by Rachel Mairs
ὁ Δικαιόπολις ἐκβαίνει ἐκ τοῦ οἴκου καὶ καλεῖ τὸν Ξανθίαν. ὁ Ξανθίας δοῦλός ἐστιν, ἰσχυρὸς μὲν ἄνθρωπος, ἀργὸς δε· οὐ γὰρ πονεῖ, εἰ μὴ πάρεσιν ὁ Δικαιὀπολις. νῦν δὲ κάθεύδει ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ.
“Dikaiopolis leaves the house and calls Xanthias. Xanthias is a slave, a strong man, but lazy: for he doesn’t work if Dikaiopolis is not present. Now he is sleeping in the house.”
Athenaze, Chapter 2.
لا أحبّ مدينة نيويورك كثيراً بسبب الازدحام والطقس … أشعر أحياناً بالوحدة في هذه المدينة الكبيرة، فـوالدي ووالدتي مشغولان دائماً، ولي صديقة واحدة فقط اسمها ليلى وهي أمريكية من أصل تونسي.
“I don’t like New York City very much, because of the overcrowding and the weather … I feel lonely sometimes, in this big city, since my father and mother are always busy, and I only have one friend. Her name is Leila, and she’s American of Tunisian descent.”
Al-Kitaab fii Ta‘allum al-‘Arabiyya, Chapter 5.
The texts above are excerpts from the early chapters of two of the main textbooks from which I learnt Classical Greek (in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom) and Modern Standard Arabic (in the mid-2000s in the United States). Both are languages for which I feel a deep affection, and which I use every day in my professional life. I am now at the beginning of a one-year British Academy-funded project ‘Teach Yourself Arabic: Foreigners Learning Colloquial Arabic, 1850-1945’ (thanks, BA!), and this seemed a good time to reflect on how I have learnt and taught languages in the past. I’m particularly interested in how written instructional materials are used both inside and outside formal educational contexts (i.e. taking a class vs self instruction), and on how the content of these instructional materials both derives from, and in turn influences, contemporary attitudes to the peoples, cultures and polities behind the language.
Learning a language always means learning about another culture. Language textbook authors’ main concern is teaching the language, but they also have a duty to communicate the culture in a way that is both accurate and responsible. This can be tricky. It is important not to sugar-coat impalatable truths about the ancient Mediterranean world – Greeks and Romans owned slaves; in law and in practice women were often little more than the property of their male relatives – and it is also important not to normalise them. As Erik Robinson has noted of the Cambridge Latin Course, “it is hard to address the problem of slavery seriously after it has been turned into a recurring punchline” (““The Slaves Were Happy”: High School Latin and the Horrors of Classical Studies”, Eidolon 25 Sept 2017). As a schoolchild, I doubt I spared much thought for how the trope of the lazy slave was introduced in my Greek textbook, nor later when I started to read Greek literature. Twenty-five years later, teaching using the very same textbook, I was astounded not just at how casually the book handled ancient Greek attitudes to owning another human being, but how reminiscent this rhetoric was of that of much nineteenth-century US pro-slavery literature. It was impossible to use the textbook in class without addressing this directly with my students.
I have a slightly different love-hate relationship with my Arabic textbook. As with Athenaze, I did find Al-Kitaab paedagogically effective. (I know they don’t work for everybody’s learning style, but they happen to for mine.) The textbook follows the stories of lonely Maha in New York and her shy cousin Khaled in Cairo, whose lives are maelstroms of tragic parental deaths, social alienation, broken romances and transcontinental miscommunication. Khaled’s social life revolves around sitting sullenly with his friends at the club while they banter about their (supposed) love lives, while Maha prefers to mope at home, waiting for her over-worked parents to pay her attention. Thanks to their disaffection, I can still express negative emotions (أشعر بالخجل، كان أصعب قرار في حياتي) far more eloquently in Arabic than I can positive ones (أنا سعيدة). My teacher and classmates dealt with the relentless negativity by joking about Maha and Khaled, and their slow drift towards a blatantly doomed arranged marriage. Naturally, the pair are cult figures online (see e.g. https://olimarjot.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/144/, http://teammaha.com/2014/11/who-is-maha/). Al-Kitaab has been criticised for its supposed political stance, but it is not my intention to consider that issue here. Rather, my problem with the book is how it managed to suck the joy out of learning about people studying, socialising and working in Cairo (a real-life experience I adored).
The presentation of cultural and social material in historic language teaching books is addressed in a fascinating new collected volume (The History of Language Learning and Teaching III: Across Cultures, ed. Nicola McLelland and Richard Smith, Legenda 2018). The topic has also been explored in the publications and conferences of the AILA Research Network for the History of Language Learning and Teaching, such as an event I organised at the University of Reading last summer. With Al-Kitaab and Athenaze, problems with the content can be somewhat mitigated by the efforts of the teacher (highlighting the callousness with which slaves and women are treated; pointing out that it is possible to have a much nicer time in Cairo than poor Khaled). But what of cases where all the student has is the book?
