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Arabic in Finland

Haseeb Shehadeh
2007 / 4 / 3

The Arabic Language in Finland
Haseeb SHEHADEH
University of Helsinki



íÇ ÑÈ ÇãäÍäí ÇáÞÏÑÉ Úáì ÊÍãá ãÇ áÇ ØÇÞÉ áí Úáì ÊÛííÑå æÇáÔÌÇÚÉ áÊÛííÑ ãÇ íäÈÛí ÊÛííÑå æÇáÍßãÉ ááÊÝÑíÞ ÈíäåãÇ
ÏÚÇÁ ÝíáÓæÝ ÅÛÑíÞí

“Oh God grant me the ability to endure what I can not change and courage to change what should be changed and give me wisdom to distinguish between them”.
A prayer of a Greek philosopher

The beginning of the study of Arabic in Europe, originally for missionary purposes, dates back to the middle ages. Later, two additional reasons or purposes developed: for studying medicine and for helping to understand the Hebrew Bible. Here in Finland, the academic year 1709-1710 marks the first year in which Arabic was taught.
The mandate of the Institute for Asian and African Studies (in Finnish: Aasian ja afrikan kielten ja kulttuurien laitos = The languages and cultures of Asia and Africa) founded in 1974 at the University of Helsinki is the "teaching and study of languages and cultures of Asia and Africa". The Institute consists of the following nine departments:
1) African Studies
2) Arabic and Islamic Studies
3) Assyriology
4) Central Asian Studies (Turkic and Iranian Studies), in Finnish appears as "Central Asian Studies" only.
5) East Asian Studies (Chinese, Korean and Altaic Studies), in Finnish appears as "East Asian Studies" only.
6) Egyptology
7) Japanese Studies
8) Semitic Studies (including Hebrew and Jewish Studies), in Finnish appears as "Semitic languages and Cultures".
9) South Asian Studies and Indo-European Studies.
The Institute is the only academic institution in Finland which teaches and investigates languages and cultures of Asia and Africa. These are the world’s two largest continents both in area and population. A multitude of languages and dialects are spoken there and they belong to Indo-European, Altaic, Hamito-Semitic, Sino-Tibetan, Uralic, Khoisan, Nilo-Saharan and Congo-Kordofanian including the subfamily of Bantu languages. More than a thousand languages are spoken in Africa. The Institute can be viewed as an outgrowth of the chair of Oriental Languages (linguarum orientalium) established in 1640 at Turku.
On 20 June 1984 a committee was established by the Finnish Ministry of Education to prepare a memorandum exploring the need for teaching and research in the above mentioned fields, and how to organize and develop these activities. The final main goal of the committee was how to achieve practical language skills and to explore the cultures of Asian and African peoples.
By the end of 1986 a memorandum of 506 pages had been prepared. One of its major proposals was to leave the task of teaching and research of Asian and African Studies in Finland to the University of Helsinki. In other words there was no need to establish new departments of Asian and African Studies in other Finnish universities such as in, Tampere, Oulu, Koupio, Turku and Jyv?skyl?. This means there is no Finnish competitive universities to the University of Helsinki in this vast field.
Some subjects, such as Assyriology and Egyptology, deal with antiquity and their main focus is naturally on research. These nine departments deal with the instruction in living as well as dead languages and cultures including Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian), Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Chinese, Coptic, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Mongolian, Ndongo, Pahlavi (Middle Persian), Persian, Phoenician, Sanskrit, Sumerian, Swahili, Syriac, Tamil, Turkish, Ugaritic, Urdu and Yiddish.
