Learning Arabic: Robert Lane Greene’s perspective

Arabic Books

It’s great to be back after a break, Ramadan is over, wishing everybody Eid mubarak (Happy Eid), a new academic year- so it’s back to the usual.  There are exciting things for me this year and for Arabizi too I hope. A warm welcome to the new readers, I hope that Arabizi will be a good resource for you and not rubbish in your inbox. And also thanks to all those who wrote emails and comments on the blog these are very much appreciated….. now to the post….

When I wrote the previous short post about Emarati Arabic being taught to expats in the UAE, it never occurred to me how a non-native speaker might feel about that. Nor did I ever know that as a result of one of the shortest posts I have ever written, that I would learn so much about the perceptions, feelings and frustrations of Arabic language learners. But that is exactly what happen in the form of a clear and constructive comment from Robert Lane Greene, journalist at the Economist and best-selling author of ‘You are what you speak- Grammar Grounches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity’.  A keen language learner and enthusiast of Arabic language himself (the number of languages he knows would put any linguist to shame), saw the beneficial side of the teaching of Emarati to non-Arabic speakers. The points he raised made me think not only about the challenges non-speakers face, but it also allowed me to see what I deemed as negative in a new way.  What his comment made me do was realise that given the diglossic situation of Arabic with its complicated grammar (not a negative thing) and many dialects, that perhaps an effort such as the teaching of Emarati Arabic was to be appreciated. And maybe should be looked at as a step towards strengthening Arabic learning on part of the non-native speaker as it would give them access to ‘real- spoken’ Arabic as opposed to textbook examples of ‘how’ things should be said. Following that comment and subsequent conversations he kindly agreed to honour Arabizi and write a guest post for us :-).

It is candid, detailed to the point and describes Arabic from a non-native learner’s point of view which is rarely read about. Most learners complain at the complicated nature of the grammar, the rules and the impossibility to converse in Arabic. Most students will relate to the struggles and challenges he mentions and I am sure even the funny parts. I also hope that Arabic teachers can take note of how non-native speakers feel about the learning of Arabic language and hopefully work towards making it easier for the students. Yes, I know it is only one person’s experience but, it is a consistent, sincere and continuous one therefore lessons need to learned from it.

I have added it below without editing from myself- thank you Lane, a real treat for us at Arabizi. Comments are most welcome and I am sure Lane will not mind answering or adding to any points readers will make.


Six years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate on learning Arabic. Since it’s still the second Google result for “learning Arabic”, people occasionally write me and ask me if I’ve made it past the problems I described there (with some attempt at humor, but no exaggeration). I’m happy to report that yes, I have made a lot of progress over the years, alhamdulillah.  I can read a newspaper with minor dictionary help, I can chat with cab drivers in Brooklyn who are usually amazed by the white American guy who speaks with them in decent colloquial, and I can follow, with some difficulty, a full-speed al-Jazeera broadcast on a familiar topic.  It’s been a long road, but fascinating.

When I started the journey, the hardest part was for me was the forbidding grammar of Modern Standard Arabic: ten verbal paradigms, reverse-gender agreement of numbers, the feminine singular for plural inanimate subjects, the litany of mind-bending quirks familiar to the student of the language. These are the things I focused on in that piece for Slate.

Since then, though, the single most frustrating thing about making progress is the polyglossia of the Arab world. Yes, we refer to diglossia most of the time, but that implies two varieties, high and low. For a journalist like me, who has followed the fascinating news from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to the Gulf in the past year, the problem isn’t just learning just one “high” for reading and another “low” for speaking, but picking one of several colloquial Arabics, maybe picking a sub-colloquial among them, finding good teaching materials, and sticking with it.

My first Arabic teacher was a very nice Moroccan, and a very bad teacher. He began by teaching us the letters, having a hard time explaining the emphatic consonants to his puzzled students (to him the difference between daad and daal was just obvious). But worse, he began teaching us to speak in Moroccon colloquial, while never telling us that that was what he was doing.  I learned ish taakul, “what are you eating?” or “what will you have to eat?”, with no idea that this was Moroccan dialect. What can I say? The class was free. You get what you pay for. I quit.

My next class was at New York University’s continuing education school, with Karam, a Palestinian. He was also a very nice guy, and the quality of the class was much higher.  But once again, diglossia was a problem. Karam was a big believer in colloquial, and so taught it alongside MSA from the start.  We had a big book (a bad one, in my opinion: Ahlan wa Sahlan from Yale University Press) for MSA, and Karam’s home-made handouts for the Palestinian colloquial. He would teach us something in MSA, and then give the colloquial straight away. It was too much. I simply shut my ears at the colloquial parts, trying to remember only one version of everything. MSA was hard enough on its own. 

With my third teacher, things improved. Ahmed was an Egyptian, but taught no-nonsense MSA. He was pot-bellied, loud and funny, and it was hard not to enjoy just being in his classroom. The only Egyptian we got was in the form of songs, which he would occasionally teach, and positively insist we sing along. Looking back, I think it was a good pedagogical technique; it was painful for everyone, but so it was funny, and everyone relaxed as we got back into the MSA.  And I still remember one song:  Salma, ya salama, ruhna w giina b-salaama. I never learned any Egyptian colloquial beyond that, though I remember Ahmed’s typically Egyptian stress pattern:  al-qaa-HI-ra, not al-QAA-hi-ra.

