Jump to content
Chinese-forums.com
Learn Chinese in China

  • Why you should look around

    Since 2003, Chinese-forums.com has been helping people learn Chinese faster and get to China sooner. Our members can recommend beginner textbooks, help you out with obscure classical vocabulary, and tell you where to get the best street food in Xi'an. And we're friendly about it too. 

    Have a look at what's going on, or search for something specific. We hope you'll join us. 
jiaoshou

comparing the study of Chinese and Arabic

Recommended Posts

jiaoshou

To comment on a few points from Altair:

I ... used to be able to read magazines and newspapers in Arabic after about a year or two of study.

This is amazing to me. Most students of Arabic take several years to reach lexical and grammatical fluency to be able to read the paper in addition to mastering sentence connectors.

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.

I'm not sure that I agree with this point. I think it depends on the kind of language you are speaking about and in what contexts you are speaking. If you have a "sympathetic interlocutor" and if you are dealing with clean MSA with no complex tense markers or connectors, well, this is probably true, provided that you have handled the standard two years of MSA grammar.

In dialects the "right" answer is often difficult to find, since word order is not fixed at all, tenses and moods are constructed differently from region to region, and even native speakers of Arabic can misunderstand each other based on these differences. For the student of Arabic who knows both MSA and one or more dialects, the way you speak is necessarily more "standard" and comprehensible, it's the answer back which may or may not be so clear.

If we step away from grammatical issues to lexical ones, I find that both MSA and dialectal speech is so hard because there are so many words, so many culturally inflected expressions and so much folkloric knowledge embodied in words that makes communication with (if I can introduce a term here) the "unsympathetic interlocutor" quite difficult.

One thing that both Chinese and Arabic have in common from the English perspective is the unexpected difficulty in reading aloud. ... 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 this point I could not be more in agreement. Reading aloud is, however, a different challenge in the two languages. Arabic native speakers if they are reading aloud in a formal context sit down to "vowel" their written text before they stand up to speak. This is a sign just how tricky it is. I sit down with my tutor and we vowel literature together, or even harder medieval texts or poetry (according to poetic license the rules can change there) and it can take hours to pick through. How well you put in all the vowels (the short vowels are not written normally) is a sign of how "literate" you are, and by extension how "cultured" (مؤدّب)you are. Vowels are mostly dropped in speech, except when someone wants to emphasize the meaning or clear up some ambiguity (much like when the Chinese write the characters in the air with their finger when a homophone makes non-written communication ambiguous). On the other hand, reading aloud in Arabic, and sometimes even the voweling, can be done even if you have NO idea of the meaning of the words. Non-Arabophone Muslims can read the Koran with practice, for example. Some advanced students of Arabic can read and vowel and be incapable of basic communication skills. If I am reading a text aloud in class I can vowel and read the passage, including words I do not know (usually, although sometimes internal vowels are unpredictable) and I still sound like I know them. With Chinese, my tutor has me read aloud on a regular basis passages he composes from the words I already know for practice with character recognition. For the student, if s/he comes across an unknown word, s/he is stuck. I don't know the Chinese well enough to know what they would do in such a situation... say if a very literary word was included and they didn't know the meaning.

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.

This depends. With the trend towards communicative language learning, many more subtle (but essential) points of grammar are "tabled" in the early stages of language acquisition to facilitate learning (take Al-Kitaab for example). Even though I am fascinated by the details, I love the effort to simplify the language that one finds in the case of Chinese, and to some extent in Arabic. In my lopsided experience with native speakers of both languages, the Chinese seem more used to foreigners speaking their language and therefore are more willing to engage with someone at a "simplified" level, or rather they are more used to modulating to a standard register with a foreigner. This is definitely true of some Arab nationalities (Iraqis, Syrians, for example) and less so for others.

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.

That seems well put to me. Interdialectal mixing occurs for people to understand each other in addition to resorting to MSA whence my naive question above about if one can learn some other dialects to "pepper" one's speech when dealing with speakers from another region in China.

