Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pronunciation "Corrections"

I spent this morning being a guide for a visually impaired FLTA.  He's Arabic-speaking, so we chatted in a mix of Arabic and English.  At the end of the morning, he asked if I would mind if he corrected my Arabic.  "Of course not!" I replied, "I really like it when people correct me in fact."  "Okay," he said, "you sometimes say qaaf instead of kaaf*, like in 7ukuuma."  "You mean I say kaaf instead of qaaf?" I queried, confused as to why I would be making a more difficult sound instead of an easier one.  "No, no" he replied, "don't worry, it's not your fault, it is something all Egyptians do, they say 7uquuma instead of 7ukuuma, or qaaZim instead of kaaZim.  You just listened too well to them and now you are making the same mistakes they do."  Grinning to myself, I managed to pronounce both 7ukuuma and kaaZim to his satisfaction before we parted ways, which sounded pretty funny to me.

What I found particularly interesting about this exchange, aside from the sociolinguistics, is that he is right that Egyptians pronounce things this way and that I have picked it up.  Yet, if you asked me to describe the differences between Egyptian and Levantine dialects, this is something that would never occur to me, even though I clearly started doing it at some point myself.  In other words, it is something that I learned but was not aware I was learning it.

In some second language acquisition theories, this would be considered the difference between explicit and implicit knowledge.  Explicit knowledge is the ability to explain the "rule" behind a linguistic phenomenon.  Implicit knowledge is the ability to use the phenomenon correctly.  You can have explicit knowledge without implicit, as in the case of language learners who know that nouns and adjectives need to agree in gender but don't produce matching pairs in speech.  You can also have implicit knowledge without explicit, as in the case of native speakers who can use the language correctly but are at a loss as to how explain grammar rules when asked.  Generally, adult language learners rely more on explicit learning, although this can become automatic over time.  Some argue that adult learners are not capable of implicit knowledge, although I feel as though examples like the one above demonstrate that this is clearly not the case.  Nevertheless, it is rare enough that I am always surprised when something that I have learned implicitly is brought to my attention, as happened today.  I never learned the rule for that, I think, how did that happen?

*Arabic has a voiceless velar stop, kaaf, which is similar to English k.  There is also a voiceless uvular stop, qaaf, which is made farther back in the throat than k and is typically difficult for English speakers to learn and distinguish at first.


  1. I am interested in the implications of the qaaf generally in Arabic learning. For me, personally, being able to articulate qaaf (and 'ayn) marked the moment I felt like I knew what I was doing, that I could make this HORRIBLE LANGUAGE OF SCRIBBLES AND DOTS into something workable. (Interestingly, none of the emphatics gave me the same visceral satisfaction.) So, for the fusha-learning ajnabi (pun intended), the qaaf/kaaf distinction becomes a sign of success.

    But the qaaf/kaaf distinction is incredibly socially important for marking dialects, as well as marking class and ethnoreligious identity in the region, as you know. My undergrad advisor said she was once talking to people she was interviewing in Syria, and was teased for using the qaaf too much--and told that she 'sounded like an Alawi,' which is NOT the thing you want to be told if you're doing interviews with Syrian opposition leaders! So the instinct of the Arabic-learner to USE ALL THE QAAFS (where appropriate) is directly contrary to being able to speak in the ways that would fit best into most contexts where Arabic would be used.

    I'm curious what you think of this sort of problem, as someone who teaches Arabic language (not just ME studies generally)--is this the problem with teaching fusha, not 'ammiya? Or how might you accommodate these issues in the classroom, and prepare students for the sheer quantity of meaning inherent in qaaf use?

    (Mmm, pretending I know what I am talking about w/r/t linguistics, my favorite hobby...)

  2. I think both fus7a and 3ammiya should be taught from the beginning. Sticking to fus7a makes things easier at first, but harder in the long run (because then you have to catch up in 3ammiya and your default is fus7a rather than 3ammiya, the opposite of native speakers). Doing both is confusing at first, but the contextual differences will sort themselves out in the end, just like any other part of the language. Whatever dialect is taught, chances are there will be something going on with the qaaf, as you say, so this should be mentioned as it will apply to other dialects as well. Teaching both is not the traditional way, but I think it will be the way of the future, isa :-)

  3. I think if adult learners are not capable of implicit knowledge, adult learning would simply be impossible. Some of the knowledge has to be automatized, or you would never get anywhere. Explicit knowledge is extremely cumbersome, and often students cannot even formulate their explicit knowledge very articulately. They only "understand" the rule when they can apply it? Even their explicit knowledge is a simplistic caricature...

  4. I agree. For many things in language, the explicit rules just seem too complicated to actually put into use in real life.