After Ahmed, I was on my own, with no time for classes. I kept the much better books he used in his class, the Al-Kitaab series, and worked my way through them on my own. As I started putting fairly fine finishing touches on my knowledge of MSA, I began to want to learn a colloquial properly. I had met two Egyptians at a bar in South Africa who didn’t speak English, and the only thing I had been able to resort to was MSA, very weird for all of us.  I wanted to start speaking the way Arabs speak for real.

But which dialect?  My biggest interest was in the Levantine countries, I decided. So simple: I’ll learn “Levantine colloquial.” I was loth to have to pick one, but that’s what I chose, with silent apologies to the Iraqis, Saudis and Algerians. Only to discover, as I gathered materials, there were coursebooks on Syrian Arabic, on Lebanese Arabic, on Palestinian Arabic… and these were far more different from each other than I wanted them to be!  And this was Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem Arabic.  Imagine my annoyance on learning that if I traveled to a small village in the Levant, much less talked to a Bedouin, I’d probably encounter yet another Arabic I couldn’t understand.

I flitted aimlessly between my three books. There really is such a thing as a Levantine continuum, and I understand that Syrians and Palestinians understand each other well. But there were all these choices I had to make, and didn’t want to: –kum or –kon for the 2ndperson plural attached pronoun?  Final taa-marbuta becomes –e, or no? (Hiyya or hiyye?)  In my own book, I write with joy about the messy real world of language. In learning Arabic, I wanted there to be one right variety, or by God, at least only two clear-cut varieties I had to learn.  But the universe didn’t offer me a simple solution.  Today I speak a sort of mishmash Levantine, probably mostly Palestinian.  (I re-hired Karam as a private tutor for a few hours of practice.)

 All of this has made me wonder about how Arabs feel about all this.  I have encountered opinions from 

– denial (“this isn’t an issue—everyone speaks one language, really”), to 

– scorn of the dialects (“the Bedouins are the only ones who speak real Arabic”—the belief that Bedouins basically speak Classical Arabic, but most children have to go to school to learn “real Arabic”), to 

– embrace of the dialects (“we speak the nicest Arabic in [my home country], which is incidentally closest to fusha”).  

Opinions seem as varied as the linguistic map itself.  

Pragmatically, it would be fabulous if the much-mooted “Middle Arabic”—combining the most common dialect features with a simplified MSA grammar—would appear as a kind of koine. But there is no one to bring it into existence.  So the result is many different “Middle Arabics” improvised by speakers from different regions trying to talk to each other, or by educated speakers on television trying to sound serious (classical) and real (dialect) at the same time by mixing elements of the two ad-hoc.

The situation is difficult enough for Arabs; it is harder still for the learner. But nobody promised it would be easy. I’m glad I’ve learned as much as I have, but I know that I’ll be adding piecemeal to that knowledge of Arabic—Arabics, really—for the rest of my life.

“Arabic: a window to the Arabian soul” according to the Saudi Gazette

Elaborate Window

Image by sheilaellen via Flickr

What a fascinating title, ‘Arabic: a window  into the Arabian soul’! A direct reminder of the relativity theory of language, that I often bring up time and again- is language a reflection of who we are? This article caught my attention a while ago and I am posting it here for you to enjoy it, it was quite long and so I have selected the most relevant parts; but as always you can click on the link that will take you back to the original. The writer specifically focuses in the linguistic disadvantage of the expatriates living in Arab speaking countries and yet do not speak Arabic. In his view they are missing something great, a world view only seen through the Arab eyes and linguistic brain. It is not so linguistic as it is a documentation of the social-linguistic situation in Saudi Arabia and how Arabic language is under-taught. Here is the article:


Arabic: a window to the Arabian soul

Amal Al-Sibai

Marhaban: Greetings. Shukran: Thank you.
You already know what these two words mean. The Arabic vocabulary of the majority of expatriates living and working in the Kingdom is limited to only a handful of words. Isn’t it odd that so many people live here for 10-plus years without learning the Arabic language?
It is embarrassing to walk into a small, local restaurant and not be able to order because the men there speak Arabic only. It is frustrating to drive around and try to reach your destination where street sign posts are written in Arabic only. Although a plethora of institutes exist in Jeddah that teach English to adult males, there is only one place besides Berlitz that offers Arabic classes.
A group of proactive men saw the need for expats to be introduced to the Saudi culture, go on tours of historical sites in Jeddah, and to learn the Arabic language. And they decided to feed that growing need. As a result, Jeddah Cultural Exchange Center was founded.
The Administration Manager, Christopher John Malvar, elaborated on why it is becoming increasingly important to learn Arabic. He said, “Companies are encouraging their employees to learn Arabic to facilitate their businesses here. Our students learn to read and write memos in Arabic, send e-mails, take notes at meetings, and communicate with the locals. By learning Arabic, they get ahead in their professional careers. Our students are able to read restaurant menus, road signs, and newspapers, make hotel reservations, and communicate with hospital staff. The skills they gain at CEC builds their confidence and breaks the barrier that alienates them from the local community. If you want to learn about a culture, you need to learn the language.”
The group at CEC conducted some research to find other Arabic teaching institutes in Jeddah and found none. Dialing 905 and requesting an Arabic language institute is equally futile. One survey showed that, worldwide, Arabic is one of the top most sought after languages. Since more than 50% of Jeddah’s population are expats, the city should provide more centers to teach Arabic to this large mass of people.


At least there are calls for language centres to cater for non-Arabic speakers, as I always say there are some linguistic environments that baffle me, and this is one of them. Usually linguists study what encourages people to learn a language, or the rate at which a language is learned, I think here someone needs to study how a language may not be learned!  I am sure we will see and hear more about topics such as these…. I better go back to my writing the word document is calling me…have a nice weekend all and I’ll post soon.