a time). You go to the cradle of the dialect-turned-standard. From what I have read

about China, the places that I am attracted to visit are not necessarily in the northeast. I was thinking about my Chinese studies a bit like my Arabic studies, which is that you learn one language in the classroom and outside you will hear all different kinds of variants, but you will be understood using classroom talk and can negotiate what you want. Is that appropriate for China? When I go to Algeria or rural Egypt or eastern Syria, they still get me and communicate with me. So regional issues didn't really phase me. I also know what a shock coming to a new place for the first time really is.

Question #2: If one were not going to go to NE China, for an advanced beginner (NPCR volume 3, let's say), where would it be a real problem studying in terms of being able to negotiate spoken Chinese of any kind? I will not be going to a Cantonese speaking region.

I, like you, have felt that from what I have seen, it is much easier to learn to begin to read in Chinese than in Arabic. Arabic writing depends on so many archaic constructions, rhetorical flourishs and historical references that impede an advanced intermediate from pushing through to advanced or superior level. This could be also because the promotion of Chinese as a foreign language has led to a consciousness of level and producing things to read at all levels, or a simplification from more classical models of language.

There is an obsession also with the Arabic language as you say with its grammar. And it is a complex one. It is not one that you must know in order to communicate correctly and clearly with regular people, but as soon as you pass to a high level it is almost expected of you that you grasp it or at least conceptualize this recondite knowledge. Part of this is association with Qur'anic Arabic or at least classical poetry. And when I am talking about classical, it can mean Abbasid or Andalusian, 9, 10, 11th century.

Question #3: Are there a body of literary or classical texts in Mandarin which are conceived of as the "starting point" or a "reference point" for the language. What I mean are poems or novels, political or religious treatises which people still read today or studied and memorized in school which permeate their spoken or written language.

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skylee
Question #3: Are there a body of literary or classical texts in Mandarin which are conceived of as the "starting point" or a "reference point" for the language. What I mean are poems or novels, political or religious treatises which people still read today or studied and memorized in school which permeate their spoken or written language.

Yes. Plenty. Examples include the Book of Odes (very old), the Analects (5th century BC), Records of the Grand Historian (1st century BC), Tang Dynasty Poetry (6th -10th century), Song Dynasty Poetry (10th-13th century) and the four great novels (14th to 18th century AD).

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Quest

You can choose any major city to stay in in China. There will be plenty of opportunities to hear standard Mandarin (there will be some accentual differences in different cities) nowadays everywhere. Speaking only Mandarin is totally fine across China. Mixing dialects can happen in dialectic areas, where people are expected to know at least Mandarin and the local dialect. For example, in Taiwan, people switch between Mandarin and Minnan/Taiwanese quite often. In Guangzhou, where I attended school, I used Mandarin to communicate with non Cantonese speakers, but would insert some Cantonese slang words if I knew the other person could understand both.

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renzhe
Question #1: How do Mandarin or Cantonese speakers communicate with each other?

Either both of them speak Mandarin or both of them speak Cantonese, or both of them speak English.

Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually incomprehensible. Wu dialects (such as Shanghainese) and some others are even worse. In terms of speaking and listening, you really should think of them as different languages. A Beijinger coming to Shanghai wouldn't understand a single word of what the locals are saying in their own dialect.

However, Mandarin (at least the putonghua standardised version of it) is the official language in China and, theoretically, everyone speaks it. Even in Cantonese regions in the mainland, people will speak it (as a second language). In Shanghai, people will speak it, and this means virtually everyone you meet. They will probably speak a dialect with their family at home, but the overwhelming majority of people will speak Mandarin to you if you speak Mandarin to them. I've been through half of China and everyone spoke Mandarin with no problem. This includes cities like Shanghai and Wuxi, whose dialects are nothing like Mandarin whatsoever.

Hong Kong and Macau are obviously exceptions here, because Mandarin is not standard there.

Question #2: If one were not going to go to NE China, for an advanced beginner (NPCR volume 3, let's say), where would it be a real problem studying in terms of being able to negotiate spoken Chinese of any kind? I will not be going to a Cantonese speaking region.