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.

Not so sure about that. This sounds more like what clever learners of dialects (who know MSA first) do rather than what native distinctions are. If you know Egyptian and Lebanese for example that might work, but if you study Kuwaiti and Moroccan or Algerian and Iraqi it would take much more effort. Since you are interested in comparative linguitics, I refer you to a splendid book by Kristen Brustad, The syntax of spoken Arabic: A comparative study of Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti dialects (Georgetown UP, 2000) where the author deals with a wide variety of structural differences in those 4 national dialects.

While on the topic, can anyone recommend a simple light scholarly book on the dialectology of Chinese?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

atitarev

I have much more experience typing in Chinese, Japanese and Russian than in Arabic and I find typing in them easier.

In Chinese and Japanese it works better for full words, so you don't need to search full strings, it is a bit cumbersome for rare words or personal names, sometimes. Russian or Cyrillic available (non-standard) keyboards often make it easier to type in phonetically where most Cyrillic letters match Roman.

Your link is very good, thanks, :) I've got similar ones.

--

More on computing issues.

Chinese and Japanese OCR is a difficult task, it must very difficult to decipher Arabic as well, as it is a cursive script, letter boundaries may not be obvious and symbols above and below the line should be taken into consideration.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Altair
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.

Yes, I agree. I did study a little Russian a long time ago. The numbers were indeed quite confusing, but still not as crazy as Arabic. Now that I think of it, Irish Gaelic also has a very chaotic numbering system. Here are some of the highlights:

1. Although the case endings and modifications are not too tough, I think many common words use an otherwise archaic genitive plural, rather than a regular singular.

2. The noun sometimes goes before the number (capall amhain=one horse), sometimes after the number (fiche capall=twenty horses), and sometimes "inside" the number (trí chapall is fiche=three horses and twenty=twenty-three horses).

3. The numerals cause two differnt types of initial consonant mutations, so that nouns can take any of three forms: capall amhain=one horse, trí chapall=three horses, seacht gcapall=six horses.

4. When you count, the digits 1-10 usually take the definite article.

5. There are a special set of the numbers 2-12 that apply to humans.

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

Yes, I am old enough to still be stuck in pre-Internet thinking. I must say, however, that my Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary was just about my favorite bilingual dictionary in any set of languages. I have yet to find something in Chinese that is equally useful. When I first began to look up Hanzi frequently and did not have online or other computer resources, I used to occasionally resort to my Kodansha Japanese dictionary, since it had a very logical system for looking up Kanji. I would then make a decent guess as to what the Chinese equivalent would be.

On the other hand, I find online Chinese, particular in simplified characters, much easier to read than Arabic.

Take www.yoolki.com for example.

Thanks for this. I have not had any tools to write Arabic.

If we step away from grammatical issues to lexical ones, I find that both MSA and dialectal speech is so hard because there are so many words, so many culturally inflected expressions and so much folkloric knowledge embodied in words that makes communication with (if I can introduce a term here) the "unsympathetic interlocutor" quite difficult.

I think I know what you are referring to, but I should say first that in Chinese, you really have to separate "dialect" speech from anything else. Chinese dialects are as far apart as English and Dutch or maybe French and Spanish. I would guess that Mandarin dialects as a group, or perhaps Cantonese and Toisanese (台山话), are more analogous to the situation in the Arabic world.

I should also add that I generally find Chinese expression even more culturally remote than Arabic. The Arabic-speaking world shares at least some ancient and medieval history and science with the English-speaking world. With China, the commonalities come only in modern times.

Chinese also has more pervasive code switching between modern Mandarin and Classical Chinese. MSA has only the lightest of imprints of the spoken dialects; whereas Mandarin is chockful of mixtures of Classical Chinese and modern grammar. Chengyu are a good example that present a constant challenge, at least without the help of my trusty Wenlin.

To illustrate some contrasts, let me refer to some snatches of poetry.

