Want a Lesser Taught Language? Try Irish Gaelic!

Irish language courses at Catholic University:

The language is a landmine of silent letters: a silent “f’’ in glanfaidh, and a silent “d’’ in beidh. (“It’s just like bay, like ‘Baywatch,’?” Connolly told his students.)

One student paused on the vocabulary term scriobhfaidh for a long moment and then shrugged, “I have no idea how to say that.”

An informal survey of several dozen colleges in the District, Virginia and Maryland found no other campus with an Irish language course. Substantial Irish programs exist at New York University, Notre Dame, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Montana, whose five-year-old program now serves 187 students.

Irish is rare, but most world languages are rarer still. Modern Greek language enrollment, for example, totals 152 students, according to the national survey; Danish, Finnish and Hungarian are even less common.

Irish is not even the most esoteric language studied at Catholic. Aspirant scholars of early Christianity at the Northeast Washington campus study Aramaic, Coptic, Syriac and Akkadian, because “those are the languages that the texts are in,” said Lawrence Poos, dean of the school of arts and sciences. “I’m pretty sure we still do Ugaritic.”

They’d better teach Ugaritic! That’s actually useful! I wish I knew some of those Ancient Near Eastern languages! (Can you tell I’m a written-text kind of medievalist as opposed to a study-my-heritage type?)

How do you spell the name of Obama’s Enemy?

Arabic transliteration — sheesh! This is the most useful thing I’ve read on the subject, from Britannica.

…in reading those stories and many others since the uprising began in Libya readers might be befuddled by the various spellings of Qaddafi’s name. At Britannica, we spell with a “Q,” as do the New York Times and Bloomberg, while al-Jazeera, BBC, the Guardian, the Toronto Star, and the Sydney Morning Herald (among others) uses a “G,” and the New York Daily News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Boston Globe use a “K.” Even accounting for different first letters, news outlets spell the rest of the name differently.

And if you’re interested, follow up with this old post of mine, So what do we mean when we say we teach Arabic? Or maybe this even older post, What is “Arabic” and how do you go about teaching it?
By the way, the correct answer to the question in the title is “However you please.” There is no single answer, so all honest attempts are probably o.k. The same goes for pre-Attaturk Turkish, so far as I read.

Ah, language . . .

I had a frustrating day in Italian class. For some reason I wasn’t tracking well; not that I didn’t understand the grammar (it was essentially a mechanical structure of conditions-contrary-to-fact — when dependent clauses use the present, imperfect, or pluperfect infinitive), but somehow things weren’t clicking.
And then tonight some silly French pop song comes on iTunes and I felt like I understand it all. At least I would be able to make a 90 on a dictée and be able to work out the rest. Les Rita Mitsokou. Songs of my ill-spent grad-school years.
The difference? I started learning to speak French at 19 and to speak Italian at 40.
Reading isn’t much of a problem, other than guessing wrong at cognates or what look like cognates, but speaking? Argh.

Zero to Three in 4 years (in language proficiency terms)

I think it takes 4 years – one of which is abroad. Excellence is expensive.

“We are taking people who are at zero,” said Mahmoud Al-Batal, associate professor of Arabic and director of the Arabic Flagship Program at Texas. “Zero to three, this is the model, to show that Arabic is very doable for students who have the determination and motivation. Providing them with a very challenging program and rewarding program, we believe we can do it.” And they have. Of the 17 graduates of Texas’ undergraduate Flagship so far, 15 have achieved ratings of 3 and two of 2+. “If our failure is 2 or 2+, this is a wonderful failure to have,” said Al-Batal.
Up until recently, in fact, that would have been considered an unequivocal success. “Until the advent of Flagship, the average product of an American undergraduate language program would typically come out with something like a 1 or 1+ proficiency,” said Dan E. Davidson, president of the American Councils for International Education and a professor of Russian and second language acquisition at Bryn Mawr College. “They would go abroad for a year, which is the longest you could go, and come back a 2. To this day that’s still considered a good outcome, but it falls short of the level people need to use the language in a professional way.”

The thin edge of the wedge

Scholastic Press takes on the Arabic language market. Will Clifford the Big Red Dog offend Muslim anti-dog sensibilities? Yes!

