We met with Gerald Drißner @ArabicForNerds, a journalist & author from #Austria, who has been studying Arabic for more than ten years in the Arab world. In an interview with Gerald, we asked him the following questions:
Tell us about yourself
I was born in 1977 and grew up in a small mountain village in the Austrian Alps. We had snow from November until May. I studied economics in Innsbruck (Austria) and Münster (Germany) and obtained a master’s degree. Later on, I was trained as a journalist at Henri-Nannen-Schule, Germany’s most renowned journalism school, in Hamburg (2004/2005). As a journalist, I covered German right-wing groups and crime and was part of an investigative reporting team. Regarding my Arabic studies, I only took Arabic classes in the Arab world. At the University of Alexandria, Egypt, I studied Classical and Modern Standard Arabic as well as Egyptian Arabic full-time for three years (2007- 2011). Since then, I have been continuing my studies in Alexandria, Cairo, and Tunis. Currently, I am working as a freelance journalist covering the Arab world, countries in crisis, and social topics. I also write books (travel literature and books about Arabic grammar for learners of Arabic).
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I started in 2007 at the University of Alexandria, Egypt, and became addicted. Arabic is my passion. I can spend hours reading Arabic dictionaries and wouldn’t mind talking about Arabic roots at dinner parties. I am very much into Arabic grammar because I am fascinated by its logic. My level? I have been studying Arabic intensively for more than ten years now. But I am also realistic. A lifetime is probably not enough to master Arabic (there are simply too many dialects). So, there is still enough stuff to dig into.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
I spent my childhood in an environment that is pretty much the opposite of the desert. However, some of my childhood heroes spoke Arabic (and Persian). I loved the stories of Sindbad and Ali Baba, Jinns and flying carpets. I was fascinated by the shape of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. Although I had no connection to the Arab world, I always wanted to go to Egypt.
In 2006, I traveled to Cairo. I was fascinated by the city, its chaos, the culture and the language. Arabic caught me instantly. When I was a child, I was obsessed with chess. Chess and Arabic have many things in common: it is all about patterns. I had also studied mathematics at my university for one year before I switched to economics. Algebra has a lot more in common with Arabic than just the fact that the word Algebra is basically an Arabic word. In Arabic, you also solve equations. You take three letters, add short and long vowels as well as pre- or suffixes until it is balanced with the word you want to have as a result. With a little more “weight”, for example, you turn a liar into a notorious liar.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
In the beginning, there were only “downs”. The main problem is that even many native speakers struggle to speak Arabic correctly. They can only communicate flawlessly in their dialect. Books written by European scholars are not only boring, you also need a Latin dictionary. Books written by American scholars are too simplified and ruin the beauty of Arabic. Books written by Arabic scholars usually are not written for beginners. So you are pretty much on your own. And the ups? When I made my first telephone call in Arabic and got what I wanted.
5. What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
I am a journalist covering the Arab world. Unfortunately most of the news is rather sad. Arabic helps me to understand the Arab perspective as most foreign journalists only read English sources. I also want to give the regular citizen a voice.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
1. Be a copy machine (for beginners). Take an Arabic newspaper, the Qur’an, or a novel and write down (copy) two or three sentences every day. Write them on a paper – by hand. If you are a beginner, don’t worry about the content. It is not important to understand the sentences. Your brain will get used to Arabic patterns. It might sound old school but it worked for me. Also your eyes will get used to the Arabic script.
2. Create a playlist (for beginners). Conjugate verbs and record them (ask a native speaker), listen to them, again and again. After a year the conjugation of the dual and the feminine plural will feel somehow natural.
3. Watch Netflix with Arabic subtitles. You can download (free) Arabic subtitles (some are great, some are of rather poor quality) for most Netflix series. It really helps to brush up your vocab. There is a nice plugin which does the job (here is how to do it: https://goo.gl/N7WqQJ).
4. Three words a day (for beginners and intermediate). If you study three words per day, you will know more than 3,500 unique words after four years. That is enough to have a decent conversation about any topic. I use Anki to build my own vocab list (http://www.ankisrs.net).
5. Back to the roots. (For intermediate and advanced). As soon as you know how Arabic works, I would not advise to study words. Try to study roots. Even if you study only one root a week, you will improve quickly. The important thing is to identify as many patterns as possible (and to derive their meaning). If you struggle to find the root, try Aratools: http://www.aratools.com (pretty good tool, but it is not always 100% correct).
What is your favourite Arabic word?
I have many. Most of them are used in Egyptian Arabic. On of my favourites is الْفُلُول. This word was used after the Arab spring in Egypt to denote the remnants (بَقايا نِظام بائِد) of the regime (of Hosny Mubarak), especially the members of Mubarak’s political party. The root ف-ل-ل has many meanings in Arabic. The singular form فـَلٌّ basically means remnant, a portion that has fallen off from a thing, e.g., a notch in a sword (كَسْرٌ فِي حَدِّهِ – فُلُولُ السَّيْفِ), the scattered remnants of an army, what comes out of a chimney, etc. It is mainly used in a negative sense.
What is your least favourite Arabic word?
عَرْش (throne) because it sounds like one of the most common German curse words (“Arsch”).
Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?
Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab historian. He described why nations rise and fall. If you ask me about today, I would say my friends in Egypt who still try to keep their great sense of humor despite of the terrible situation in their country.
What is your favourite place in the Arab World?
What is your favourite Arabic book and why?
al-Kitab by Sibawayhi. In my opinion, he was the greatest grammarian of all time.
- Arabic for Nerds – 270 Questions on Arabic Grammar. Fr beginners and intermediate learners. October 2015, 462 pages.
- Islam for Nerds – 500 Questions and Answers on the world’s most misinterpreted religion. November 2016, 752 pages.
- Arabic for Nerds TWO – 440 Questions on Arabic Grammar (Understanding إِعْراب). For advanced learners. April 2018; approx. 750 pages.