You will be able to speak Mandarin pretty much anywhere in China. Places like Lhasa or Ürümqi will obviously be a bit more difficult, because they are majority non-Chinese, but they are obviously a special case.

In terms of studying Chinese language (in a course), everyone will teach you standard putonghua, regardless of the city and their local dialect.

The only issue you might have is the accent that people will have when speaking standard putonghua Mandarin to you. People in the north-east will speak very closely to what you hear on the NPCR CDs, because that is how they speak. People in Beijing speak quite properly, but often not very clearly. In the Shanghainese and Cantonese areas, they will often mix -n with -ng, and "sh" and "s", "ch" and "c" and similar. So it may be a bit more difficult to understand what they are saying even if they speak Mandarin to you.

So, IMHO, anywhere you go will be fine, as long as they have good teachers. The reason why people are recommending the north-east is because you are less likely to pick up strange accents in the process. Think of learning English in Canada, and deciding to do it in Montreal. Sure, most people will speak English, and sure, you will learn proper English, but there is a danger that you'll end up speaking with a strong French accent :wink:

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rezaf

I am Iranian and we study Arabic at school and I can tell you that in spite of all the similarities between Farsi and Arabic, Arabic is a nightmare for Iranian students. Although the books we used were the worst in the world, I tried to learn some Arabic. The result is very interesting; I can understand movies and even the news,. I can also read easy novels but I can't speak Arabic at all. When I lived in Dubai I tried to communicate with Arabs but my sentences made them laugh :lol: . I think that regardless of what method you study Arabic grammar is a nightmare :twisted: but in Chinese apart from hanzi, there is really nothing that difficult. These two languages are not comparable in difficulty.

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atitarev

That's because the perception of the standard Arabic is different with the perception of the standard Chinese. You need to know local dialects to communicate in Dubai, Cairo or Rabat. No one will laugh if you speak Mandarin, if they understand you. Perhaps it's easier to compare with Tagalog in the Philippines, Hindi in India and Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesia rather than standard Arabic in the Arab world.

...in Chinese apart from hanzi, there is really nothing that difficult. These two languages are not comparable in difficulty.

I find developing listening comprehension is much harder in Chinese as well. I may not recognise the words I know. In Arabic, I recognise them much easier - apart from a few difficult sounds, the words in Arabic are longer and are easier to distinguish.

Skylee, Jiaoshou is referring to Quran as the starting point to learn Standard Arabic to make a comparison. I agree with your list but it's worth saying that modern standard Mandarin 白话 is much simpler than 文言. Arabic hasn't gone through a similar stage. Spoken language(s) have evolved on their own without a developed written form but classical Arabic has remained unchanged and is considered very stilted, not used in speech, perhaps it can be compared to 文言.

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atitarev

More info about comparing the difficulty of Arabic vs Chinese.

According to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, both Chinese and Arabic require 1,320 academic hours (for an American student) to become fully functional ("level-2 speaking proficiency" in their terms). Japanese and Korean are in the same group. It's double the amount needed for Russian, Hebrew, Turkish, Thai, Vietnamese and other languages known as "difficult" and triple the the time needed for "easy" languages, including Swahili.

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~wbaxter/howhard.html

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jiaoshou

One of the secrets that you learn in the end of 1st year Arabic is that all words are derived from each other, a characteristic of the Semitic languages. So by knowing the root consonants in a word and the regular patterns they are pressed into, you can guess the meanings of words. Now... in reality this is easier said than done. It gets easier after you do it a couple thousand times, but it works according to very predictable rules. Modern textbooks are good at organizing new lexical growth according to what students know already. (i.e. the vocabulary lists in Al-Kitaab vols 2 and 3).

The analogy with Arabic is that Chinese students are always told (correct me if I am wrong) that they will begin to guess the meaning of single characters from their knowledge of other characters because certain component parts are included in more complex characters. (I always understood the debate about traditional vs. simplified characters this way at least, that simplified ones take away a lot of linguistic meaning.) After how many characters would you say that this kicks in? From what I have seen so far, it is by no means a regular predictable phenomenon as in the Arabic roots. Sometimes you get clues, but not reliable ones.