To observant Muslims he is, because dogs are considered ritually unclean. Scholastic wanted to be careful not to appear culturally imperialistic, so Clifford was put in the “no” pile.
The education ministers, who came from Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan, drew up a list of 27 “no-nos,” according to Sakoian. “No dogs, no pigs, no boys and girls touching, no magic,” she said, naming a few.
They liked values and talk of honesty and cooperation among children. Anything that hinted at overly independent children or religion was eliminated. The colorful “I Spy” series was excluded after a tiny dreidel was spotted in a picture.
. . .
The U.S. and other Western governments have funded Arabic translations, particularly of textbooks. But Scholastic’s Arabic publishing effort is by far the largest, experts agree.
[17 million distributed so far!]
During an interview near the publisher’s global headquarters in Lower Manhattan, Sakoian said that she’d long ago set her sights on selling to the vast Arab market. She first approached a private foundation to underwrite translations but got nowhere. In post- 9/11 America, none was interested in supporting Arab culture, she said. The U.S. State Department eventually paid for translations through a democracy-building initiative and for printing about half the books.
But Scholastic had a long way to go before it started printing. First, it had editing to do even of classics. Because Islam does not acknowledge the celebration of birthdays, “Ladybug’s Birthday” was renamed “Ladybug’s Anniversary.” Ms. Frizzle’s students on “The Magic School Bus” were given Arabic-sounding names, skirts were lengthened, body parts were covered and the skin tone and hair of the Swiss orphan girl in “Heidi” was darkened for the Arabic edition. (A tiny church steeple on the cover picture of Heidi’s village escaped notice, however. “We just couldn’t catch everything,” Sakoian said.)

Gotta love that – overly independent children, bad. Dreidels – do you think that’s religion, or a specific religion, driving the veto? Heidi darker than blonde? Oh, well – it’s a publishing venture.

Coolness! Insert Tab A into Slot B, but in Ancient Greek!

This is a neat archaeological find!

Massimo Osanna, head of archaeology at Basilica University, said that the team working at Torre Satriano near Potenza in what was once Magna Graecia had unearthed a sloping roof with red and black decorations, with “masculine” and “feminine” components inscribed with detailed directions on how they slotted together.
Professor Christopher Smith, director of the British School at Rome, said that the discovery was “the clearest example yet found of mason’s marks of the time. It looks as if someone was instructing others how to mass-produce components and put them together in this way”” he told The Times.
Professor Osanna suggested that a “fashion for all things Greek” among the indigenous population had led an enterprising builder to produce “affordable DIY structures” modelled on classical Greek buildings. The terracotta roof filtered rainwater down the decorative panels, known as cymatiums, with projections to protect the wall below.
“All the cymatiums and several sections of frieze also have inscriptions relating to the roof assembly system,” Professor Osanna told Storica, the Italian magazine of the National Geographic Society.
He added: “So far around a hundred inscribed fragments have been recovered, with masculine ordinal numbers on the cymatiums and feminine ones on the friezes”. He said the result was “a kind of instruction booklet”.


Lady Bracknell: Now German sounds a thoroughly respectable language and indeed, I beliieve, is so.

Yes – wretched self-indulgence. I bought the Criterion Collection edition. Dame Edith Evans delivering the above line was worth it all. But for me Joan Greenwood is the perfect reason to buy the work.
I’ll stop quoting after this – but given my own line of work how can I resist this exchange?

Lady Bracknell: I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

Jack: [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

Lady Bracknell I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. [[If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.]]

All the inscriptions of the Alhambra – I want a copy!

Talk about a corpus – all the inscriptions of the Alhambra transcribed and translated (into Spanish, but hey!), on DVD:

Researchers have produced an interactive DVD that decodes, dates and identifies 3,116 of some 10,000 inscriptions carved on the building that symbolises centuries of Muslim rule in Spain and is today the country’s top tourist landmark.
“There’s perhaps nowhere else in the world where gazing upon walls, columns and fountains is an exercise so similar to turning the pages of a book of poems,” says Juan Castilla, from the School of Arabic Studies at Spain’s Higher Scientific Research Council, whose team produced this still-incomplete guide.
Arabic artisans, supervised by poets employed in the 14th-century court of King Yusuf I, drew up the decorative plans and planned the spaces where verses – original, or copied – were to be engraved.
So, what do these words say? “There aren’t as many as we thought,” Dr Castilla confessed. Inscriptions of poetry and verses from the Koran that have inspired generations represent only a minimum percentage of the texts that adorn the Alhambra’s walls, despite the mistaken belief that they are smothered in writings of this kind, he said, presenting his study in Madrid.
Instead the motto of the Nazrid dynasty – “There is no victor but Allah” – is repeated hundreds of times on walls, arches and columns. Isolated words like “happiness” or “blessing” recur, seen as divine expressions protecting the monarch or governor honoured in each palace or courtyard. Aphorisms abound: “Rejoice in good fortune, because Allah helps you,” and “Be sparse in words and you will go in peace.”

