Leila Samy, co-author of Basic Arabic, is May's Author of the Month! Leila Samy, MPH, directs a Federal Government program to help under served (e.g., poor and rural) communities across the Unites States (US) leverage technology to improve health care quality and fuel economic development. As an expert in Arabic language, Ms. Samy has provided technical services to a range of institutions, including the University of Michigan and the World Health Organization.
In a new interview, Ms. Samy opened up about what makes the Arabic language so special, completing Basic Arabic after the passing of her father and co-author Waheed Samy, what sets this grammar apart from others, and more.
What is your favorite thing about the Arabic language?
When an event involving the Middle East explodes on the world stage, I go on social media (e.g., Twitter, You Tube) and search the same terms in Arabic and in English or French. My objective is to listen to the concerns, identify patterns in social sentiment and predict misunderstandings across the parties involved in the conversation or crisis. Most remarkable is the extent of the dissonance I find in the message communicated about the same event in Arabic versus English. Unlike in a disagreement where two groups may be presenting opposing sides to the same story, what I tend to discover in analyzing the dialogue are two completely different and independent conversations taking place concurrently leaving a lot of noise and unanswered questions. I typically find answers to the questions puzzling talking heads in American media plainly stated for all to see but in Arabic.
If we want to properly interpret and engage in issues concerning geopolitics and the Middle East or successfully negotiate compelling deals with certain emerging markets, we should collectively learn more Arabic. By learning Arabic, we can understand Arab media, listen to “both sides” of a conversation, have a more effective dialogue, reach a wider audience and ultimately make smarter decisions.
On a lighter note, I laugh the most when speaking with Egyptian friends or watching Egyptian comedy. Having a command of Arabic allows me to enjoy jokes, puns and sarcasm in Arabic.
Would you briefly describe Basic Arabic?
The body of the book is in English and it describes Modern Standard Arabic with an emphasis on morphology (how words are structured and what patterns are used to generate their meaning) and syntax (how to assign a word its function in a sentence or context). The book includes Arabic text that is translated and transliterated where needed, and it also includes glossaries of Arabic terms in exercises and examples.
Basic Arabic offers a robust set of examples, summary tables and charts (e.g. phonological characteristic and transcriptions of Arabic letters and diacritics, noun-verb paradigm chart, active and passive forms of verbs), exercises, as well as an answer key for the exercises.
Basic Arabic has 51 chapters (i.e., units). Each unit stands alone so readers can go directly to unit 51 without reading units 1 through 50. Each unit defines and explains a subject and focuses only on one aspect of a more complex topic to enable readers to assimilate one thing at a time. For example, Arabic verbs are distributed across a number of units, including separate units for each of the ten verb forms. The book also has a number of units on nouns, including human and non-human categories of nouns, and other noun attributes such as number, gender, case, and definiteness. Other units include: numbers and counting, questions, negation, time, and the basics of a sentence.
What sets Basic Arabic apart from other Arabic grammars available?
A key feature of this book is that it is not cumbersome to read, considering the complexity of its content. The manuscript uses plain English to describe the Arabic language. The Arabic font is clear and pleasing to the eye.
In Basic Arabic, we explore various ways in which Arabic and English are different. For example, we have units that help English speakers avoid common mistakes that are made when translating from English to Arabic. We also cover common English expressions (e.g., “to have”) that have a broad range of meanings (e.g., ownership, in mind, time). We match-up Arabic equivalents with each of the meanings of “to have” and describe them in detail; we also outline meanings of “to have” in English that do not have Arabic equivalents. We also describe the different ways Arabic and English words package information, where an English word tends to encapsulate an individual unit, like an object or a verb, whereas Arabic words tend to contain compounds, such as a verb and a subject and an object all in one word.
This book is useful to a broad audience, including teachers, diplomats and uniformed service members living abroad, as well as classroom-based students. Basic Arabic comprises a grammar reference as well as a workbook of exercises and answers all in a single volume.
Why did you and your father, Waheed Samy, decide to write Basic Arabic?
My father passed away suddenly. When he did, I stepped in his shoes to try to finish some of the things he started, including this project. I found this project compelling because of the extent it would contribute to and fill gaps in existing published content. For example, my father had developed an extensive set of resources that he used to prepare his teaching curricula; importantly, these resources filled gaps that he found in Arabic textbooks commonly used in American universities. When his students needed additional explanation for topics beyond what was available to them in their textbooks, he developed targeted material, talking points for himself, to resolve these issues in his classrooms. One of my priorities in writing this book was to develop a framework for filling these gaps that is both comprehensive and accessible to a wide range of readers.
My father’s aim was to produce an Arabic language book that is modern and functions as an independent reference as well as a supplement to Arabic textbooks used in programmed Arabic courses at the beginning and intermediate levels in academic institutions.
Who would find this book useful? Tell us about your audience.
For non-native Arabic speakers taking programmed courses of instruction in Modern Standard Arabic in colleges, universities and other educational institutions, this book is a supplement to assigned textbooks. In an environment where instruction proceeds from one topic to the next, within pre-set dates and according to a schedule of instruction, individual students achieve varying degrees of control over different areas of the assigned textbook. This grammar reference helps learners review topics they have forgotten or did not initially grasp sufficiently.
For Arabic teachers, the grammar reference is used in developing curricula. Professors and instructors may also use this reference to help address student questions that are not sufficiently resolved in the assigned textbooks.
For career professionals and students preparing for an Arabic language placement exam, the extensive "workbook" includes examples and exercises suitable for practicing and reinforcing learning prior to an exam. The explanations, charts and index make discrete concepts easily and quickly accessible for learners to review forgotten or difficult grammar points prior to an exam.
For diplomats and service members living in Arab countries, this grammar reference will help them read Arabic media and other Arabic text in print. Also, since the units do not need to be read sequentially, busy professionals can access the specific content they need.
For professionals in publishing or editing fields, Basic Arabic serves as reference to learn how the structure of Arabic words differs from English words and how computers and word processing software may treat Arabic text differently from English or other Latin text.
Other target audiences for Basic Arabic include scholars, historians, and linguists who are researching texts in Arabic or other Semitic languages.