Arabic language app walks the talk

Downloadable from the Apple App Store, this Arabic-speaking companion is a mobile friend for people who want to learn the language.

Pros: Fun to use, pocket-sized language tool.
Cons: A greater variety of languages would be helpful.
Performance: A
Ease of use: A+
Features: A
Value: A
Price: $9.99 download fee for the first month; after 30 days, subscription renewals are $49.99 per month for academic users and $149.99 per month for other users.

Arabic, the fifth-most common language in the world, takes as long for an adult to learn to speak and write as Chinese does, say the people at Sakhr Software. That’s about two full years of intensive language training. That contrasts with Spanish, which takes about six months of intensive study to learn.

To help speed the Arabic learning curve, Sakhr developed Arabic Language Buddy as a software application available from the Apple App Store. The software runs on an iPhone or iPod Touch that has the iPhone OS 3.0. When you type or speak English phrases into the device, it promptly shoots back a translation in Arabic, either written or spoken.

We ran it on an iPod Touch, which we connected to our Wi-Fi network. Once connected, we began translating right away. The iPod came with a headset that has a built-in microphone. You press a blue button on the iPod when speaking, then release it when you’re finished.

Arabic Language Buddy had a little trouble interpreting our mid-Atlantic accent at first. “When’s the next train to Kabul?” we said. Arabic Language Buddy wrote back, “When’s the next green to Kabul?”

We tried it again. “Come with me to the Casbah,” we said. This time, Arabic Language Buddy typed it back exactly. We clicked Translate, and it translated the text into written Arabic.

Now came the fun part. We clicked the purple button that said Play Audio, and a man’s voice spoke the text back to us in Arabic. He sounded a little like Omar Shariff, a plus for us “Dr. Zhivago” fans.

The software stored the English phrases in something called “recents,” and we could just click on the ready-made phrase the next time we wanted to invite someone to accompany us to the Casbah.

It was easy to type phrases, too. The on-screen keyboard worked like a charm and made a satisfying click when we tapped the letters. The keyboard consumed more than half of the screen and had fingertip-sized keys, so we didn’t need to poke at it with a cumbersome stylus.

And the translation process was almost instantaneous. Even when the Wi-Fi network was running a little slow, the longest it took Arabic Language Buddy to translate a phrase was five seconds.

A friend who is a retired Foreign Service officer told me how much she wished she had something like this when she had to learn Georgian for a lengthy stint at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. Georgian was a difficult language to learn, she said. “And I was 46 when I took the course, not the prime age for language learning.”

It took her several years of immersion after her yearlong classroom training to “reach a reasonable comfort level in the language.” And as our retired FSO friend points out, in an embassy situation, you need to know a language at a deep level so that you can negotiate diplomatic concerns, which is not necessarily the level you learn in a classroom.

We also checked in with a student of Arabic at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Jordan Valdés, who is taking an intensive Arabic language program.

Arabic Language Buddy “helps me when I can’t remember vocabulary or in the more difficult life situations where phrases that I haven’t learned are required for my communication,” Valdés said.

Valdés said Arabic Language Buddy uses a mix of Modern Standard Arabic and some colloquial Iraqi/Gulf Arabic language that is especially useful to Americans. American presence in the Middle East is so strong that Arabic Language Buddy had to tailor certain vocabulary words and idioms to American English, she said.

We noticed that Arabic Language Buddy didn’t blink over American slang, as in, “Those were awesome lamb kebabs.” And even with our extremely limited knowledge of Arabic, we could pick up a few words here and there. For example, we noticed that “kebabs” and “taxi” were the same words in English and Arabic. “Casbah” sounded a little different, more like “casabah.”

Arabic Language Buddy could be a real boon to anyone who needs to learn this popular but difficult language in a hurry. And with 221 million Arabic speakers worldwide, that’s a lot of people with whom you can practice your Arabic.

Sakhr Software USA, 202-429-2772, www.sakhrusa.com

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