Professor teaches Arabic at UCSD

Arabic is spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world, yet until now, it was not widely studied at UCSD. Thanks to Professor Sonia Ghattas-Soliman, however, that is changing; the department of linguistics will now offer a four-quarter, lower division series in the study of Arabic.

Anna MacMurdo

The linguistics department has long offered an independent study program in the many dialects of Arabic, but the two- or four-unit courses were not applicable to the colleges’ foreign language requirement. Nor were any literature classes offered in Arabic, though Arabic literature was studied in translation.

However, recent political developments in the Middle East have increased attention on Arabic culture and piqued many students’ curiosity about the language. Ghattas-Soliman, who also teaches Arabic at Grossmont College, noticed increased enrollment in her classes after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She proposed that UCSD’s linguistics department offer Arabic language courses, and they agreed. This quarter, LIAB 1A and 1B are being offered, and as the year continues, 1C and 1D will also be offered.

Ghattas-Soliman is excited about universities’ and students’ increased interest in Arabic language and culture.

“”I think it’s really very good because there is a lot of misunderstanding,”” she said. “”It’s a very nice culture, and up to now probably what has been emphasized is the negative rather than the positive. Once people get to hear about all the different areas and aspects of Arabic culture, they are surprised because they find a lot of similarities also to different other cultures.””

The courses teach students to read, write and speak Arabic — or at least one of the many varieties of the language. The language is actually divided into three versions: classical Arabic, in which the Koran is written; standard Arabic, which is the written language throughout the Arabic-speaking world; and colloquial-spoken Arabic. The last varies widely throughout the world, but the five main dialects are those of Egypt, Iraq, the Arabian peninsula, North Africa and the Levant.

“”The Egyptian dialect is the one which is most known and most understood,”” Ghattas-Soliman said. “”So I decided that along with the standard Arabic that the students learn, I was going to incorporate the Egyptian-Arabic, but not disregard the other dialects. The emphasis will be on Egyptian.””

Ghattas-Soliman also said she hopes UCSD’s literature department will offer lower and upper division courses in Arabic so students can continue their study of the language past the basics.

Students enrolled in the classes this quarter are excited about the program. Muir senior Nelly Salem said she signed up for LIAB 1A as soon as she heard about it, because she is Egyptian and though she speaks colloquial Arabic, she wants to understand the Koran.

“”[The class] is interesting,”” she said, “”but I wish there was more emphasis on standard Arabic.””

Salem also said she thinks Arabic is a good subject for students to study because it isn’t difficult to learn.

“”The challenges are mainly biases,”” Salem said. “”If you have the passion and you want to learn it, it would be an easy language to learn.””

Hunaid Gurji, a graduate student in bioengineering, is also of Arab descent. His previous knowledge of Arabic, however, was limited to the writing system and its pronunciation.

“”I don’t like to read something and not understand it,”” he said. “”Different translations [of the Koran] in English mean different things, but if you read it straight up in Arabic, you’re getting the purest form of it.”” He added, “”I think it’s very important for someone to know their native tongue.””

Academic pursuits were also cited by students as reasons for enrolling. J.R. Osborn is a graduate student in communication and works with Islamic calligraphy, wherein a passage of Arabic text is shaped like an object. He is interested in learning more Arabic to better understand this art form.

“”It’s nice that you can finally learn it,”” Osborn said. “”But it’s questionable as to what the reasons are for why it’s being taught.””

Alluding to government agencies such as the FBI, CIA and The State Department heavily recruiting speakers of Arabic, he said, “”Better not to study anything out of fear.””

Ghattas-Soliman noted that students in the classes have many reasons for taking it, including job opportunities in international relations, law and translation.

“”I hope that this will be a very good opportunity to expand the [Arabic] program,”” she said, “”People really would like to know much more.””