Have I mentioned that I hate German syntax?

Hate is too strong – but gosh, German word order is rigid and counter-intuitive for this English speaker.
Yes, my final exam is Monday. Our teacher got a look at the test and told us that the verbs with obligatory prepositions we’ve been slaving over for the last 2 weeks* get ONE question. As someone who had to make final exams for high school Latin, I can sympathize – but still!
Ask me next month how much I think I’ve learned.
*you know, sich freut (auf/über), träumen von, sich erinneren an, that sort of thing. And yes, I know that English is just as annoying – we fight with our mothers but against enemies. When I was learning to speak Italian we always knew we were getting near the end of a book when we suddenly started reviewing the prepositions, which are hatefully idiomatic in Italian, too. I’ve gotten to the point in Italian that I just don’t worry about them all that much – and strangely I seem to get them right a good bit of the time. Quantity always pays off in language – read more, speak more, and you’ll do better.

So what do we mean when we say we teach Arabic?

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article on Arabic pedagogy. The problem is deciding what to teach – Arabic is a complicated phenomenon. I blogged about the difficulties of diglossia (multiple languages or dialects inside a single package) a while back and compared a lot of American instruction in Arabic to teaching Latin and then sending our students to Italy and Spain. Really, that’s not an unfair comparison.
From today’s article:

Teaching conversation skills in an Arabic classroom may seem like an uncontroversial thing. It would be standard, after all, in many introductory courses for other languages. But when Munther Younes started integrating instruction of the formal written language with a spoken dialect in Cornell University classrooms 18 years ago, he was a pioneer.
“What we’re doing that’s different … is that other programs either teach the classical language by itself – they’re a small program and they don’t have the manpower or support. Other programs that are bigger introduce a spoken dialect, but they do the two in separate tracks. What we do at Cornell is integrate the two into one track, with two sides, so students learn to read what Arabs read and write, and they learn to speak what Arabs speak,” says Younes, a senior lecturer and director of Cornell’s Arabic program.
“So it’s an honest reflection of what really happens in the Arab world.”
Arabic is characterized by a so-called “diglossic” situation, in which the formal, uniform written language (Modern Standard Arabic) differs considerably from the various spoken dialects. Traditionally, and still, the former has been privileged in foreign language classrooms — in some cases to the total exclusion of — the latter.
The reasons are complicated. Some are pedagogical — fear of confusing students in constantly switching between varieties. Some are practical — native Arabic speakers pick up the dialect at home and study Modern Standard Arabic in school, and carry that tradition to the North American classroom. And some are ideological or political. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of literature and Arab culture, while the dialects lack respect. Arab students, Younes says, “would be condemning the dialect in the strongest terms [while speaking] in the dialect.”

Among other things, the Cornell program has decided to teach Levantine Arabic (Syria, Lebanon, etc.). That’s at least mutually intelligible with Egyptian. But what about other Arabics?
This is a real problem for American higher education. As is the problem of trained instructors – which also comes up in the Inside Higher Ed piece. Here at these Colleges we’re supplementing our meager offerings with visiting native speakers. I hope it helps.

English from Russian and Chinese – yikes!

File under “problems I’m really glad not to have” – transliterating Russian transliterations of Chinese.

It has often been my duty to translate or edit Russian archeological and Sinological works in English. Two things plague such work more than anything else, and both have to do with transliteration.
First of all, unlike pinyin for Chinese, there is no governmentally sanctioned, officially recognized, widely accepted system of romanization for Russian Cyrillic script. Many people do use the Library of Congress system, but more by default than by choice.
More of a headache than the lack of an official romanization for Russian itself, however, are the idiosyncrasies of the Russian Cyrill(ic)ization of Mandarin. Although it apparently works well enough for Russian Sinologists who grow up with it and receive their training exclusively through this system, Russian Cyrill(ic)ization constitutes a bit of a nightmare for those who are not accustomed to its special features.

I’ve read somewhere that the first problem, the lack of a “governmentally sanctioned, officially recognized, widely accepted system of romanization for Russian Cyrillic script,” is also true for Ottoman Turkish, and that most people use a system developed for the Library of Congress.

