We met with Jane, author, educator and publisher from the UK. In an interview with Jane, we asked her the following questions:

Tell us about yourself

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

My name is Jane Wightwick. I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s, brought up mainly in West London. I went to the local primary school and then to Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith. Then it was a state grammar school. Now it’s a private girls’ school, but we were quite a mixed bunch.
I have always been a bit awkward, sometimes deliberately so. For my A levels I studied English, History and Physics. The whole timetable had to be arranged around me. I then got into Cambridge University to study philosophy, which I never started…

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

… when I arrived at Cambridge University I was no longer sure I wanted to study philosophy. A friend of mine invited me round to her room and I saw a fellow student reading an Arabic novel. I thought “that looks difficult but fascinating; why don’t I change to read Arabic?” So the next day I arranged to change subject. The philosophy tutor was very disappointed, as were my parents, but I don’t regret it at all.
An induction of pure Arabic grammar and horribly difficult and archaic texts followed, with no allowance made at all for everyday communication. This was the end of the era of gowned professors who didn’t really speak Arabic at all. They lectured us from a rostrum using notes yellowing around the edges, even though there was only a handful of us. I remember one of the questions on my first-year exam paper: “The particle ما is used in many contexts. Discuss.” Most of the class had given up by the end of the second year, leaving just two of us from the original class. The other one, Tim Winter, was a brilliant student and is now well-known in his own right as a Sufi cleric.
Luckily, I liked the challenge and was recommended a system of flashcards for learning vocabulary. The visual and review aspects of flashcards benefitted me enormously and I’m still a big fan. I credit flashcards with the fact that I stayed the course.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

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

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

After graduation, I acquired a qualification in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and got a job with International House in Cairo. Finally, in Egypt, I learnt a dialect of Arabic, something that wasn’t taught or particularly encouraged at all during my university studies.
I realised quickly that TEFL communicative methods were streets ahead of my experience in learning Arabic and vowed to try and redress that if the opportunity came up. It was quite embarrassing when I first arrived to not understand simple questions properly because all my knowledge was paper-based and theoretical. I could vowel an advanced Arabic text in seconds, but couldn’t understand when an Egyptian asked me what my name was!
On returning to the UK in the mid-1980s, I got a job in Publishing, largely on the basis that the company had just mis-labelled a set of Saudi textbooks for girls in the masculine and wanted someone who could read the Arabic script. I also found an opportunity to put together a friendly Arabic textbook for beginners – Mastering Arabic. The series is still going today and it’s wonderful when people tell me or my co-author, Mahmoud Gaafar, that the course inspired them initially to learn more about the Arabic language.
I’ve been in publishing ever since and used my Arabic throughout my career. Nowadays I write, edit, typeset and consult on all aspects of Arabic. I’m still amazed that it’s provided a solid career for all these years. Who knows where I’d be with that philosophy degree!
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
You need to be able to communicate well in both (friendly) Modern Standard and a widely-used dialect to consider yourself at an advanced level. Just one of these is not enough. Having said that, I’m a firm believer in putting all your Arabic into the melting pot. If you’re talking and the colloquial word doesn’t come to you, use the Standard, and vice-versa. Native speakers switch around the whole time, and I don’t think we should be precious about it. Too many people are quick to judge what is “correct” Arabic for a particular situation. Just ignore them and find your own routes into the language. The important thing is to communicate and to be understood.
And use those flashcards on a regular basis. These days mobile Apps make life so much easier!

Related Links:

  • www.g-and-w.co.uk Together with Mahmoud Gaafar, Jane runs g-and-w PUBLISHING. They have produced a range of educational material, with the emphasis on Arabic teaching resources.

Publications

  1. Mastering Arabic – two-level Arabic course (Palgrave Macmillan)
  2. Mastering Arabic Grammar (Palgrave Macmillan)
  3. Mastering Arabic Script (Palgrave Macmillan)
  4. Teach Yourself: Get Talking Arabic (Hodder & Stoughton)
  5. Teach Yourself: Keep Talking Arabic (Hodder & Stoughton)
  6. Arabic on the Move (McGraw-Hill Inc.)
  7. Read and Speak Arabic (g-and-w publishing)
  8. Arabic Dictionary and Phrasebook (Hippocrene Books Inc.)
  9. Egyptian Arabic Dictionary and Phrasebook (Hippocrene Books Inc.)
  10. Colloquial Arabic of Egypt (Routledge)
  11. Arabic 100 Word Exercise Book (g-and-w publishing)
  12. Arabic Verbs and Essentials of Grammar (McGraw-Hill Inc.)
  13. Michel Thomas Method, Standard Arabic (Hodder & Stoughton)
  14. Michel Thomas Method, Egyptian Arabic (Hodder & Stoughton)
  15. Build Your Arabic Vocabulary (g-and-w publishing)
  16. Easy Arabic Reader (McGraw-Hill Inc.)
  17. Practice Makes Perfect: Arabic Verb Tenses (McGraw-Hill Inc.)
  18. Practice Makes Perfect: Arabic Vocabulary (McGraw-Hill Inc.)
  19. Arabic Small Wonders –Arabic reading scheme (g-and-w publishing)

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