We met with Danny Carroll, a freelance translator from the USA. Danny, studied Arabic at the University of Edinburgh. In an interview with Danny, we asked him the following questions:

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

My name is Daniel Carroll, I graduated from the University of Edinburgh earning my MA in Arabic in 2018 and I am finishing up a postgraduate degree, once again here at the University of Edinburgh, in translation studies with Arabic set to graduate in 2019. I’m originally from Washington D.C. but have come to call Edinburgh my home for the past 5 years and I have been studying Arabic for precisely the same amount of time.  

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?

My journey to Arabic began with my decision to study abroad here in Scotland. I had originally come to study Anthropology but took Islamic History and Arabic as my outside courses. I have always been interested in languages and Arabic seemed like something different and challenging. I did not realise how I would became immediately infatuated with the brilliance of the Semitic roots system, the complexity of Arabic phonology, and the beauty of the orthography, leading me to change my degree and drop anthropology to focus solely on Arabic. My decision to switch degrees was also motivated by my dislike for Anthropology. It was not an easy process, as I had not actually taken Arabic 1, but rather the introductory course. In the end, however, I was simply asked to sit the Arabic 1 exam during the summer and if I passed I would be allowed to enter the course in Arabic 2. Luckily, I managed a first, and have been a prisoner to Arabic ever since.

What always keeps me going is conversation and culturally exchange. There is nothing more fun than speaking Arabic well, whether it be Classical Arabic or dialect. I happen to love North African culture and Morocco in particular having spent my year abroad there. Learning North African Arabic has been a major motivation for me, and truthfully has been my main focus rather than Classical Arabic for some time now.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

I think any student of Arabic will say the same thing when asked about the challenges of the language. Arabic is not easy, but not for the reasons one may think. Grammatically, while not necessarily simple, it is also not the most difficult language to master. For me personally, I believe the diglossia of Arabic, and the vastness of the vocabulary to be the real barrier for most students. Arabic is one of those languages where the more you learn, the more you come to realise the limits of your knowledge. It is also a language for which traditional methods of study fail to apply. You cannot just go out and speak the language you learn, no one speaks classical Arabic, and conversely you cannot go read a book to expand your vocabulary of colloquial Arabic in context, no one writes in colloquial Arabic. One needs to involve two entirely separate methods of study to master Arabic as a language family. Furthermore, I think most students of Arabic will tell you that as soon as one begins to study the language it is a fulltime affair. Although I would like to study other languages and read in other disciplines, I have to dedicate nearly all my free time to Arabic and still I feel as though I will never be fully “fluent” if such a term is even valid for a language like Arabic.

My relationship to Arabic, like that of every student, is bi-polar and volatile. One week you will feel on top of the world because you fully understood an article or had a great conversation with some friends of yours from Tunisia, and the next week Arabic crushes you and makes you feel like complete idiot with no future. I have gone through weeks where I have given up entirely on Arabic, but I always come around in the end and get back into it.

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

Assessing my level in Arabic is extremely difficult because it seems to vary with every person I talk with and every subject I am talking or writing about. I have been studying Arabic for 5 years and by now I would say I am decently confident reading and writing in Classical Arabic in a formal setting, and I can communicate naturally in North African varieties of Arabic, but find Egyptian Arabic, and some Middle Eastern dialects completely incomprehensible nonsense. Even after 5 years I still struggle understanding spoken Classical Arabic outside of one on one conversations as well, despite being able to read and write that which is being said.

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

I hope to pursue a career in which I can utilise my language skills, but what form it will take is not entirely clear at the moment. I do freelance translation work online for a French music streaming service and volunteer as an interpreter for Syrian refugees here in Edinburgh, but inevitably I would like to end up working with North Africans to some capacity, whether it be that I seek work in Morocco or work as a translator or interpreter for an organisation or company from my home country.

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

A student of Arabic needs to be willing to dedicate most of their time to the language and find a niche. Actively seek out new vocabulary and language partners to speak with daily. I use the website Italki to speak with people. Oftentimes, finding the perfect language partner is the key to mastering a language. I did not learn Moroccan Arabic effectively until I met a language partner who had the patience to stop and explain phrases and words I did not know. Focus on one region, whether it be North Africa, Egypt, or the Middle East, all of them together is overwhelming. A good base in Classical Arabic is not essential to learn one dialect, but necessary for communication across dialects. Learn how to use an Arabic dictionary early on, and do not hesitate to read through all of the entries for the root you are looking up, it can actually be really fun.

What is your favourite Arabic word?

I have a few favourite words in Arabic, which I admire for different reasons. There are those words which I think are so hideous or funny that I adore such as ضعضع meaning “to demolish,”  or هلع meaning “anxiety” or the Moroccan word for “because” علاحقاش or the word for “bat” وطواط or the other word for “bats” خفافيش. Then there are word which I think sound beautiful like نجوم  “stars,” or شامخ “very tall,” or  وجوم meaning “anxious and quiet apprehension” or حُشاشة “last breath of life.” Finally there are the words that I think have beautiful meaning like إستلهام   meaning “The act of seeking inspiration.”

What is your least favourite Arabic word?

My least favourite Arabic word is a tie between the Classical Arabic for “to go” ذهب and the word ليس meaning “To not be” because I think they sound so artificial and archaic.

Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?

I am a sucker for Abu Nuwas and the other wine poets, but I also find the classic Moroccan and Algerian Raï artists like Lili Boniche, Line Monty, Dahmane El Harrachi, Reinette l’Oranaise, Kemal Messaoudi, and Cheikh al-Haj Mohammed al-‘Anqa. Go and listen to “Ya Oumi” by Line Monty, you’ll cry.

What is your favourite place in the Arab World?

My favourite place in the Arab world is without a doubt the old city of Fez Morocco.

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