Accordingly, almost all the chairs of the Institute carry the title of “Chairs of languages and cultures”. The term ‘Culture’ means “how a human society lives and this includes ways of thinking, beliefs, customs, language, technology, art, music, literature and traditions” (The New American Desk Encyclopedia, completely revised and updated 3rd edition, 1993). In other words ‘culture’ is “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another” (Random House Webster s College Dictionary, 1991)
Though the Semitic languages in general and Arabic and Hebrew in particular interest us here, the general discussion holds true with regard to all other living languages. (taught at the Institute as well as at other departments at the University of Helsinki and elsewhere in the world). These two languages are considered mother tongues for the present writer. The number of native speakers of this family of languages is estimated at more than 370 million people. These people live in the Middle East, Ethiopia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, North Africa, Russia, North America, Latin America, Australia and Europe.
The Middle East is the cradle of civilisation and the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Finland there are over eight thousand speakers of Arabic and a few hundreds speakers of Hebrew. Now in its eleventh year, a weekly two-hours programme in Arabic (the voice of Ibn Fa?l?n, established in 3rd of March 1996) is heard locally by radio in Helsinki.
The relationship between language and culture is particularly strong among Jews and Arabs because of their holy books, the Old Testament and the QurAbd al-W?l• (1851-1852), Wilhelm Lagus (1857-1866), Knut Tallqvist (1899-1934), Aapeli Saarisalo (1935-1963), and Jussi Aro (1965-1983).
The Arabic language has been taught in Finland within the framework of Semitic languages as has been generally the case in the west. It seems that some courses in Arabic were given during the eighteenth century. Yet the earliest obvious course on Arabic grammar was in 1709-1710 in Turku. For Christian religious reasons, Hebrew was the main Semitic language taught in the west. Adding Arabic was for the sake of illustrating some obscure lexical phenomena in the language of the Hebrew Bible. Professor Abraham Alanus was the first teacher of Arabic in the eighteenth century. The chair for the Arabic language was created in 1980, lectureship in 1971 and assistantship in 1990.
One can learn about the culture or some aspects of the culture of a given society by two major means. The first is language study in all its manifestations, prose and poetry, written and spoken language at various levels and in different periods. It is a well known fact that language is the most necessary tool of civilisation. It is self-evident that competence in a certain literary language means mastering the four skills, listening, speaking, reading, and writing. With regard to spoken languages, the ability to speak at least one dialect is definitely necessary. Language is the mirror of culture in many ways. There is a significant difference between learning about a culture of a society or community through translation or directly through its native language. One may compare these two ways by imagining someone who has read several articles and books about sauna, the Finnish bath, for instance, and some one else who has also a rich experience of the sauna bath. +ubr?n Khal•l +ubr?n (1883-1931) has said “Do you think you can know the taste of wine just by looking at the jar from outside”? Generally speaking we are dealing with theory and practice. Both are required and important in our modern era of globalization. Each complements and strengthens the other and both are emphasized in all spheres of life in Finland. In academic literature, theory without practice is shaky and practice without a theoretical basis is not considered scientific. In addition to the main two manifestations of language, written and spoken, one may add the “mute language” as named by the anthropologist E. Hall. There are various means and forms of information and message such as the so-called body language and intonation. Such means and forms are very difficult to investigate.
This issue reminds me of the following slogan that I found somewhere on the internet. "Theory is when you understand everything but nothing works. Practice is when everything works, but you don’t understand why. In this research station, we combine theory with practice: nothing works, and we don’t understand why”. In other words we are dealing with utterance and writing, speech and language. J. R. Firth wrote “Language is currency minted with the public stamp, and usage is a way of life”. (J. R. Firth, The Tongues of Men and Speech. Oxford University Press, first published 1930, repr. 1966, pp. 7-8). The well-known Arab scholar Ibn Khald¥n (1332-1406) drew the following relevant simile in his Muqaddima. A theoretical knowledge of Arabic grammar does not necessarily lead to writing good Arabic, any more than a knowledge of all the rules of sewing or swimming makes for a good tailor or swimmer. In other words one can reach a conclusion that active knowledge leads to formulation of rules and theory but not vice versa.