I was reading yesterday about the 焚書坑儒 (Burning of the Books and Burying of the Scholars) and saw these verses in Wikipediahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_books_and_burying_of_scholars:

坑灰未冷山東亂

劉項原來不讀書

"The pit's ashes were not yet cold when Shandong rose in upheaval.

For it turns out that Liu and Xiang did not know how to read."

To appreciate this, you have to know that Xiang is a surname as well as what it, Shandong, and Liu refer to. Even more, you need to know about the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han. I find these kinds of references quite common in the Chinese poetry I have attempted. To be sure, this is Classical Chinese poetry, and not Modern poetry, but it illustrates the source of my biases.

Here are some Arabic verses I can contrast, now that I have a website to write them with. If I recall correctly, the first verse was flung as a challenge by a woman to a man in a story I read. The challenge ended up sparking a vendetta:

وَما التَأنيثُ لِسم إِلشَمسِ عيبٌ وَلا التَذكيرُ فَخرٌ لِلهِلال

"And being feminine is no blemish for the sun, being masculine is not a point of honor for the crescent moon."

I find this easy to understand, even though it is poetry about grammar! Even the meter is easy to feel for an English speaker, even if my poor translation cannot capture it.

Here is another poem in a different meter, an ode to spring:

وَعِطرُكِ يَشفي قُلوب الهَزانَى وَيَبعَثُ دِفءً يُزيلُ أُلصَقيع

وَعَرشُكِ نورٌ يُبيدُ أُلمآسي وَيَهدي الحَيارَى ويُحيِ الجَميع

"Your perfume is as healing to those grieved in their hearts And sends forth some warmth that will halt any frost.

And your throne is a light that reveals tragedy And gives life to all as a guide to the lost."

Again, this poem is quite accessible. I like both Chinese and Arabic poetry, but Chinese poetry is much more work. The Arabic poetry feels like endless rhymed couplets; whereas the Chinese poetry has felt like a series of intricate sonnets.

Since you are interested in comparative linguitics, I refer you to a splendid book by Kristen Brustad, The syntax of spoken Arabic: A comparative study of Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti dialects (Georgetown UP, 2000) where the author deals with a wide variety of structural differences in those 4 national dialects.

Thanks for the recommendation. I am not sure when I will get to it, but I put it on my Amazon wish list.

While on the topic, can anyone recommend a simple light scholarly book on the dialectology of Chinese?

I have read two books that might fit the bill:

Chinese, by Jerry Norman, is a general survey of the Chinese language across history and geography. It has about 60 pages on the main "dialects," as well as some description of Middle Chinese. I would recommend this.

The Langauges of China, by S.Robert Ramsey, is similar, but has only about 30 pages.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
anonymoose
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.
This includes cities like Shanghai and Wuxi, whose dialects are nothing like Mandarin whatsoever.

I don't disagree with the sentiment of these comments, but I think they are a bit exagerated. It is true to say that Mandarin and Shanghainese are mutually unintelligible, but to say Shanghai dialect is nothing like Mandarin whatsoever is not accurate.

The vast majority of the grammar of Shanghainese is similar to that of Mandarin, and much of the vocabulary has similar roots even if the pronunciation is different. A fluent speaker of Mandarin should have little difficulty in getting used to understanding Shanghainese even if they, themselves, are unable to speak it. I can often correctly guess words in Shanghainese just by adapting Mandarin using Shanghainese pronunciation.

Also, current-day Shanghainese, particularly that spoken by the younger generation, has been influenced by Mandarin, and is therefore closer to Mandarin than that spoken by older people.

One thing that is interesting to note is that, often Shanghainese people speaking to each other will constantly switch between Mandarin and Shanghainese, saying one sentence in one langauge and the next in the other. It is quite fun to listen to.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gato
One thing that is interesting to note is that, often Shanghainese people speaking to each other will constantly switch between Mandarin and Shanghainese, saying one sentence in one langauge and the next in the other. It is quite fun to listen to.

