Reflecting Allowed

On Heads and Dancing: Adventures in Arabic Diglossia

If you know Arabic, this should be immediately funny.  If you don’t, I’ll explain in a second. Just remember that the Arabic we write (Modern Standard Arabic aka MSA) is different from the Arabic we speak (colloquial, with different dialects in different countries that are not necessarily mutually comprehensible).

My daughter (who mostly is a native speaker of colloquial Arabic but not very exposed to Modern Standard… but is also learning to read it in school…) sees a picture of the head of a person, and reads the Arabic word ra2s (رأس) and asks me “why isn’t he dancing?”

She confused the MSA word for “head”, ra2s (Which in colloquial is pronounced raas راس ) with the colloquial word for dancing, which in colloquial is pronounced ra2sس but in MSA is actually completely different letters raqs (رقص)

I’ve been telling this story to people because it’s funny… but it’s also such a sign of how confusing this is for little kids. I mean, she was doing what I’d been trying to tell her… trying to find the connection between the MSA and colloquial words so she would understand the MSA words and remember them. But now that she can read, she was able to read the word and she did not make the connection with the picture of the head. Because it’s not really obvious what a picture of a head really signifies, I guess. And she read the word, interpreted the colloquial, and found a disconnect with the picture. They really need to do something about these Arabic textbooks. They really need to choose the right words, or to make an effort to help kids differentiate the confusing words, because, man, this two language thing is hard.

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