Linguistics has been described as “the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences”. The methods of observation, classification, generalization and analysis are found in natural sciences as well as in linguistics. With the humanities it shares an interest in language, which is unique to the human race, distinguishing the human being as the “talking animal”. Any manifestation of language deserves to be investigated by linguists. Yet, the fundamental object of study for linguistics is speech rather than writing. Theory and practice, the world of things and of thoughts which is to a great extent unorganized, receives structure when expressed by a spoken language. The primary task of linguistics, as a matter of fact, is the correlation between the world of sound with the world of meaning. Needless to say that primarily language is a matter of understanding and speaking rather than reading and writing. With regard to living languages the natural question is: Do you speak Arabic, Hebrew, Finnish etc. and not do you write them, particularly when we are talking about experts. All mankind understands and speaks and a small number of the languages of the world are attested. Historically, it is possible that man started speaking and understanding since half a million—a million years ago while writing and reading go back only to five thousand-ten thousand years ago.
The second means for understanding culture is direct interaction with people of that culture. By direct interaction we mean living among the people of that culture for a sufficient period of time. Communication with the people of the culture under study in their own dialect is a great advantage. Direct connection brings forth many insights and shades of understanding which usually are not revealed through translation into a foreign language. Somebody who acquired his knowledge in Palestinian Arabic through textbooks and dictionaries knows, for example, that the meaning of “ba>d?n” is “later on, afterwards” while in reality it often means “some time in the future, or never”. In language there are, as a rule, three layers of meaning, linguistic, contextual and social and emotional. The last one is obscure to orientalists including Arabists who are unable to make themselves understood to a living Arab. Needless to say that there are several levels of knowing a given language such as beginner, intermediate and advanced. One effective way for testing an active knowledge of a foreigner in the Finnish language, for instance, is a successful conversation with a child. With regard to a written language an ability to give a scientific oral lecture on the field of the expert should be proved.
According to the ‘Plan’ of Hurskainen the educational background of most of the present chair holders is philological or linguistic, and their competence in cultural studies in general and social studies in particular is minimal. Students in general have great interest in cultural studies. Yet, nothing is mentioned with reference to achieving any level of active knowledge of the languages studied. In his comprehensive and interesting article, “Arab Studies in Finland since the Seventeenth Century”, Heikki Palva, a well-known scholar of Arabic dialectology, does not touch upon the issue of active knowledge discussed here. His somewhat ambiguous statement, “The University of Helsinki is so far the only university in Finland where regular academic courses in the Arabic language are given” (Proceedings of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East, 1/2001, p. 9) means that “Arabic language” is one of the subjects taught at the University of Helsinki, but one does not know whether instruction takes place in Arabic or in some other language. Needless to say, the difference between speaking about Arabic and actually speaking Arabic is huge. The present writer is not aware of any course in which Arabic is used in teaching, neither in colloquial nor in MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) at the University of Helsinki.
I have the impression that most students are interested in the acquisition of proficiency in the languages they are learning. They would be satisfied and pleased to speak and write in the language they have selected as their major field rather than just talking about that language. Yet, the central and direct question is how to teach such students a particular language where that language is not spoken in daily life. Furthermore, it should be clearly stated that one of the basic purposes of the departments mentioned above is to help their students to achieve a certain level of practical knowledge of their study language. Not every student would be able to travel to a country where the language he learns is spoken. With regard to MSA such a visit does not contribute much because it is not the mother tongue of any Arab. One of the main factors which helps students to acquire proficiency in a language is to hear that language spoken regularly. Listening to the sounds of a language must be, in the first place, through competent teachers {other students, at home, the media, etc.}. The assistance offered by modern technology, radio, television, internet, video, CD etc. are decisive especially in countries in which the studied language is not spoken. “Hearing is the father of linguistic faculties (wa-al-sama>u ab¥ al-malak?t al-lis?niyya) as Ibn Khald¥n said. One of the main duties of a teacher is to guide, stimulate and motivate his students. What would be the attitude and reaction of students when they notice and learn to know that their teachers do not among themselves use the language they teach, or rather it is more accurate to say ‘each about’. Is there any shadow of motivation in such a case?