I'd like to go back to something Atitarev said above:

I find developing listening comprehension is much harder in Chinese as well. I may not recognise the words I know. In Arabic, I recognise them much easier - apart from a few difficult sounds, the words in Arabic are longer and are easier to distinguish.

The obvious point to make is that Arabic has those derived words, but they are written using an alphabet, so lexical recognition takes place in both listening and reading.

Any tips for increasing listening comprehension skills?

If in fact there are so many instances to hear Mandarin in near-written form of the language all around you then just talking with lots of people is one answer. In Arabic your chances of hearing sustained MSA (if not on the television or in a lecture or public event) as a beginner are low. MSA is like a level of purity towards which only certain levels of Arabic speakers who identify deeply with the language strive to attain. For the first couple years in Arabic even when living in an Arab country, diglossia is a blessing, since finding instances that reproduce the level of language used in the MSA classroom is very difficult.

At one time there seems to have been a debate about standardizing a colloquial form of Arabic. I imagine that that debate was DOA, given how attached many people are (1) to the complex grammar of Arabic and (2) the cult of regional particularity in the Arab world. Textbooks nowadays often ignore points of grammar in the beginning just to get the students communicating.

Intuitively, listening comprehension would be the hardest one. What about writing in Chinese? Even though I live in the Middle East, I almost never write in Arabic. Part of it is that so much interaction between people takes place verbally.

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atitarev

Let me explain why I think Chinese is harder to understand by listening.

When we go through the list of new words, eg. using "New Practical Chinese Reader" textbook, they usually make sense when you see both the character and know the pronunciation, especially one-syllable words, since there are too many homophones - complete or partial. I listen to audio - text first, then new words. The words become alive in a context, in complete sentences.

For example the words 住 and 祝 are both pronounced [zhù] but are used differently.

我住在墨尔本。 Wǒ zhù zài Mò'ěrběn. I live in Melbourne.

祝你身体好。Zhù nǐ shēntǐ hǎo. I wish you good health.

The Arabic phrase:

أنا أسكن في ملبورن [Ana askun fi Melborn] - "I live in Melbourne". The word "askun" clearly identifies the meaning of the 1st person singular, present tense of the verb "to live". You don't even need to use "ana" (I), it's clear from the verb form. It doesn't sound like anything else. There are homophones in Arabic but not as many as in Chinese. The Chinese zhù can mean many things, either as a word or as word component.

For me personally, Arabic grammar makes better sense than to an English speaker because of my Russian background, Russian has 6 complex cases, not 3 (it applies to nouns, adjectives, numerals and pronouns), verbs are conjugated but we write as we speak and constant exposure doesn't allow to forget the cases and we always pronounce them. Well, in Arabic, you normally don't write case endings and spoken dialects don't use this feature.

Any tips for increasing listening comprehension skills?

Learn the basic words, then listen to sentences. Although it applies to ALL languages, it's more so to Chinese.

The analogy with Arabic is that Chinese students are always told (correct me if I am wrong) that they will begin to guess the meaning of single characters from their knowledge of other characters because certain component parts are included in more complex characters. (I always understood the debate about traditional vs. simplified characters this way at least, that simplified ones take away a lot of linguistic meaning.) After how many characters would you say that this kicks in? From what I have seen so far, it is by no means a regular predictable phenomenon as in the Arabic roots. Sometimes you get clues, but not reliable ones.

Some people say, you can learn the 1st thousand but still have trouble learning new words. Not quite true but you still have to get through the same process. You always need 3 things:

1. the character itself - the way it looks, stroke order, components.

2. pronunciation(s).

3. Meaning(s) and usage.

The more characters you know the better, they will gradually fill the gaps because they are reused but learning just characters out of context is not always useful.

There are some similarities between learning to read in Chinese and Arabic - you need to know the correct pronunciation. Chinese require a lot of memorisation, knowledge of components to get some meaning and often pronunciation (just a hint, by no means a definite clue). In Arabic, you need to the short vowels, again your experience of patterns, grammar and vocabulary helps to get this right.