The Arabic situation is popping up everywhere

Inside Higher Ed has a piece on some problems in teaching Arabic in America

A report released earlier this month by the Modern Language Association found that the number of students taking Arabic in higher education institutions rose by 126.5 percent from 2002 to 2006 — to a total of 23,974. The number of colleges offering Arabic instruction also nearly doubled, from 264 in 2002 to 466 in 2006. The highest rate of growth in enrollments, meanwhile, has been at the community college level, where enrollments grew 135.8 percent over four years. Leaders in foreign language learning hailed the results as promising news – proof that interest in such a strategically important and yet tricky-to-learn tongue continues to grow.
But beyond the numbers lies a significant problem. “Although there’s a great deal of hoopla about spending money on the teaching of critical languages and this and that, the infrastructure that would really support the development of good, highly-trained, pedagogically-trained university instructors isn’t there,” says Catharine Keatley, associate director of the National Capital Language Resource Center, a joint project of Georgetown and George Washington Universities and the Center for Applied Linguistics.

To put those numbers in perspective, go here for a chart of enrollments for the top 15 languages offered in America. As a classics major I’m pleased to see that there are more people taking Latin than Arabic, and that Arabic is barely outpacing Greek. As someone who worries about language competence in American government and military, this would worry me, except that I know that 4 years of Greek and Latin would be great preparation for pushing on into all kinds of difficult languages – certainly better than one year of bad Arabic.
The Inside Higher Ed piece asks the obvious question about who is teaching Arabic, given the insane rise in demand. Adjuncts, of course.
Inside Higher Ed doesn’t ask the question that occurs to me more and more often – what do we mean by Arabic in American education? What if the native speaker adjunct is Moroccan and our textbook series is Egyptian? How close is Iraqi Arabic to Yemeni Arabic? Does anyone really speak Modern Standard Arabic? Read my previous post on the topic and wonder. Follow the links there and you may come to agree with me that the situation is something like teaching Americans Latin before sending them to work in Latin America.

Translation into Arabic

This is a fine, fine thing for which to give thanks:

Books by Stephen Hawking, Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami and other star writers past and present have been chosen as the first works to be translated into Arabic, in a major initiative to widen access to foreign literature.
The Abu Dhabi-based project, Kalima (“word” in Arabic), aims to publish 100 books in its first year and 500 titles a year by 2010, it announced yesterday.
The first 100 are from 16 languages, including Greek, Japanese, Swedish, Czech, Russian, Chinese, Yiddish, Italian, Norwegian, Latin and ancient Greek. Half the candidate titles are English.
Four years ago the UN’s Arab human development report identified a lack of translated foreign works as an issue restricting Arab intellectual life. The UN report noted that Spain translates in one year the number of books that have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000 years.
“The rest of the world enjoys a wealth of domestic and translated writing, why should the Arab world be any different?” Karim Nagy, Kalima’s Egyptian chief executive, said as the first titles were announced. “We can start putting Arabic readers back in touch with great works of world literature and academia, and begin filling the gaps in the Arabic library.”
The selection process is designed to strike a balance between different genres, juxtaposing the works of classic authors with contemporary writers. Academic, business and educational material is also being translated.
The organisers point out that in Europe’s “dark ages” and until the end of the first millennium Arab scholars and libraries led the world in producing and preserving knowledge in science, medicine, philosophy and the arts. Since then, however, very few foreign works have found their way into Arabic.
“In past centuries Arabic learning was a source of great riches for the western intellectual tradition,” said the British author Ian McEwan. “It is a cause for celebration that this major translation initiative is able to offer riches in return.”**
Other titles due out in Arabic this year are by Nadine Gordimer, Khaled Hosseini, Albert Camus, George Eliot, Albert Einstein, Jacques Lacan and Spinoza.
Muhammad al-Mazrouei, of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which is financing the translation and publishing project, said: “We want to give Arabic readers the opportunity to read and enjoy a breadth of quality writing from around the world in their mother tongue. Arabic is a beautifully expressive language, and one that should be more widely celebrated and valued.”

**Arabic learning? Well, Greek learning, Syriac translations, then creative Arabic learning. That process of acquisition of foreign knowledge all stopped a LONG time ago, as the article makes clear with the comparison with Spain. Arabic readers never seemed much interested in post-Hellenistic non-Arabic knowledge. One also wishes things were being translated into Arabic because of demand, rather than this supply-side approach. Of course, an English reader should talk about that problem of disinterest in other language traditions – we’re pretty poor at that. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that much of the best work available in English is “anything translated from a foreign language,” because so little makes it past the filter that almost all of it is good.
Further: I’m reminded by a comment to ask “Into what kind of Arabic will these be rendered?” I blogged about the interesting question of modern Arabic this summer.