Those Tricky Prepositions
Prepositions are among a handful of the most difficult challenges that the Arabic language learners face. It belongs in the company of the ال التعريف ، اسم الفاعل and verb conjugations, which can also be complex for Arabic learners to grasp.
My first piece of advice is to avoid directly translating any preposition into your own language, expecting it to operate exactly as your language does. This can get you in the bad habit of incorrect usage much of the time. Take, for instance, how we use the English preposition with. I speak with you, I write with a pen, I’m done with these dumbbells. In Arabic we would need to use a different preposition for each of those sentences to communicate the same meaning.
Let Arabic exist within Arabic. What I mean is, instead of thinking in your language, work to understand how prepositions operate in Arabic. Some verbs require a particular preposition to follow and, in these cases, it may be worth memorizing these word pairs, especially the everyday ones we need and use on a regular basis. There’s nothing wrong with giving those word combinations some priority in your learning. After all, you don’t want some habits to fossilize so that you have trouble breaking them in the future. A great way to do this is to begin to observe them. Listen to some audio that you already fully understand.
Studies show the first time we take any material, written or spoken, we are only able to process meaning. We don’t tend to notice word combinations. That’s why we are always encouraging you to revisit stories you’ve already worked through – you’ve already negotiated for meaning – to give your mind the chance to have a second, third or fourth visit. Your mind now has the chance, without straining for meaning to analyze the language as it arises with other words. Try to observe what you could not see the first time you were exposed to the content. Task yourself with just noticing prepositions and how they arise alongside other nouns or verbs.
Today, I’m going to give you just such a task; the work of noticing. Language can be thought of as a puzzle. I think of it sometimes as a strategy game. Puzzles and strategy games are fun because every time you get a new piece that adds to your deck building ability or gives you a secret advantage, it makes the game even more fun and interesting.
Similarly, this holds true for language; discovering new patterns is fun. It can be thrilling if you think of it as an adventure where these constant discoveries help you to keep enhancing your communication skills.
If you’re someone who likes puzzles, let’s have a little fun practicing the skill of noticing and see if you can discover a fun prepositional pattern in the following sentences. You’ll notice two sentences using the same verb followed by either the preposition عن or the preposition من. Have a listen and see if you have any guesses as to why the first sentence uses عن and the second, من.
Did you come up with any reasons why the speaker chose one preposition over another? That’s okay if you didn’t, it took me at least six years to notice this on my own and it’s my job to look for patterns in Levantine Arabic. If it’s bugging you, go back again and see if you can form any theories. Except for the noun in each sentence, both sentences convey a similar meaning. We remove a frame from the wall and items from a bag or purse. Why do we find a different preposition? عن الحيط and من الشنتة ? Why do we take down a book off the عن الرف and out of the من الخزانة?
It’s not about the translation or meaning of the preposition itself. Are you ready for the secret?
Pick up the Patterns
The pattern is discovered in the nature of the noun or object. If it is something that closes, we have to pull something out of, off of, or from, in these cases we use من . If it is an open surface like the floor, a table, the stairs or even a horse–we get down from the horse, pick something up off the table, wipe something off your face–we use the preposition, عن.
It’s probably not a shortcut you will find in the Al-Kitab textbook for MSA, but for the Levantine dialect I’ve found it a trick that helped me overcome the “which one is it?” question for these types of sentences. I’m sure there are exceptions, but for the most part I think you’ll find this applies. It will help you decide which preposition to use if you keep this rule in mind–for a flat surface, use عن. If it is closed, use من.
Were you able to notice it the first time we listened to the sentences? Good for you! That may mean you have the skill of analyzing what you are learning. If you caught it you are probably not a beginner in your acquisition journey. If you didn’t catch it, that’s normal, particularly if the words are new to you. Remember, you can’t look beyond meaning until you are already familiar with the words.
I hope this exercise has encouraged you to begin trying to see through the trees, beyond words and into the patterns of the language. It’s not wrong to practice committing to memory some of these sentences that demonstrate the limitations that some vocabulary has in terms of the words that arise around it. Take a few sentences like these and try to commit them to heart, practice using this pattern this week in some sentences you create as well.
I’m not a believer that grammar instruction greatly impacts fluency. We can learn a lot about a language by studying grammar, just as we could study motorcycles from a book, but still have anxiety that keeps us from riding well or lack the practice to make smooth turns. Knowledge of rules doesn’t always help us speak better, but some insider tricks can give us a breakthrough in an area we’ve been wondering about, and unsure of, like in this example here where we are deciding which preposition to choose. I hope this pattern awareness activity will help you with these prepositions so that you begin seeing frequent word combinations all over the place.
Whatever language learning stage you are at, I hope you continue developing your skills. After all, violin players in the Philharmonic Orchestra still practice–perhaps even more than novice players. You can’t reach a level in language proficiency that doesn’t continue to need to be refined. If you think about it, you are actually refining and reinforcing your first language on a daily basis as well. It’s no wonder that you can easily articulate yourself in your mother tongue–you never stopped learning and being surrounded by it.
Proficient fluency is possible, but you can’t stop attending practice.