Writing in Chinese and Arabic is the opposite in terms of skills required. Writing in Arabic is rather easy, just skip the short vowels, use the "hamza" rules.

أحب اللغة العربية - "I like Arabic"

Pronounced as [uḥibbu al-luġa(ta) 'l`arabia] but written as [hamza-ḥ-b hamza-l-ġ-(tāʼ marbūṭa) 'l-`-r-b-y-tāʼ marbūṭa], thus writing only consonants, the only vowel-like letter is tāʼ marbūṭa () and there are no long vowels/diphthongs here. I find writing is much easier than reading here, as you need to insert the short vowels based on your knowledge when you read.

In Chinese, you have to bring up from memory the characters, which just don't come up when you need them, if you saw them many times or even wrote them. :mrgreen:

It's just my learner's brief summary of differences in learning Chinese and Mandarin, everyone's different. I used simplified characters. The shape of the traditional characters is not that helpful and not always, many simplified characters used a different phonetic component or they just to easy to remember without them. It's up to you, which you want to use (I don't want to start this can of worms, SC vs TC).

In your PM to me (I hope you don't mind :)) you wrote:

Too often, Arabic and Chinese are tossed in the same basket, as the "hardest" or the "least taught"

I don't quite agree with the 2nd bit. At present, Mandarin Chinese is not understudied. It's booming in my opinion and there are plenty of resources.

DIGRESS

Sadly, it's true about Arabic. The main reason being lack of standardisation of spoken Arabic. Greece tried to do the same for a long time - they used ancient Greek in writing but people spoke colloquial (a quite different tongue). Now they standardised modern Greek. I can see 2 ways to make Arabic more learnable and popular.

1. Promote standard Arabic to speech (perhaps a simpler version mixed with common regional colloquialisms), they managed to do that in China, Taiwan and Singapore, why not do it in Arab countries? Produce movies, songs, entertainment programs, etc. in MSA! Some expressions, which are used in speech would need to be included to make it a live and modern language. I read there are some areas around universities in Saudi Arabia where MSA is used for spoken communication.

2. Upgrade regionalects to become standard, like the did in Greece. Will this be a death to a common language for all Arabs? I don't think so. If a dialect is written and used in media and taught, then it will be known. The words common to many dialects + some formal words could be included, thus reducing the gap. This may still create a few new languages still but the core will still be the same or similar. The reality is that standard Arabic is not spoken anyway.

Both methods would require agreement between Arabs on the government level (doesn't have to be ALL governments), to please purists, Classical Arabic would remain for religious purposes.

END DIGRESS

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wushijiao
Any tips for increasing listening comprehension skills?

I think the only solution, is to just massively increase your listening comprehension. For the last three or four years, this has been my personal obsession. I used to listen to tapes on a Walkman, and play the same tape over and over, listening to it in full for a day, at least for a month. I probably did that for an hour or two per day.

Then I entered the podcast era, which is great, save for the fact that there are some golden materials on tape that don’t exist digitally, as far as I know. Since I got my iPod last year in February in 2007, my listening news comprehension has steadily increased to great new heights.

Mandarin listening comprehension is brutally difficult. In Russian or Spanish (and I assume Arabic), at least the words are long and they have grammatical suffixes or verb conjugations and declensions, and then even if you don’t know a new word, at least you know it was a verb that was in 3rd person plural, or whatever. In Mandarin, to a large degree, that same info can pass you by at light speed. That’s why you have to get obsessed with exposing yourself to massive quantities of listening using lot of different strategies!

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renzhe

I'll third the suggestion for massive amounts of listening.

It's important to have a basic vocabulary of a couple of thousand words. How you get those (textbook study, flashcards...) is irrelevant, as long as you have a basic vocabulary of common words. Then it's about overloading yourself with listening.

I listen to podcasts and watch TV shows daily, like wushijiao, and have made awesome progress in a year or so. True, I still can't fully follow most conversations and I'm totally lost sometimes, but I went from only noticing a blurb of unrelated sounds to following conversations and understanding what's going on, which is great progress.