There is nothing new about books which claim that they can help a student to learn a language by themselves, or about students who think that this is feasible. Self-instruction ‘teach yourself’ language books have been a lucrative business since the second half of the nineteenth century. Many earlier language instruction books also accept that the purchaser may be working without a teacher. For languages such as Arabic in northern Europe, finding a book would often be much easier than finding a native speaker, although both may have been tricky. As long as people have been trying to teach themselves languages from books, others have also been making fun of the results – some more kindly than others. Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) met Sylvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) in Paris, and while he admired his book-learnt erudition in literary Arabic, did point out that this had not equipped him to actually speak the language:
وقد تعلم اللغة العربية على ما قيل بقوة فهمه، وذكاء عقله، وغزارة علمه، لا بواسطة معلم إلا في مبدأ أمره، ولم يحضر مثل الشيخ خالد فضلاً عن حضور المغني مع أنه يمكنه قراءة المغني، كيف وقد دّرس البياضوي عدة مرات، غير إنه حين يقرأ ينطق كالعجم ولايمكنه أن يتكلم بالعربية إلا إذا كان بيده الكتاب، فإذا أراد شرح عبارة أغرب في الألفاظ التي يتعذر عليه تصحيح نطقها
He learned Arabic, so it is said, by his powers of understanding, his keen intelligence and wide erudition – and without the help of a teacher, except at the beginning. He did not have instruction on, for instance, Shaykh Khālid – not to mention al-Mughnī, which he can read. Indeed he several times taught classes on al-Bayḍāwi. However, when he reads, he has a foreign accent and he cannot speak Arabic unless he has a book in his hands. If he wants to explain an expression, he uses strange words, which he is unable to pronounce properly.
(al-Tahtawi 1834, Takhlīṣ al-Ibrīz fī Talkhīṣ Bārīz aw al-Dīwān al-Nafīs bi-Īwān Bārīs; trans. Newman 2004.)
I don’t have space to go into de Sacy’s role in the construction of Orientalist knowledge here (as discussed by Edward Said and many others), but his experience of learning Arabic through books is relevant. The Orientalist project was a textual one: “Sacy’s achievement was to have produced a whole field. As a European he ransacked the Oriental archives, and he could do so without leaving France” (Said 1978, Orientalism, 105). How people learnt and taught the Arabic language in Europe was intimately connected to what they they thought and wrote about the Arab world.
My project focusses on the period after 1850, when there is a dramatic growth in less formal publications to help foreigners learn Arabic. Orientalist notions about the Middle East are, naturally, alive and well in even cheap, popular phrasebooks for tourists in Egypt authored by foreigners. It would be easy to fill blog post after blog post with examples like the following, from R. A. Marriott’s Egyptian Self-Taught (Arabic) of 1914:
Note how the ‘Simple and Practical Phrases’ are mostly about giving orders or expressing displeasure, reinforcing the social hierarchy between Egyptians and foreigners. (And, of course, the phrase “he learned Arabic by himself”.)
So how did Arabic-speakers view the results – both linguistic and cultural – of foreigners using books like this? Journalist and playwright Ya‘qūb Ṣannū‘ aka James Sanua (1839-1912) wrote a skit al-Sawwāh wa al-Hammār (‘The Tourist and the Donkey Driver’), in which an English tourist ‘John Bull’ comicly mangles book-learnt fuṣḥa (standard literary Arabic), and the frustrated donkey driver says in ‘āmmiyya (dialect) that it would be easier if they just spoke English.
‘John Bull’ is not the only character in Ṣannū‘’s plays who is depicted as speaking bad Arabic for comic effect (see Fahmy 2011). Ṣannū‘, who was himself multilingual, had experience of teaching foreigners Arabic. He published a satirical journal under the pen name Abū Naḍḍāra (‘the man in the glasses’). I reproduce here the header of an issue of 1904, published in exile in Paris:
In this same issue Ṣannū‘ offers Arabic instruction:
It is not clear whether he is selling a self-published booklet containing his ‘méthode inédite’ or providing actual lessons, but the implication is clear that currently-available published materials for Arabic instruction are inadequate, and that he claims to have a better option. It would be fascinating to know what cultural information Ṣannū‘ included in his lessons, but so far I have not been able to find any evidence for this.
At this stage of the project, my research is focussing on examples of authors of Arabic instruction books who did include appropriate and useful cultural information (I’ll come back to the more blatantly-Orientalist or completely irrelevant ones later). I like to think Ṣannū‘ might even have taught his students, as tourists, how to have a proper conversation with that donkey driver in Egyptian dialect. The archaeologist Flinders Petrie includes a list of what he finds useful Arabic vocabulary for working in the field in his 1892 memoir Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt. My favourite so far is Yacoub Nakhlah, whose New Manual of English and Arabic Conversation, published at the Bulaq Press in 1874, includes copious materials on how to manage a busy social life (with Egyptians, not other foreigners) in Cairo, playing cards and hanging out in coffee houses – and there is no Khaled sitting sullenly in the corner complaining about his disappointments in life.
Fahmy, Ziad (2011) Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
McLelland, Nicola and Richard Smith eds. (2018) The History of Language Learning and Teaching. London: Legenda; Modern Humanities Research Association.