Learning How To Read Arabic Online

How to read Arabic online: From translating chat rooms to YouTube videos, help untangle the language barrier.

I remember the day when my Dad decided to spend the next eight years moving between cities on our very lonely journey to the U.S. Not knowing a word of Arabic, he called the cousin we were going to live with so that she could teach me a few words.

I remember the day when the cousin’s English lessons came to an end, and she sat me down to read. She said, “Son, just read them. It sounds so much more natural, and it will be harder for me to work out how to say them. You’ll miss out on what makes you yourself, but I promise that it will help you.”

Her words poured out to me in quick, direct sentences; an attempt to give me the benefit of the doubt that I did, in fact, have feelings, desires, or memories that were not yet encoded in my nascent mind. In her even-handed instruction, I realized for the first time that the language of speech, my body would speak to me in different ways than the words I could communicate with my mouth. Words like happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, joy and despair were just words, just words, and would slowly turn into abstract mental constructs, and eventually language would lose the final fragment of meaning that still remained.

In the end, I could make pretty sound, often beating my head against my lockers, generally caused by a dislike of school or the unbearable awkwardness of being shy, but as parents, we’re only limited by the speed we can digest information, what we can say, how we can say it, and the strength of our imagination. So, we deal with whatever it is that keeps our children, and ourselves, from feeling comfortable in their own skin.

The Arab world presents problems in that respect to westerners who are still very far away from understanding what’s going on around us, and so they question why Arabic is all we’re capable of making out of ourselves. This is an indirect way of saying that we don’t yet know how to read Arabic.

I am not going to give you all the answers to your Arabic grammar questions, of course. I have learned more from Middle Eastern food, from memories, and from my sister’s excellent table manners, than I have by sitting down to an Arabic language lesson. And of course the ones I do learn, will never be tested against any previous knowledge you may have about your culture, and are always, always, forever apart from the outside world.

But I am going to teach you to look for vocabulary in some of these short passages of text that help you discern between, say, different types of grief, or the phrase “praised by all for making the night so cold.” And I want you to be able to make judgments about the values around you based on the context, and to be able to identify the words that support these values, and to make judgments of the intentions behind any values you see in culture.

If I tell you something intelligent and interesting, your whole mind changes. You start to enter another space, and through your own confusion, empathize and identify with other people in the world. You begin to accept that complexity, but maybe not the complexity of how it may or may not have happened. You begin to learn that if one stereotype about something in particular has been inserted into the narrative of your life, it’s easy to believe all stereotypes. Once that happens, everyone in the world has a stereotype about everyone else. This can bring down the spirit of innovation and progress, and sends us into a denial of the world around us, and our capacity to see it for what it is.

By looking at Arabic texts, you learn that we live in a complex world. Sometimes people live in circumstances that are abusive to their bodies, people are discriminated against, things that hurt, especially people who are gay, and so it’s very easy to just assume there’s nothing wrong with that, unless you look.

By looking and learning from our culture, we allow people to see that things can change, that their thoughts and opinions about those things are false and unjust, but we realize that it may take a while for those perceptions to change. But we know that change is possible, and that hope for a better, more civilized world that does not discriminate, is available.

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