Chinese, like few other languages out there, requires listening until your ears bleed. You need to invest a lot of time in this.

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wushijiao
(2) the cult of regional particularity in the Arab world.

What do you mean by that? Do people, say in the Gulf, have a particular attachment to their spoken dialect that disuades them from standardizing towards a MSA?

In general, I used to think that the analogy between Arabic and its diglossia and Chinese and its diglossia was appropriate. But Mandarin is really in an overwhelming position of dominance compared to other Chinese dialects and non-Chinese languages within China. The only slightly difficult thing, for the average beginner or intermediate learner of Chinese, it can be a bit hard to understand the regional varieties of non-standard Mandarin. There really aren't any CSL materials aiming at helping learners understand how Shanghaiese pronounce Mandarin, or how Henan people speak Mandarin...etc, while, from what I've read, there are quite a few materials specifically aimed at teeaching colloquial Egyptian, Guld Arabic, Iraqi Arabic...etc. Correct?

Rezaf, do all people in Iran study Arabic? Aren't there a lot of loan words from Farsi that come from arabic?

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atitarev
What do you mean by that? Do people, say in the Gulf, have a particular attachment to their spoken dialect that disuades them from standardizing towards a MSA?

...

There really aren't any CSL materials aiming at helping learners understand how Shanghaiese pronounce Mandarin, or how Henan people speak Mandarin...etc, while, from what I've read, there are quite a few materials specifically aimed at teeaching colloquial Egyptian, Guld Arabic, Iraqi Arabic...etc. Correct?

Yes, dialects have a much higher usage and status with Arabs, as they are more than just local speech. Standard Arabic is taught at schools and is in the media but everybody is expected to speak dialects, some dialects being more prestigious than others.

For the same reason, if you are in Egypt you need to speak Egyptian (Cairene being more prestigious).

In sociolinguistic terms, Arabic in its native environment typically occurs in a "diglossic" situation, meaning that native speakers learn and use two substantially different language forms in different aspects of their lives. In the case of Arabic, the regionally prevalent variety is learned as a speaker's mother tongue and is used for nearly all everyday speaking situations throughout life, including most films and plays, and (rarely) in some literature. A second, quite different variety, Standard Arabic, is learned in school and is used for most printed material, TV news reporting and interviews, sermons and other formal situations. The extent to which the local vernacular tends to interplay with the Standard variety in formal situations varies from country to country.

In any case, there is no Arab region where MSA is spoken in a family, between friends and in everyday situations, including business (oral) communications.

I personally don't see a need to have material about how e.g. Shanghainese or Henan people speak Mandarin, perhaps more appropriate to learn the dialect itself. If you want to settle in Shanghai, knowing Shanghainese would be a bonus after learning enough Mandarin.

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atitarev

bump-bump

Another analysis on language difficulties: Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers

Mar7aba ya Jiaoshou, haven't heard from you for a while. How's your Mandarin going? Could you probably give more light on how the studies of Arabic and Mandarin differ, insha'llah' (إن شاء الله)?

These are a bit amusing but also informative:

Why learning Arabic is so hard

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

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Altair

Atitarev, thanks for the links. Although I had read the Chinese one before, I still got a few more chuckles of sympathy. As for the Arabic link, the comment about gender switching in the numbers was right on target. Of all the languages I have studies, Arabic has the most complicated numbering system.

I have dabbled in a number of languages and used to be able to read magazines and newspapers in Arabic after about a year or two of study. Despite what others have said, I found Arabic much easier than Chinese overall. The main difference is that in Arabic grammar there is almost always a definitive answer that would be understandable to an English speaker. Even though the grammar is fairly complex, there is almost always a clear "right" answer. Chinese, on the other hand, is extremely contextual and definitive answers are often hard to find.

