By Ben Riggleman
This fall, with little fanfare, SMCC offered a class in Arabic for the first time: Beginning Arabic I, taught by Professor Younus Alfayyadh at the South Portland Campus. The Beacon interviewed Mr. Alfayyadh about the class, the language, and how he, a native speaker of Arabic (both Iraqi and Modern Standard varieties), came to teach at SMCC.
Originally from Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, Mr. Alfayyadh emigrated first to Jordan and then, in just 2012, to the United States. He has taught Arabic at Portland’s Deering High School for most of the time he has been in Maine, and continues to do so as his main job. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Maine.
His new class at SMCC generated more interest than was expected, despite being unhyped and largely unadvertised. Nineteen of its 20 seats are full. The students, he said, are a diverse bunch: Some of them already speak fluent Arabic in dialects such as Somali, but are not fully literate; others are native Mainers with no prior exposure to a Semitic language.
For this reason Mr. Alfayyadh has had to improvise a tiered teaching arrangement, with classwork and homework differentiated by skill level. He is not letting the native speakers off easy: In addition to helping their less fluent classmates, student Ivan Del Mar reports that they have been assigned substantial writing assignments in Arabic. (The Beacon did not verify this with Mr. Alfayyadh.)
Mr. Alfayyadh, an exponent of flexible teaching, is not using a textbook for his course. Textbooks are costly for students, he explained, and he has not found one adequate for teaching Arabic as he does.
Arabic itself poses many difficulties for the average American learner that languages more closely related to English, such as French, do not. Its cursive alphabet of 28 letters is written in the opposite direction to English (like its close relative the Hebrew alphabet). Ivan Del Mar called it “completely alien.” Most vowels are not represented in writing. Among the sounds of Arabic are eight consonants not found in English, including a set of “emphatic”
variants of T, D, S and Z sounds. Arabic grammar is just as foreign, often involving only semi-predictable mutations of the vowels in a word. The vocabulary is dizzyingly rich, with a vocabulary of over 12 million words — including over 20 for “camel” alone.
The Arabic accents and dialects spoken in the 22 nations of the Arab League, which stretches across all of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Somalia, vary as widely as the cultures of those regions. In fact, some linguists classify Arabic as a language family, like the Romance languages, rather than one language. However, most Arabs can read and understand a standard form of Arabic, called Modern Standard Arabic, which is used for most news in the Arab world.
It is this international standard that Mr. Alfayyadh teaches (as do most Arabic departments in the U.S.). However, he said, its grammar is much more complex than what is used in colloquial language. As a student in Iraq, he said, learning it in school took work.
Mr. Alfayyadh is enthusiastic about his job, and has no shortage of reasons to recommend that SMCC students study Arabic: It is the fastest-growing language in the U.S., and is increasingly valuable in international business and trade. Over a quarter of the world’s population knows some Arabic, since it is the official language of Islam; and it is the fifth-largest language in the world by number of native speakers. Finally, it allows one to better understand Arab cultures, giving insight into both their tremendous beauty and ugly phenomena like ISIS.
Ivan Del Mar said that a mere two weeks of Beginning Arabic I had enabled him to “very briefly communicate” in Arabic with native speakers on the language-learning app HelloTalk. “It’s a very intense class,” he said. “But the professor is amazing. He answers all questions really quickly via email, and he’s awesome about not treating you like you’re stupid if you don’t know the answer to something, and — I don’t know, I like him a lot.”