A theoretical or passive knowledge of a specific language may be sufficient to teach classical texts by translation and linguistic and philological analysis and conduct research on such literature. Such education which does not include active knowledge or use of a given language would face pivotal difficulties in teaching students the skill of speaking or writing in that language. In most cases the knowledge is visual rather than verbal reading clearly and correctly in a loud voice. It is not impossible that in such occasions ‘figs’ become ‘mud’, ‘a bus’ becomes ‘he kissed’, ‘the famous Arab writer al-+??i?’ (to have a prominent cornea) becomes ‘ready’, ‘her door’ becomes ‘the Pope’, ‘carrots’ become ‘trees’, ‘how are you’ becomes ‘how is your maternal uncle’, ‘>abla(?†•hi). Therefore, a clear distinction should be made between these two types of knowledge. It seems to us, however, that both types are necessary for a full understanding and evaluation of written and spoken literature. One can perhaps become a translator from Arabic to his mother tongue, but it is not clear how he can be a teacher let alone a professor of a living language in the ordinary sense of the word. Such an academic position consists of two major goals, research and teaching the language - not about the language - in question or history of the religion or the people of that language.
Maxime Rodinson wrote over two decades ago “There are signs of abandonment of the view held implicitly for over a century that a philological training is adequate to the solving of all the problems arising within a linguistically defined task” (J. Schacht and C.E. Bosworth (eds.), The Legacy of Islam. Oxford 1979, p. 62).
One may raise the traditional question: What kind of Arabic would you like to teach your students to speak? There are many vernaculars of Arabic: Egyptian, Iraqi, Moroccan, Gulf, Syrian, etc. In addition mention should be made of the “educated Arabic” common among educated Arabs from all over the Arab world. This manifestation of Arabic is almost entirely neglected in the west. The final choice depends, of course, on the decision of the students. Foreigners who do not plan to work or live in an Arab country for a long period of time have to decide if practical knowledge is needed at all. Teaching Arabic dialects for scientific field research is undoubtedly important and sometimes there is no pressing need for a scholar in Arabic dialectology to know how to speak well a given dialect on which he has written a scholarly linguistic analysis based on written dialectal material. It is not a secret that some contemporary researchers of Arabic dialectology have written works on this field of studies without uttering a few sentences in Arabic. They are able to describe the grammatical basis and rules of a specific dialect but at the same time they are unable to speak that dialect. Accordingly, the accurate meanings of many idiomatic expressions and usages - particularly the emotional and social - are explained by native speakers whose contribution in the whole research is usually briefly mentioned in a vague manner in the prefaces alone. The same thing holds true with regard to Classical Arabic and MSA. In many cases the amount and extent of independent knowledge on the part of such scholars are not obvious. Is it sufficient to describe something that a scholar himself has not experienced but knows only how to find and collect answers to questions on a theoretical level?
The academic degrees that our Institute offers to the students do not, as a rule, lead to a specific profession. The only profession which comes to mind is translation from a foreign language into Finnish and perhaps jobs in military and other intelligence service. It is very rare to find Finns who translate from Finnish to, let us say, Arabic or Hebrew. On the basis of our experience it seems that translators who lack an active knowledge of MSA or spoken Arabic have serious difficulties in understanding correctly what is said, especially in normal spontaneous cases such as in court rooms, Mosques, Synagogues and Churches. (Even the experts do not always understand what is being said in the mosques, synagogues, and churches!). It is safe to add that the same thing holds true with regard to modern Arabic literature in which MSA and local dialects are mixed up. Such kinds of translators are also unable to conduct an ordinary conversation in Arabic, as the well known Lebanese writer, Emily Nasrallah, found out that a translator of her book “Al-Iql?> >aks al-zam?n” (The Flight against Time), who is a University professor, turned out to be unable to speak Arabic at all when she met her! In these case translation is done by the help of dictionaries, native speakers and previous translations in other languages and the classical example is the translations of the Qur Other linguistic subjects in the humanities, such as English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, etc. may prepare elementary or secondary school teachers. It would be very astonishing and unusual to find a professor of languages such as Dutch, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, let alone English, French, or German who is ‘illiterate’ or ‘semi-literate’ with regard to active knowledge, namely speaking and writing. That is why it is easier for foreigners to read Arabic or Hebrew in transcription rather than in their own scripts without vocalisation. Arab students face the same difficulty while reading Judaeo-Arabic written in Hebrew characters.