For example, Arabic has three "numbers": singular, dual, and plural. Certain nouns are collective in meaning. Non-human plurals are always treated as feminine singular. The plural of nouns is very often unpredictable. Nevertheless, there is almost never confusion as to which category applies. To give a sense of the potential complexity, I can say that corresponding to the English word "trees," Arabic has at least five words: shajar, shajaraani, ashjaar, shajarataani, shajaraat. Each of these is distinct in usage, depending on whether there are two or more and whether or not they come in groups.

As for Chinese, nouns and verbs do not show number; however, number must often be obligatorily represented by the measure word, which is often unpredictable. Plurals must also often be represented by an amibiguous 都 before the verb, but the precise rules seem a little bit "flexible." It is still not clear to me how to treat "collective nouns." For instance, can one say?: 三位市民, 那些父母, or 这些书籍 . Where does a structure like 母子两人 (both mother and son?) fit in the theory? Chinese seems to depend a lot on usage, which is unpredictable.

After a few months of study, there where many basic sentences that I could form in Arabic with 100% confidence. After a few years of on-and-off study, there are many basic sentences that I am still unsure of in Chinese. The surface simplicity of Chinese means that much of the subtlety is hard to grasp. In Arabic, the surface grammar is filled with redundancy and explicit requirements. In reading typical passages, I feel that I often miss the sense of a Chinese sentence because of a small mental mistake with respect to one character. In Arabic, I often feel that there are too many little words and endings that I simply don't need. It is very rare that I cannot figure out the sense of an Arabic sentence, but very common that I cannot figure out the sense of a Chinese sentence.

One thing that both Chinese and Arabic have in common from the English perspective is the unexpected difficulty in reading aloud. Although English spelling seems to occupy a bizarre space between being completely predictable and completely arbitrary, reading aloud is not an obvious difficulty. In Chinese, you have to cope both with 破音字 and the lack of punctuation in order to choose between variant readings, to choose where to pause, and to choose what characters need voice stress. In Arabic, you have to be a grammatical genius to supply all the short vowels and other endings correctly at normal reading speed.

On the other hand, dictation is a breeze in Arabic, but impossible in Chinese. In English, it is merely annoying.

Arabic grammars are usually pretty comprehensive. The Persians seem to have defined everything over a 1000 years ago. Chinese grammars are usually simplified in some way and leave out the tougher parts. It seems that linguists are still working out much of the theory of Chinese grammar.

The written Arabic of a 1000 years ago seems to differ only a little in style and vocabulary from Modern Standard Arabic; whereas most of the written Chinese of the same era is quite different from modern Chinese.

The one place where Arabic is clearly harder is the existence of universal diglossia and the almost complete absence of spoken Modern Standard Arabic in daily life. The only ameliorating factor is that there seems to be great tolerance for differences in dialect and spoken grammar. I used to know a fair amount of Egyptian and Levantine Arabic, and it was not always obvious to me where the boundary was between them or between either of them and Modern Standard Arabic. Even though there grammars are different, it is more a question of a continuum than a clear division.

To me, Cantonese and Mandarin seem much further apart than Arabic dialects because of the greater difference in pronunciation. In speaking Arabic, I mostly just thought in Modern Standard Arabic and made systematic substitions of certain sounds, certain grammatical forms, and certain vocabulary to get at something close to Egyptian. I find that Cantonese and Mandarin do not match up as well, except in "technical" or "sophisticate" vocabulary, where the characters do indeed provide a similar bridge.

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atitarev

You're welcome, Altair.

Thanks for your interesting analysis.

You are right, there pluses and minuses of having a "very easy grammar". Sometimes, it makes harder to express your ideas or understand something because you are trying to convert to your language using some more complex structures.

Word boundaries do cause me problems when reading complex Chinese text. Missing words for "in order to", "so that", "if", "and", missing moods (like "as if it were"). By no means, it means limitations in Chinese but one needs to learn to express/understand ideas without these special words or endings.

Of all the languages I have studies, Arabic has the most complicated numbering system.

It's true but if you learn some Slavic languages (eg. Russian), you may find it even more complicated/confusing. :)

Interestingly, although writing a dictation in Chinese is an awesome task, I find typing Hanzi easier than Arabic letters, simply because I use Hanyu Pinyin to type in Chinese but don't have stickers on my keyboard for Arabic, so have to use a virtual keyboard. (the same can be said for other non-Roman languages).

