I’ve been having an interesting series of conversations about language with my top-level adult English students. We’ve been doing a chapter on language registers: business vs. casual English, written vs. spoken language, the English of different age and cultural groups. There was a question in the book asking whether students believed most people spoke their own language correctly.
Now, you have to understand that asking this question in the Arab world is like asking it in Switzerland or Bavaria. The difference between the dialects of those regions and High German are so great that northern Germans swear they can’t understand a word. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is like High German, the language of writing, TV news and official speeches, except that there is no population which speaks Standard Arabic as their native language. All Arabs first learn a dialect of some sort. Many say that the Levantine dialect of Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon is the closest to Modern Standard, but it is still significantly different.
So I asked my students what they considered to be their native language. Was it dialect, or MSA? About half the class said of course dialect was their native language! They never spoke a word of MSA till some time in elementary school. MSA, which they simply call “Arabic,” was a foreign language to them. The rest of the class said that Levantine was not a language, that it was just a corruption of real Arabic. (As a hobby linguist who believes languages are organic, evolving systems, this answer always irks me, but I held my tongue.)
So then we asked the book’s question, Do most people speak their native language correctly? Their answers fell predictably along the same lines. Those who considered Levantine their first language said yes, of course we speak our first language correctly. Those who considered MSA their only language claimed that it took years of study to speak even one’s native language properly.
The whole conversation reminded me of a conversation I had with my adult class last session. I showed them my resume, which says I speak Standard, Levantine and some Iraqi Arabic. My students considered it completely illogical that Iraqi, Levantine and Egyptian dialects should be considered worth mentioning separately. For an Arab, they’re all Arabic. They grow up watching Egyptian films, news from al-Jazeera in the Persian Gulf, and call-in shows with dialects from Morocco to Oman.
But for me, the differences are huge. Egyptian is unintelligible to me. I was listening to Yemenis on al-Jazeera talk about the recent flood in Hadramawt, and barely understood one word in three. Just listening to the newscasters on al-Jazeera with their fully-inflected MSA is a frustration to me. But put on the Syrian mini-series Baab al-Haara or any other miniseries in Levantine dialect, and I feel very much at home.
This is, of course, opposite to most non-native speakers of Arabic. Unless you learned your Arabic by marrying an Arab, chances are that you learned MSA first and best, and the dialects are just so much grammarless jibberish to you. This is why, when I gave directions home from Club Nai for my American and German friends the other night, the cab driver said, “Are you Jordanian? No? But your Arabic…!”
My standard reponse has become, “I learned my Arabic by living near Gafgafa for two years.” Everyone laughs, because everyone knows Gafgafa as the site of one of Jordan’s most infamous prisons.