The cardinal question which should be raised is: Does the Institute for Asian and African Studies aim to equip its students with a practical or active knowledge or only a passive knowledge of the languages taught? These are two different targets and they require different strategies and staff. In order to reach a satisfactory degree of active knowledge in a given language, students should attend specific courses. It is true, an ordinary student may be able to learn by himself the basic grammar of Arabic or Hebrew and pass the required tests without being able to speak, write and even to read correctly. Those who can learn to speak languages through ‘self education’ or by talking from time to time with native speakers are uncommon in our time. Here in Finland it is not easy to find many Jussi-Taneli Aros in this respect of a knowledgeable insider, combining a wide range of active knowledge with theory. The teachers of such courses have gradually to use the language they teach and as soon as possible in the classroom. It would be very positive when the teachers of a certain language speak that language among themselves and by so doing, they and particularly the professor, set an example for their students to follow. The notion of laying the whole ‘burden’ of teaching a living language only on the shoulders of the lecturer is not to be accepted. Such lecturers are not always vesant in the languages they teach.
The general attitude in the Institute is to emphasize the theoretical side of the teaching process so that the student can acquire active knowledge by visiting the country in which the language in question is spoken. Accordingly, why does not the head of that department travel for a specific period of time and come back with the needed active knowledge and by so doing set an example for his colleagues and students? When a Master of Arts candidate was asked why he does not speak the Arabic he had studied for so many years he replied: Because I learned it at the university where the teachers themselves including the professor (the only one who is supposed to know and guide in all issues of Arabic and Islam!) speak English among themselves.
It is really surprising that such a knowledge is not perquisite in filling the positions of professorships. Just try to imagine that a professor of Finnish language and literature from, say Syria, visits Helsinki and uses English during his stay at the university and gives a lecture in Arabic or English on the Arabic translation of Sinuhe the Egyptian by Mika Waltari.
Moreover, for advanced students and particularly in courses in modern literature it would be significant and useful to use the native language and not a foreign one. It is a well known fact that poetry is the principal artistic manifestation in Arabic. Sometimes, especially in poetry , “the explanation of nice things kills them” as Niz?r Qabb?n• writes (li?t ?i>riyya >ala maq?m al->i?q. Beirut, 2nd ed. 1998, p. 81). On the other hand, if the main purpose is comprehension of texts by means of translation, which has its own shortcomings, and dry linguistic analysis, then the whole set of courses and necessary steps of studies should be directed to this goal. In other words the goal would be to develop and deepen one linguistic skill, by reading. This is the so-called visual knowledge of a language. A. L. Al-?•b?w• writes “It has long been an academic scandal that the professor [i.e. the specialist] of Arabic teaches [and at length knows] no Arabic and neglects to write on Arabic subjects, is moreover never seen to write or heard to speak Arabic, and yet engages in theological and political [and linguistic] controversy” (The Islamic Quarterly XXIII, 1 (1979) 12-13). It seems that the situation today is substantially the same.
Does such passive and hidden knowledge suit our era in the twenty first century? Are we dealing with archaeology and dead languages or with living languages of living peoples among us in this global village? In our era the mutual cultural links and exchanges among various people is significant and common. It is not impossible that a poet, writer, scholar, Rabbi, Sheik, Pastor, etc. whose mother tongue is Hebrew or Arabic would be invited to Helsinki University to give a lecture on his field of specialization. Should the guest speak English with his hosts or would it rather be more respectful for the two parties to use the native language of the guest which is the language of specialization of the host?
