Wednesday, 11 September 2013

At the frontiers of language learning

This post is about my experience thus far of trying to learn Sorani Kurdish here in Kurdistan. The reason I say frontier is because there is very little in the way of learning resources for learning Kurdish and they are dotted around in several other foreign languages. I'm going to try to explain why and what it's like learning in such a situation.

Before I came to Iraqi Kurdistan I had been studying Kurmanji Kurdish for a while, although never in a focused and serious way. I had gotten into Kurdish through Persian, which when I started learning it seemed to be obscure and lacking in resources in comparison to German and Spanish which I'd studied at school. I chose Kurmanji because out of the two main Kurdish "dialects", there seemed to be slightly more books for Kurmanji and I also preferred the Latin script that it used. I used to see the Sorani-Arabic script as a bastardized, disjointed version of the Perso-Arabic script (although now I appreciate its practical simplicity). When deciding where I wanted to spend a year I concluded that Iraqi Kurdistan was probably a better place to go than Turkish Kurdistan where they speak Kurmanji. Thus I went about trying to learn a bit of Sorani. There is one very good reference grammar which includes a small dictionary and annotated readings which was written by W. M. Thackston who also wrote a similar book for Kurmanji. Both are excellent resources (although they aren't courses and need to be accompanied by something else) and both are amazingly free to download from the Harvard website.

There is a course book in French, but not speaking French lowers its value. I assume there are books in other languages too, especially Russian due to proximity. Before coming I bought a Sorani-English phrase book, something that I wouldn't usually do since these kinds of books don't tend to be written for learning purposes (this one uses the Latin script for example). My goal for this week is to find a bookshop here and see if I can get a good, cheap English-Sorani dictionary and maybe a children's book for reading.

The point of all this is that it's not anything I've ever had to deal with before. I learn best by reading and then practicing and even languages like Persian and Catalan have had a plethora of written resources to help me, but I think the reason for this is that both languages are quite standardised. Even though there are varieties in the spoken form, there is a definite standard which learners are supposed to study. With Sorani there is a bit of a written standard, but when it comes to speaking I don't think this has been completely codified yet. I think this is better for the language itself because it represents the organic needs of the speakers, but it makes it more difficult for learners.

Another problem that I have come across is that the native speakers themselves, like native speakers of all languages, have a very little understanding of their own grammar which means they cannot explain things properly and when they try they come up with explanations which I already know aren't correct (an experience I had with Persian teachers too). This is what would happen with most native English speakers, and we have the added problem that we think there is a correct way of speaking English and thus don't understand basic concepts of our own pronunciation such as unstressed words. Problems really arise when someone tells you something and you can't be sure whether this is regional idiosyncrasy or a native speakers' misunderstanding. The other problem is that they think that their language is easy, which it ain't, and therefore people don't seem as impressed by foreigners learning it or they expect you to have learnt it within a couple of months. I think even English people, who hear a lot of foreigners speaking their language, are a lot more complimentary to anyone who can speak it with some clarity. Obviously the main reasons for learning a language are not to impress people, but the compliments definitely encourage you when learning becomes more difficult.

Despite all that, it's definitely a fun experience trying to work things out by decoding what people are saying and being thrown in at the deep-end and having to speak to taxi drivers everyday who somehow expect all foreigners to have a firm grasp of the language. In the long run I'm sure this will be beneficial, especially since very few people speak English. As I said in another post, I think it would be good for the Kurdish people to take a look at the language in a deeper way - not necessarily everyone, but an institution like the OED which examines the language (but doesn't dictate) would be great.

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