Yeah, it's because almost all classroom instruction is done in Mandarin. People only learn Shanghainese at home and may not know how to say certain more complex or technical things (or Chengyu's) in Shanghainese.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
anonymoose
People only learn Shanghainese at home and may not know how to say certain more complex or technical things (or Chengyu's) in Shanghainese.

That's true, but that's not what I'm refering to. Many Shanghainese people, but certainly not all, constantly switch between Mandarin and Shanghainese even when discussing trivial things, more out of habit than anything else.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gato
Many Shanghainese people, but certainly not all, constantly switch between Mandarin and Shanghainese even when discussing trivial things, more out of habit than anything else.

That's probably true. A bit like how some native Chinese who work in English environments when speaking in Chinese often use English words where there are ready Chinese equivalents.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
atitarev

More about the similarities in the difficulties again:

Why learning/looking up new words is difficult (or at least, time-consuming) in both Chinese and Arabic?

Looking up Arabic words in a dictionary, based on the root or radical letters (they are more popular than the alphabetical ones) is a similar process to looking up Chinese characters (in the dictionaries based on radicals), it requires the knowledge of radical letters and the grammar, so you need to know, which pattern was used to remove non-radical letters.

A simple one:

د ر س (right-to-left) "d-r-s" (learning) - root letters

مدرسة madrasa - school

مدرس mudarris - teacher (male)

مدرسة mudarrisa - teacher (female)

درس daras(a) - to study (or he studied)

درس dars - lesson (singular), same spelling in Arabic as the above

دروس duruus - lessons (plural, broken)

In Chinese it has been made easier to look up unknown words with electronic dictionaries. The same won't necessarily for Arabic, as only one form may be stored in the dictionaries, so you will have to take away endings, prepositions (one letter prepositions are written together with the following word: لمدرس [li-mudarris(in)] - "to a teacher". If you know the pattern, "mu-1-a-22-i-3", (numbers representing root letters), you will know that the root letters are d-r-s (1-2-3).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
renzhe
but to say Shanghai dialect is nothing like Mandarin whatsoever is not accurate.

I should have said "it sounds nothing like Mandarin whatsoever. If you hear it, it sounds more Japanese than Chinese to my ears.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
LiYuanXi
These are a bit amusing but also informative:

Why learning Arabic is so hard

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

This is so funny~~ Hahaha..:lol:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
anon6969

I'm thinking of learning Arabic next, what recommendations do you have for websites to look at to start with? Forums (like this one for Chinese), Podcasts (like ChinesePod.com), Bilingual (Arabic-English) news websites, standard books, etc?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
jiaoshou

I missed out on these discussions, just like I missed out on studying my Chinese.

In order to answer the last question about books and methods, I need to know where the last contributor lives? what 2d language you would like to study Arabic through?

There are not as many places to study Arabic as there are Confucius Institutes popping up in the world, so where you find a place (and the nationality of your instructor) will determine the method I would say.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Meng Lelan

jiaoshou, out of curiosity, are Arabic speakers surprised and delighted when a non-native learner of Arabic comes along and speaks Arabic? Or something else? I'm asking this because in China, the reaction to a non-native speaker is generally either surprise/delight or "let-me-get-English-practice-out-of-this-laowai".

Textbooks - when I started studying Chinese over 20 years ago we didn't have any textbooks! Just packets of homework papers. I have noticed that the STARTALK initiative also targets Arabic and there are Arabic textbooks starting to come out on the market. Maybe in a few years the textbook situation will be better for Arabic.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
atitarev

A good dictionary or the best available, note that the dictionaries may not be as good as you can get for Chinese:

http://qamoos.sakhr.com/

PodCast (there are more but this is one is a good one):

http://www.arabicpod.net/

You have to pay for PDF's now, unfortunately but MP3's are free.

