On Arabic and learning to read

ليس لدي فكرة عما يقوله هذا

According to Duolingo, I have been studying Arabic daily for one hundred and forty-seven days. And Duolingo does a lot of things, but one of the things that Duolingo has not managed to do in 147 days of daily practice is teach me to read Arabic. One would think that would be an early priority! It is not. Duolingo teaches almost exclusively through word recognition– what teachers used to call the “whole language” method of teaching reading, and for the most part genuinely seems uninterested in actually providing explanations for things unless absolutely necessary. Even then it kind of hides them in corners of the app and finds ways to make them useless anyway. There is actually a “Learn the letters” section! I have been doing lessons in there for months and it still hasn’t gotten to half the letters.

Whole language is bullshit, y’all. Even as an interested adult it’s an insanely rough way to learn a new language. It means that in-context I can recognize words but if you throw a sentence at me with no context I may not even be able to figure out all the letters. After five months. Keep in mind I already read Hebrew and once taught myself to read German from essentially scratch over a weekend so that I could pass a mandatory translation exam for my degree. I’m good at languages! But this isn’t it. And I also take issue with some of Duolingo’s choices for the sentences and phrases they’re throwing at us. For example:

تلفازي داخل أسدي

Which means “My television is inside my lion” and I swear to God is a sentence that has shown up in my exercises, I believe in a unit called “Express a problem.” That’s not a joke. It’s a real thing. Or this one, during the unit on prepositions, which consisted exclusively of things being in front of or behind things:

هناك زوجتك مع رجل خلف المطعم

That means “There is your wife with a man behind the restaurant,” and … okay! Sure! That’s a thing that has probably happened. But I don’t know how to say “hello” or introduce myself yet. They have literally not taught “Hi, my name is _____, how are you?” but I can express trepidation about the eating habits of my lion.

Anyway, over the last few days– because there is no problem so minor that I won’t try to solve it by throwing money at it– I have acquired both a fine set of Arabic alphabet flash cards and a new textbook dedicated specifically to teaching reading. I have learned more about the alphabet in an hour of perusing that book between today and yesterday than I have in five months of Duolingo. Sadly, I have not received further instructions about how to express my feelings about my lion:

أنا أحب أسدي لكني لا أحب أسد جاري.

That’s “I love my lion but I do not love my neighbor’s lion,” and again, no, that’s not a joke.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

One thought on “On Arabic and learning to read

  1. This is hilarious. I dated a woman who swore by Duolingo and used it to help her with Spanish. she had already known some of the language though and it was mainly re-learn for her.
    I have had a sneaking suspicion that most of those language apps really don’t teach people much. If someone like you who is good at learning languages is having issues, then what does that say for the average Joe?
    I still remember back in the early 2000s when there were all these classes which were going to make you an engineer. What they actually taught was a very specific Microsoft Cert which was basically useless outside of a very specific user situation. But they signed up many many people who probably wasted their time and money trying to pass a Cert exam.


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