Talking about computing and software, as I said before there are many resources for Chinese computing, good dictionary programs, websites, the input is made easy. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about Arabic. The input is very basic but you need to either remember the layout or use a virtual/visual keyboard. Computing has made using Chinese easier than Arabic on the internet.

Another problem with Arabic computing (and some other right-to-left written languages) is making mixed texts (text mixed with numbers, Arabic and Roman letters). Quite often people have trouble putting punctuation symbols in the right support when dealing with a mixed text. Different pages/technologies deal differently with this issue. Pocket PC's are way behind in properly supporting two-directional texts.

Looking up Hanzi electronically is also a very easy task compared to finding out the root letters and the exact pronunciation for Arabic words.

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jiaoshou

On the issue of the keyboards, I have stickers for Arabic letters that you can cheap buy from numerous places on the web. I set it up so that I have a triple toggle for various western languages/Arabic/Chinese. Typing in Arabic and Chinese is completely different.

If you spend some time typing and retyping (or chatting) in Arabic script you can learn the keyboard in a short time. I find the pinyin entry that I have from Windows to be very slow, and labor intensive for the brain. One of the problems we have been talking about here, namely the existence of multiple hanzi from homophonic words. The fact that you type in pinyin with no tone marks is easy, but then having to scroll through a selection of hanzi and choose the right one (the choice of which sometimes changes the previous characters, etc). I find this to be very time consuming. I often type out my Mandarin lessons as a way of remembering them. I have not found that I get much faster in time, whereas with Arabic, I picked it up very fast. The computer just automatically elides the letters.

Atitarev I think is right to say that mixed text (where one has both left to right and right to left on the same lines of text, but especially when more than one line of text is involved) definitely poses a big problem for making a clean copy ready text. I work as a translator and I publish mixed text articles and need both scripts in my work and I still to this day struggle to make a readable text sometimes. It's not only pocket PCs that have trouble with this mixed text phenomenon, but also Ipods (more than half my ITunes is Arabic music which never comes out right, whereas the Chinese works), mobile phones, chat programs. Hanzi just fit in more simply.

In some parts of the Arabic speaking world (Algeria and the other Maghreb states) or Lebanon where foreign languages are more dominant some people don't even have Arabic keyboards or know how to type in them. This and other factors have lead to the rise of using Latin letters (with a completely non-standard romanization scheme) to write Arabic. Whatever the historical debates about pinyin are, the chaotic use of such romanization in Arabic makes the student of Chinese so happy that pinyin exists and was standardized. The Arabic phenomenon to the non-advanced speaker is confusing since the romanization is often more a sign of a word than a linguistically meaningful word. You often need to know the Arabic behind the romanization to actually get the meaning. If I type in Arabic mixing a Levantine and classical register, for example, people from Morocco wouldn't necessarily get it. It's even easier from more widely understood dialects obviously. Try it from Tunisian or Yemeni in roman script, many Arabic speakers must profess total ignorance to its meaning. This is further complicated by the fact that the Arab world has a history of mixed colonial and hegemonic influences, and sets of Orientalist scholarship with their own different transliteration schemes. As a result, a kind of globalized literacy in romanized variance has sprung up especially in youthful net culture. If you just watch the satellite music video channels from the Arab world or the equivalents to Super Star and you read the "ticker tape" messages sent in from around the world by SMS you will immediately get my point here.

Of interest to you all might be a recent phenomenon of the latin script to Arabic script online converters. Take www.yoolki.com for example. To a pinyin converter culture this seems rather banal and very 1990s, but I believe that the origin in the Arabic-speaking world is from the explosion of youtube/facebook/chat/etc and the desire to actually be able to write Arabic for cutting and pasting. The idea of these converters is that you have a Latin letter screen and as you type in, voweled Arabic comes up on the other side. They support a reasonable amount of variance in transcription too. I don't know how many of these there are, but I imagine they exist in a variety of countries. I don't know how many people rely upon them.

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