On Monday, Mohanned and I were discussing the military operation in Mosul as he prepared to set me a homework task. Mohanned repeatedly referred to it as the Mosul al-harb (war) and I questioned whether there might be a better noun since we’d probably call it a battle in English. He said he’d think about it and then set me a homework task for Thursday: write a report in Arabic on the Mosul campaign.

I kept the report simple (in line with my meagre skills), outlining the various actors and the size of their forces, and chucking in a couple of points raised by Iraqi generals I’d seen in various English-language articles. When I sat down with Mohanned yesterday, we went through the report and he awarded me a solid distinction after only needing to correct about 20% of it.

One of the errors he fixed was my use of janood (soldiers) when referring to people fighting for Daesh (ISIS). Mohanned explained that a lot of people use aanaseer (elements) when speaking of those fighters, in part because the term is somewhat delegitimising. I was initially surprised by this choice of language — why can’t we just call them all soldiers? — until I very quickly realised that we make such distinctions in English all the time. I wonder if my reaction has something to so with language learners having a very limited vocabulary to work with, forcing us to artificially simplify the way we think about things so we can select appropriately from that short list of words we know. Or maybe we’re just so focused on getting the construction of language right that we lose focus on the content of the message.

Anyway, we then watched an Al Jazeera Arabic report on the Mosul campaign which referred to it as al-maarakah (battle) instead of war. Conundrum from Monday solved, and another simple but useful reminder that there is so much depth, texture and nuance in language beyond simply learning words and establishing one-to-one correspondence with their English equivalents.