Subsequently, in the absence of active knowledge, the students, as a matter of fact, will learn only about thirty -three per cent of one manifestation of a given language. The rest of the components of a language are speaking and writing which are undoubtedly more difficult to master. To make sure that students have acquired a reasonable faculty of a given language it should be clear that a great majority of sources utilized for the M.A. thesis and others to come should be written in the language in question. It would not be logical that a student of Arabic or of Hebrew will use mainly foreign sources, English, French, German etc. while writing his research say on one of the poets al-Mutanabb• and Judah hal-Levi, or on one of the Nobel laureates, Na?•b Ma?f¥? and Sh”ai >Agnon. It is important to mention that almost all the curriculum of studies is carried out on an independent basis. Therefore the differences of level between students are great. Most of the independent readings that a student has to do are not in the language that he is learning. The bulk of material that the student has to be examined in or to write an essay about should be written in the language that he is studying. Is our ordinary student towards the final stages of his M.A. studies able to read and understand articles in newspapers and periodicals, let alone scientific ones, written in the language which is his major subject? It seems that this issue was not given its due weight unti now.
“Up until the 1960s within the framework of Arabic instruction in Finland the language was treated as though it were dead” (The University of Helsinki, the Department of Asian and African Studies. University No. 1, 1989, offprint, p. 4 unnumbered). Unfortunately, it seems that the situation today, after over four decades, has not changed much with regard to teaching oral or written mastery of Modern Standard Arabic as well as Modern Hebrew. One reason could be paucity of teaching staff due to lack of resources. Until now, the beginning of the twenty-first century , the department of Semitic Languages and Cultures has no assistant. In this modern era it would be unusual to consider Arabic as an exotic language since it is the holy language of more than one billion people and is one of the major languages of the world, accepted as an official language by the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations on January 1, 1982 and December 20, 1982.
For Arabs, Arabic is the raison d’être of nationalism. Usually it is a ‘riw?ya’ (narrative) rather than a ‘dir?ya’ (knowledge) but we believe it is both, practice and theory, hearsay and analogy (sam?>, qiy?s). Language, as Michel Bréal, has put it “overflows the bounds of logic on every side” (Semantics: Studies in the Science of Meaning, New York 1964, p. 220).
The well known Egyptian writer >Abb?s Ma?m¥d al->Aqq?d more than four decades ago observed that some specialists of the Arabic language in the West are indeed ignorant of it simply because they cannot feel it or capture its spirit through the rules of language. (See ?aq? Arabic is the soul of the Arabs. While a simple declaration (?ah?da) of faith may lead a person to Islam, he can not master Arabic by a similar method. The Lis?n contains about 80, 000 entries and it requires motivation, effort, time and lots of readings. In addition, respect of a language, its nation and culture, requires active knowledge too. In his lecture in London in 1907 Professor Edward Westermarck said: I am convinced that when dealing with non-European peoples the implementation of knowledge on their conditions would be more useful than gunpowder, more human and less expensive. By knowledge he meant direct / active and indirect / passive and not only what is written in books. For the sake of clarification one may say that Islam in scientific literature is one thing and Islam in the minds and hearts of Muslims is another thing and each one is a wide complex. Knowing how people think, interpret texts, phenomena and ideas is crucial for an accurate and real understanding. Such a knowledge can hardly be reached through books and translations without having direct contact with people in their own language.
It is a must to differentiate between a researcher, a translator and a professor of and not about a living language. Besides, the objectives of studies need to be clear and ambitious.
Does the University of Helsinki consider an active knowledge of living languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Swahili as one of its goals? If the answer is positive then the heads of such departments ought to set an example for the rest of the staff.
Is there a pressing need to discuss the whole issue at the Faculty of Humanities (in order to tackle the whole issue) in order to find suitable solutions for the future and for the interest of our Institute as well as for the positive image of the University of Helsinki?
Tomorrow is always late and the world ahead.







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