The Linguist

The Linguist 54,5

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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16 The Linguist Vol/54 No/5 2015 FEATURES FROM THE ALBUM: Jonathan Brown (main image); and (inset l-r) a studio photo; relaxing in Egypt; and Jonathan's mother, Ellen Brown Islamic scholar and author Jonathan Brown tells Miranda Moore how Arabic changed his life I t is August 2011 and Dr Jonathan Brown is on Egyptian TV talking about freedom, in Arabic, with Islamic scholar Habib Ali al-Jifri and interviewer Khairy Ramadan. A noted Islamic scholar in his own right, the American professor is not new to media appearances, with interest in him growing following the publication of his book Muhammad: A very short introduction (OUP, 2011). Featuring on one of Egypt's most popular channels in a language learned in early adulthood might faze most people, but Brown shows no signs of nerves. Fast forward to 2015 and his bibliography has continued to grow. Now Director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding and Associate Professor at Georgetown University, his latest book is Misquoting Muhammad: The challenges and choices of interpreting the prophet's legacy (Oneworld, 2014). Tackling controversial aspects of the Qur'an and hadith, and featuring in The Independent's 2014 list of top books on religion, it could not have been written without extensive knowledge of Arabic. Yet Arabic was not Brown's first foreign language, nor even his second: he also speaks Russian, French, Persian and some Turkish, and reads German, Epigraphic South Arabian and Latin. Speaking to me from his home in Washington DC, he explains how his interest in languages began. "I grew up in Washington DC and had a typical American education in that I did not have a lot of exposure to foreign languages. I studied Latin for four years; that was fun," he dead- pans. "And French for two." Yet Brown's early experiences weren't as typical as they might seem: until he was four, the family lived in Senegal, where his father (also called Jonathan) was the first resident representative of the World Bank. His first languages were English, French and Wollof, and although he forgot the latter two on his return to the US, his father's work exposed him to languages again as a teen: this time on travels to the former Soviet bloc, where his father was in charge of organising World Bank loans. Brown developed an interest in Russia and Russian, and although his language interests would change later on, this kindled a passion for languages that became pivotal to his career and personal life. If it was his father who showed him the world, it was his mother, Ellen, who instilled in him an idea of the value of languages. Unlike his father, who struggled to learn French, she was a talented linguist and anthropologist, who did field work in Chad, and learned Arabic, French, Sara and a number of other Chadian languages. "My Mom used to say that learning French was her bread and butter, that this had been the key to what she had done in her life," he explains. "For Americans – and it's the same in Britain I guess – if you know another language well it can be really useful. And I always say to people, learning Arabic well was my bread and butter, and everything I have been able to do is because I learned Arabic very well." Finding Islam The journey to Arabic, however, began with Russian. After summer schools in Moscow and Turkistan, Brown took Russian and History at university, but it was a "random" choice to take a class on Islamic laws and practice, in order to fulfil a theology requirement, that would change the course of his life forever. Raised as an Episcopal Christian, he doubts he had even met a Muslim before he took that class. "My family wasn't very religious. I was the most religious person but it was religious desire with no means to channel that. So when I learned about Islam I felt like it was the religion I'd always believed in." During the summer of his freshman year, he converted to Islam and started taking all the Arabic classes he could. He graduated in 2000 and got a place at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Cairo, which he describes as "the premier language learning programme for people who want to be academics". It was the year before 9/11; after that it would have been impossible to get in, he says. "I was totally unqualified, but at the time people weren't so interested in the Middle East." "The other people knew Arabic much better than me, so it was really sink or swim. I remember thinking 'I want to go home', but I ended up sticking it out." It turned out to be one of the most productive years of his life. Adventures with Arabic

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