A New Quarantine Hobby

Some months ago, back when the coronavirus quarantine was really starting to get going, my wife and I found ourselves looking into new hobbies that we could do at home. She rediscovered Duolingo, and, a few days later, so did I. “Why not try studying the basics of a brand new language?” I thought, and motivated solely by the fact that I think it has one of the nicest-looking writing systems of any major language, I decided to pick up Arabic.
I also have a hobby of calligraphy, and make a habit of filling one (relatively small) page a day with some sort of writing practice. My first day of trying to write Arabic, shown above, was… not great. I will not be winning any calligraphy competitions with my first try, especially given embarrassing mistakes like the upside-down ُ in there. Over time, I got a little better, though. A few days later, I could at least remember to write things the right way up.
Arabic is a pretty interesting language, too, just from a linguistic standpoint (though, before I go any further, please let me remind you that I am still very new to the language, and by no means an expert!). Unlike English and Japanese, Arabic adjectives go after the nouns they modify (so instead of “big house,” you would say “بَيت كَبير”/bait kabir, or “house big”). Another interesting feature is that there’s apparently no Arabic word for “to be” — instead, you simply say, grammatically, “Omar teacher.” or “Rania chef.”
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of Arabic, to me, is how heavily gendered the language is, on a fundamental grammatical level. Linguists have noted that Japanese has very marked differences between how men and women speak, but that’s more sociocultural than grammatical. In Arabic, though, in addition to all nouns being either masculine or feminine (a trait it shares with many European languages), other aspects of the language have gender “baked in” on a fundamental level. For instance, much like how English has masculine and feminine third-person pronouns (“him” and “her”), Arabic actually extends this to second-person pronouns, with masculine and feminine forms of “you.” (As an aside, I found myself wondering how Arabic must handle things like prompts on computer screens to say things like “enter your password.” After a few moments, though, I realized that this probably isn’t a problem in practice, because Arabic writing omits short vowels — though the words for “you” or the suffixes used to indicate “your” have different vowel sounds to indicate masculine/feminine, usually these vowel sounds wouldn’t be written at all for native adult speakers, so something like ما اسمك, or “what is your name,” would simply be read with the appropriate vowels added for the reader.)
One separate matter that I’ve found myself thinking about is that, when learning a new writing system, there’s a weird relationship between “writing neatly” and “writing like a native speaker.” A nonnative adult who is a complete beginner will initially write in a way that looks sloppy and wrong, in a nonnative way, but with practice nonnative speakers can make their handwriting look much nicer and more legible. However, this often winds up looking “nonnative” in its own way, as it will often be too neat, or perhaps a little too closely based on how printed text looks. So the final step, for learners of new languages, is to study the way that native speakers write quickly and a little sloppily, but in a way that everyone is familiar with, and can read, as a result. Needless to say, I am nowhere near that point yet with Arabic, but I’ve at least found study materials specifically on how native speakers write for everyday purposes and for calligraphy. I doubt I’ll ever even make it to the point where I can have much of a conversation in Arabic, but it’s been an interesting hobby nonetheless, and I always enjoy the experience of having an unfamiliar writing system gradually change from “cool-looking squiggles” to “text” in my brain.

Even a Pen Can Speak with an Accent

As anyone who has tried to master a second language can tell you, one of the biggest challenges is to lose your accent and sound like a native speaker — arguably, native-like pronunciation does even more to provide a first impression of proficiency than fluency of expressing ideas, fairly or not. Indeed, the word “shibboleth” — meaning an explicit indicator of in-group status — comes from a Hebrew word used to identify belonging by simple virtue of being difficult to pronounce. Historically, these shibboleths and other demonstrations of in-group status have varied significantly in importance: the results can be anything from not being automatically offered the foreign-language menu at a restaurant to, in some cases, literal survival.

Obviously, in my lifestyle, the former is the much more common variety encountered, and much of it is more a matter of simply learning ways to sound less “foreign,” in order to reduce cognitive burden on others and to avoid simply sticking out as being “unusual,” even in subtle ways.

Interestingly, my first exposure to the idea of having an “accent” that would out one’s status as a non-native speaker of a language came at the age of thirteen or so, during a middle school German class. We learned that, if we were to write our ones and sevens the standard English way, they would look, at a bare minimum, “odd” to native speakers:

I think we can all agree that the difference between ‘one’ and ‘seven’ is overstated anyway.

While a German speaker seeing an English-style “1” might find it a little unusual-looking, but would probably figure out what was intended, the English-style “7” would almost certainly be misread in isolation as a “1” written hastily at a bit of an angle. You may think the German “1” here looks a bit exaggerated, but if anything, I’ve demonstrated restraint — I’ve seen cases where the diagonal bit extends basically all the way down to the baseline. It is presumably due to the influence of German (especially in the US, and especially in my home state of Pennsylvania, which is full of road signs with German and Dutch last names on them) that the German-style “7” is also used in English at least semi-commonly.

On the other hand, Japan has its own way of making sevens a bit more visually distinct: a long serif is ordinarily added, making it look a lot like how ク is ordinarily handwritten. In this case, there’s no real ambiguity being resolved; the English-style “7” would be readily understood, even if, in practice, virtually everybody in Japan writes it with that serif.

Interestingly, your pen can give you away as a non-native speaker in Japanese, even without writing a single word.

Even this example looks like the Arrested Development logo. Or maybe a coupon.

It’s subtle, yes, but somehow, the English-speaking world learns at some point that you circle things by starting at 12:00 or 1:00 and going around counter-clockwise (almost certainly because that’s how the letter “o” is written, at least prescriptively in things like Palmer Method cursive), whereas Japan learns that you circle things by starting at 4:00 or 5:00 and going around clockwise, possibly due to the cultural influence of the enso.

Once you’re aware of this, it’s hard to miss in popular culture: an entire generation of western gamers has no doubt grown up wondering why video games depict things circled in a “handwritten” manner look kind of like a 9. Or perhaps that was just me. On the other hand, you have stuff like the logo for the TV show Arrested Development, which is admittedly not particularly well known in Japan, possibly because any attempt to translate or localize a comedy so heavily dependent on multi-layered English wordplay would be so self-evidently hopeless as to inspire little more than a bleak, mirthless cackle.

Incidentally, at least as of some time ago, when I worked in a Japanese middle school, this “non-native writing” phenomenon worked both ways. Japanese students starting English are taught the alphabet, but presumably due to the influence of kanji and the fact that they each have a proper stroke order, as well as the fact that these strokes are, almost without exception, downward or to the right, students are often taught what would be, to many native English speakers, relatively “unnatural” looking ways to write certain letters.

Yes, I am aware that some native speakers write these letters differently. We’re talking about the big part of the bell curve, mainly.

The biggest and most obvious difference is the fact that, in English, there is more willingness to move the pen upward, either while writing (as in “A” and “N”) or as a general trending direction (as in “E” above). Obviously, the examples shown aren’t entirely universal, since there’s some variation in how English speakers write — the written language is, generally, not taught in as formally regimented a manner as Japanese traditionally is — but by no means do the “native” examples above look unusual or out of place.

Ultimately, these sorts of things aren’t too important in terms of everyday practicality, to be honest; in very few cases will you find yourself expressing yourself inaccurately or imprecisely because you circled something the wrong way. On the other hand, as with any other form of work to minimize your accent in a second language spoken or otherwise, there is a certain satisfaction that can come from attention to detail, adding a level of polish to go beyond merely “good enough” — even if the ultimate goal is to not be noticed.