A decent Arabic language forum (strictly language topics):

http://forum.wordreference.com/forumdisplay.php?f=41

"Teach Yourself Arabic" are not a bad textbook for beginners, if you ignore some exercises, also "Mastering Arabic" or "Ultimate Arabic"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Altair

I learned what Arabic I know in the pre-Internet era, but I absolutely loved and still love the Hans Wehr dictionary, even though it was translated from the German. It is one of my favorite bilingual dictionaries for any pair of languages. Like Chinese, Arabic dictionaries work differently from English ones. You must generally know the root of a word in order to look it up. I also found a French-Arabic, Arabic-French dictionary, but found it very tedious to use, since I understood the root system pretty thoroughly. If you are interested, I can look up a reference.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
atitarev

I heard a very good feedback about Z. Baranov's Arabic-Russian dictionary, which is quite similar to Hans Wehr. I have Hans Wehr's dictionary but don't have Baranov's, although I am Russian. The benefit of Baranov's over Jans Wehr's is that it shows the derived forms in full, not with numbers, so you don't have to think what a verb form would look using a different pattern. You can find Baranov's dictionary on the web but you must know Russian!

Hans Wehr is a must-have dictionary for Arabic learners but it actually takes time to master its usage. Sometimes I find it more difficult to figure out roots of Arabic words than finding Chinese radicals, especially with hollow, irregular or quadrilateral roots but this is me, I obviously haven't spent as much time learning Arabic as I have with Chinese.

The resources and opportunities for practicing standard Arabic are nowhere near the opportunities for Mandarin. I have almost completed the basic Arabic textbooks I've got and about to start using a book I ordered on Amazon - Tales from Kalila Wa Dimna: For Students of Arabic by Munther A. Younes (كليلة و دمنة). Seems like a confidence builder...

Edited by atitarev

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
zozzen
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.

That's quite right, but in hong kong i've often seen some mainlanders who speak mandarin to local, and local people speak cantonese to their counterparts. Interestingly, the communication works.

The difference between Putonghua and Cantonese is obvious, but it's actually quite easy for Cantonese or mandarin speakers to acquire the listening skills for basic communication. I think 1 month training is good enough to have more than basic listening skills. Much lesser time if we're talking about Sichuanese vs Henanese vs Kunmingese vs Putonghua

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
atitarev

There are different opinions about how different Arabic dialects are to each other but generally, everyone agrees that the dialects share quite a lot of common vocabulary with each other and with "fus-ha" - standard Arabic.

When standard or classical Arabic is spoken slowly, it is generally understood by most Arabs, it sounds stilted in an informal situation, though.

Eastern Arabic dialects are about 60% mutually comprehensible. Lebanese can understand Saudis, Iraqis, Omanis, etc.

Egyptian would be less comprehensible but it's very well-known due movies and songs. It is closer to Eastern than to Western dialects.

Western Arabic dialects are also about 60% comprehensible with each other but are much less understood in the East.

There are remote areas in any Arab country whose dialect is hard to understand for everybody.

Western and Eastern Arabs have to use fus-ha, English or French for communication with each other. The main problem is dropping vowels in the West + difference vocabulary between West and East.

The standard Arabic is becoming more understood because of the news and education and is also used by more educated Arabs in different settings, it has some impact on how Arabs speak - they mix different registers, use a simplified version of standard Arabic or speak the dialect with many elements of classical Arabic. The new phenomenon is called Formal Spoken Arabic, Educated Spoken Arabic, Inter-Arabic, Middle Arabic and Spoken MSA. MSA - Modern Standard Arabic - language of the media, of all official situations and education.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
atitarev

Guys, join the Arabic learners' social group. (Community->Social Groups)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Guidance

I came across your forum through a google search. The word "Arabic" in the middle of a chinese forum immediately caught my eyes. I was both surprised and delighted to find such interest in our language. I do not know Chinese, but I hold repect for the diligence and perseverance of the Chinese & Japanese.

My post may not add much to your knowlegde, but I would like you to know that I personally feel over the moon to find a non-native learning Arabic or any other language, and I never laugh at them.

I may provide some useful and abundant sources for learning Arabic, should you wish to.

Regards.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


×
×
  • Create New...