Learning Classical Arabic, DIY-Style

Filed under: arabic, learning, language, diy, quran, islam

One day, you decide you want to learn how to play a new instrument. You go to a music store, buy the thing, bring it home and get started on a music-theory curriculum. You're pretty tech-savvy, so instead of the traditional 'learning notes from a textbook' or 'attending a class', you are aware that resources like youtube, online programs, and forums exists. While the rest of the world wastes their time in Berkley, you're ahead of the curve. Once you finish this theory class, you're gonna be unstoppable.

If you play an instrument, the above paragraph will garner an immediate feeling of alienation - of course that's not what you did! You brought the instrument home, and you tried to play it. You felt it in your hands and re-enacted what you've seen musicians do on TV. Sure, you opened up a youtube video and searched 'introduction to instrument-X, how to play song-Y in 10 minutes!', but ultimately, what you wanted to do, what you bought the instrument for, was to play music and that's exactly what you set out to do. What does this have to do with learning Arabic?

In the (practicing) Muslim community, every (non-Arabic speaking) Ahmed and Aisha want to 'eventually learn Arabic'. I am one of them. It's on our list-of-things-to-accomplish. It's a goal that sits there, promising exponentially growing profits. To stand in prayer and literally know what is being recited is - in gaming terms - a cheat-code, a hack. We fight hard every day in Ramadan to pray night prayers without recessing into our imaginations - if we could actually understand what's being said?.. Well, now that would be a game changer. Point being, our desire to learn classical Arabic is specifically for a certain endpoint: to read the Quran without translation.

I've tried 3-5 different approaches in my life so far to learn classical Arabic, each differing in style. Ranging from mixtures of understanding primary morphology to tackling root words directly in order of their frequency of occurrence to an old-fashioned verse-by-verse understanding. Each time, motivation has waned, efforts have stalled, and I have crashed. I've picked up things here and there, but largely, I would consider the attempts failures.

Recently, I got to contrasting my failure at classical Arabic with my more successful self-learning endeavors, what was so different? The closest comparison I can make is learning how to play the guitar. Firstly, it's been shown that learning music and learning a language can be surprisingly similar tasks - pattern recognition, amount of dedication required, aural focus, mathematical-yet-more-than-math. But in my opinion, the more interesting resemblance is the student's expectations around their 'economy of progress'. Which is just a slightly cooler way of saying that both efforts have similar expectations around how efficiently and how effectively efforts yield results.

If I spend a week learning notes and still can't play some song, it's a no-go. If I spend a week learning Arabic vocabulary and still can't read any verse, I am tempted to drop it altogether. Most programs for language will nag you about a lack of discipline for this 'lazy' attitude. I think music programs tried this shame and blame game too until the freelancers (think Patreon) realized that didn't have to be the case - discipline could be implicitly achieved without explicit commands. They started making DIY kind of lessons, knowing that most people roaming online trying to learn how to play music were not interested in becoming legends. Most were recreational musicians, they just wanted to be a part, in some way or another, of the world they loved. And so, students kept coming back, whenever they had the desire (which seldom dies if it is achieving momentum). It was, dare I say, fun. There were complainers and purists, nagging about the lack of understanding of musical scales, and musical keys, and what not. They are still there, still complaining. Unfortunately, all the self-learned amateurs are too busy making music to notice.

Is the above narrative so different for classical Arabic learners (specifically for the purpose of understanding Quran)? We are interested in engaging with what we love, not to become a scholarly source of the various grammar rules. Within this line of thought, I propose we need a DIY-style approach to classical Arabic. I propose this as someone who can be classified as a failure in other approaches of learning Arabic.. so on the one hand, I could be whining, and yet on the other it is precisely why I may be on to something (skin in the game!).

DIY kind of approaches seem whimsical - and they are, in essence - yet can sometimes be the most focused, level-headed approaches to matters. They eliminate noise. They focus on a spot in the valley and jump, hoping (nay, demanding) they grow wings on the way down. They don't account for everything, they affirm the 80-20 phenomenon and use it to their advantage. Somehow, they make it - maybe a little rough around the edges, but they live. They can authentically say to their friends 'I did something and I can show for it'. Only some months later will they look back on their initial iterations and cringe at its low quality, but of course, by then, they will be too far ahead - having learned a great deal more - for it to have any psychological stunting effect.

In the case of classical Arabic, the result to focus on is obvious: the Quran. The units of results are the verses (not vocabulary!). The entire effort, after all, is to understand coherent sentences - it's what gives us the 'progress'-feeling akin to playing a sequence on an instrument. The vocabulary/grammar itself (like musical notes) is a middleman soliciting our attention, we would abandon it all together if it weren't innately necessary in the process (recall how much grammar rules you know of your native tongue). So we have a process of differing and repeating.

The process: Get some new tools (units of language), make something new (understand a verse), repeat.

What a DIY Approach to Classical Arabic Could Look Like

A DIY approach is not a 'curriculum' - this is exactly what we are trying to escape. It should not tie you down to anything. It should not necessitate a specific structure but allow for one to organically come about from the student. The 'lesson plans / tutorials' should come in bits and stages - easily consumable in a sitting yet lasting in reflection-able material for a week. Each session should engage the student and prize her with a grain of what she desires most in this adventure: a cashable result. Cashable results being some form of capital, something that is a part to the Big Deal (understanding the entire Quran) but complete in itself as well. For example, some verses should be completely (not partially!) readable even if they are easy verses - if I hear them in prayer or recite them, a light should come on atop my head. If I am around friends and the sentence is said, I should be able to grasp at some social attention by claiming, "ah, that means.. [insert English translation here]".

Furthermore, these lesson plans should be optimized - no one likes to follow tutorials that are randomly put together. Students must feel there is meaning - strong, overpowering causes - behind proposals. Usually in DIY approaches, this is accomplished by an expert providing the guidance - the students remain under the impression that if an expert chooses one route, they have actively not-chosen other routes.

Is there room for teaching technicalities (specifics of grammar rules, etc.)? Yes, but conditionally - the condition being every technicality has to have a direct linkage to that cashable result of the lesson, that sweet prize for which the student exerts herself voluntarily.

It is also important that no one gets greedy - neither the lesson, nor the student. Imagine sowing and harvesting - the idea is that each lesson plan is a mini-year containing all the seasons. What I sow at the start, I reap by the end. The lesson plan should not be sowing too little, hoping repeated harvesting will attract students (because in actuality it won't). The student should not be sowing too much, delaying the harvest in hopes for a relatively larger reward. Haste is not good here, haste is simply not fun. Teaching a bunch of easy songs or trying to learn one intensely hard song - both are forms of greediness and therefore, sins to be avoided.

With these principles in place, the rest of the process should be untouched. The student should be left alone, the teacher should not care to see any change. On the surface, it would be an indifferent, uneventful process. But deeper in, I imagine a heavy current of joy and passion interplaying with whim and hunger.

(Once again, be advised this entire approach would be for amateurs who do not wish to be anything but - for modest students, without long term ambitions holding them back.)

Previous Post2019 Q1 Report - An Inventory Check of Loves & Likes
Next Post