All posts by Wafa Alimam

Finnish-Arabic: Meeting #5


This meeting was Arabic’s turn, we agreed to watch a cartoon episode on YouTube. The cartoon is Gingerbread Man or رجل كعكة الزنجبيل.

I have prepared the text beforehand and was able to examine all the technical matters of it. One thing I noticed while preparation is how the language of the cartoon, which is relatively new, is different from what I used to watch when I was a kid. It feels like nowadays the standard Arabic (for children) is moving towards simplicity, compared to the more sophisticated language I was exposed to during my childhood. The line between the standard and the spoken is becoming vaguer and the language is getting more extended over a spectrum. Previously, Arabic dialects were isolated entities. In Finnish, the difference between Kirjakieli and Puhekieli is already positioned over a spectrum, according to my Finnish teacher!

This wasn’t of Ilona’s concern; in fact, we spent our time listening, reading, and comparing what we heard to what we read.

One challenging aspect of reading Arabic texts is the حركات (literally movements). Those are characters that are put on top/beneath letters to express short vowel sounds with consonants (so they move consonants :D). For example, the letter D = د  can be دَ , دُ , دِ  which are equivalent to Da, Du, Di. This is different from the long vowels A, U, I = ا , و , ي which can be written as Daa, Duu, Dii. Unfortunately, the more annoying part (to non-native speakers) is that we don’t write those movements necessarily (except for certain or old texts) and we know how to pronounce the words from memory only. In other words, the way we write doesn’t reflect what we say; any word can be read in very different ways because the movements can be a combination of any.

I spent most of the time trying to deconstruct this issue with the help of examples from the episode. I totally admit that this is challenging; however, there are patterns that can be observed by practice. I tried to explain some of those, bearing in mind to be compassionate and reminding that a somehow similar challenge is faced even in English! In English, the same character is pronounced in very different ways based on the word itself. E.g. letter G in the words: Bridge, Glass, Neighbour, Tough. So, it is really a matter of getting exposed to the language. I know people who have mastered this issue before, and so could Ilona one day!

Link to the episode:

Finnish-Arabic: Meeting #4


In this meeting, Finnish was the target language and Umair didn’t attend.

Illona mentioned in a previous meeting that Muumins, the famous Finnish series, can be considered a heavy, and even philosophical, series that has some difficult and poetic phrases. Hence, since my level in Finnish was better and I was the only attendant, we decided to watch a Muumit episode!

The episode was about Finnish spring titled “Muumilaakson kevät”, which depicted the time when winter was almost over and the characters were waking up from hibernation.  I wasn’t able to fully cover everything in the episode and faced some challenges in interpreting the conversations. Luckily, there was a text in front of me, so I could relate.

Nevertheless, from what we’ve covered I learned more about how Finns have always looked and reflected on seasonal change. As temperature and sunlight get extremely less during winter, it is not strange if it was deemed in Muumins that winter is a period of life pause. Consequently, spring is the time of getting back to life and experiencing joy again.

This may sound a superficial and intuitive thing to say. Of course, no one argues how life in Finnish winter becomes limited; I have experienced this myself. But I wonder how the situation used to be two hundred years ago when there was no machinery or technology at all. Muumins is the resemblance of deeply-rooted Finnish culture, as well as a way to comprehend how different conditions has shaped the collective imagination and mindset of people.

Watching the episode has helped me look at Finland in a much deeper way.

Link to the episode:


Finnish-Arabic 3: Babar song!


In this meeting, we decided to do in Arabic something similar to what we did in Finnish last time, i.e. watching or listening to a children content since it is more interactive.

Since our meetings are on Zoom, we moved between different options and then settled on listening to a cartoon song which I watched during my childhood: Babar the elephant! I learnt that this cartoon is known in other countries and languages as well.

After listening a couple of times, I walked Umair and Ilona through the lyrics and explained everything they inquired about. In Arabic, it is not rare to use high-end words and phrases for children songs; it is a way of introducing sophisticated vocabulary to kids. Thus, the song itself needed a good time to probe.

I noticed that Umair was somehow familiar with many of the words already, not because he learnt them in Arabic. But because his mother language, Urdu, has loaned lots of Arabic words and modified them a bit. Hence, with a little clarification from me, he was able to untangle the whole song.

For Ilona, we tried to practice reading, which she did very well! Also, I taught her new basic vocabulary based on the lyrics.

It was a little bit tricky to teach people with different backgrounds at the same time, but I managed somehow to make them satisfied. I became also very thoughtful about how languages move and develop across time and geography!

Finnish-Arabic #2


It was Ilona’s turn! We decided to watch together a kid’s cartoon in Finnish, and Ilona would walk us through it.

Since my study background is dentistry, my language partners suggested doing something relevant to me. Hence, so we settled on watching a Kaapo episode where he went with his sister to a dentist. It was a quite funny episode 😀

Although the language is pretty simple and conversations were slow, I had some difficulties at certain points. Ilona wrote and translated every unfamiliar phrase because there was no transcription. That happened a lot so we ended up pausing every minute. Nevertheless, that was very useful because I was concentrating more on listening, not reading, which what usually happens when watching something in Finnish.

It occurs to me sometimes when I try to communicate in Finnish that I say the right thing but I don’t understand what the respondent says. After this meeting, I came to know that maybe I need to start practicing the same way I did with Ilona, to emphasize more on listening comprehension.

The ultimate situation would be watching without any text, and then watching again with it to match and fill any gap in understanding. And this is what we were going to do next time!

Here is the link for the episode:



First meeting: Arabic-Finnish


In the first meeting we decided to start with the Arabic alphabet. Umair and Ilona have different backgrounds so it was a bit challenging to make a compromise. Umair, whose mother language, Urdu, is in Arabic alphabet, noticed how some letters are pronounced differently in Arabic compared with Urdu. Ilona has some basic foundation but a revision was necessary.

When I tried to give example words, I realized that it can be very problematic for foreigners to notice the difference between some letters. For my ear, “ذ & ظ” are not the same; they are in the Latin alphabet equivalent to “TH: ð” but one is slightly harder than the other. For Ilona and Umair, it was a struggle to notice the difference between ذل & ظل = thol & thol. This is ironic because the pair of words mean two things very far from each other. First “thol” = shadow, second “thol” = humiliation. Another issue we faced was the similarities in shape between letters that sound differently. E.g. ر = R while ز = z, or ب = B while ث = TH: θ.

I felt helpless in general and told them, for this example and others, that the only way to sort these matters out is by continuous practice and getting more exposed to the language and understanding the context. We spent technically around two hours trying to clarify those differences and others.

After wrapping up I said to myself that I thought Finnish is the most difficult language to learn, but NO! Arabic can be really tricky sometimes, I don’t remember having big problems in pronouncing Finnish words. Thankfully I don’t need to learn another alphabet for that!