Thursday, April 19, 2012

Language textbooks: original script vs transliteration

Some of us learn languages that use different alphabet than Roman. They include e.g. Arabic, Hindi, Thai, Russian and many others. Writing systems of some of them are quite straightforward, as in Hindi, others are more difficult as in Arabic. Nonetheless, if you want to learn a language to be able to communicate not only in speech but also in writing, you'd rather learn to read and write too.

However not all the textbooks help you with it. There are textbooks that use transliteration in texts. In my opinion it’s not a good idea. I think it may help to give the pronunciation of new words in the vocabulary under a reading passage or in the glossary at the end of the book.
Well, I can imagine that someone wants to learn a language in its spoken form, without a need to read or write in it. Then this approach is suitable, but I’m convinced that more people are eager to learn a language as a whole, fully.

Some books use transliteration along with the original script. “Colloquial Hindi” which is an example of such an approach. The dialogs and readings are given in Devanagari script accompanied by transliteration in the Roman script. I must admit that in my case that didn’t help. On the contrary, it rather caused unnecessary confusion in learning the language.
Maybe such an approach would be more suitable with language which writing is not so regular and “predictable” as Hindi. In Hindi when you know the letters you have no difficulty with reading a text, as it is fairly regular. Maybe French – as it’s not so predictable, but I’m not 100 percent sure.

An obvious idiotic (sorry for a strong word) example of transliteration is for me “Aprende y mejora rápidamente tu portugués”. It’s a textbook for learning Portuguese written in Spanish. Who the hell came up with the idea of transliterating Portuguese texts into Spanish!? It looks odd and only causes a mess, not making it easier to read and learn. Especially, when you have a CD which is sold as part of the book.

Having written this, I’d like to write about “Colloquial Arabic of Egypt”. I began my journey with Egyptian Arabic with this book. It seemed alright at the beginning. I thought: well, I will learn some essentials from it, reading transliterated texts, and then I’ll proceed to texts in original script – they are attached at the end of the book. The truth is, I never did. After having finished all the lessons, I just switched to another book. But at least they give you a chance to read original texts.
Although I learnt the Arabic writing system earlier from “Teach Yourself Beginner’s Arabic Script” I think that doing “Colloquial Arabic of Egypt” was kind of a step back in this regard. Now I’m studying “Teach Yourself Arabic” (MSA) and the approach of this book is much better. The texts, in early lessons just short passages, are written entirely in Arabic, but just below them there are glossaries containing new words along with their English transcription. This way I don’t have to hesitate how to pronounce a given word, but I also have an occasion to practice reading it in its original form.

Transliteration sometimes adds unnecessary confusion and mess to the textbook. “Colloquial Arabic of Egypt” is an excellent example. As some of you might know, in Arabic short vowels are not written which causes differences in their transcription. For example, the word مصر (mSr), which means Egypt, may be written in English as maSr or miSr (capital “S” stands here for emphatic “S”). Similarly the word أنت (ant), let’s assume that in this example it means „you” (masculine singular), can be transliterated as “enta”, “anta” or even “inta”. It’s alright as long as the authors/publishers stick to one system of transliteration. If they transliterate the same words differently throughout the book it causes unnecessary confusion, and is a proof of carelessness. That's the case of „Colloquial Arabic of Egypt”. To read about the mistakes I've found in "CA of E", click here
The problem may be avoided using original script.
Sticking to the example given, how can I be sure that there are no mistakes in Arabic texts at the end of the book?

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