Category: Learning Arabic

Arabic update, two classes later

It’s been a week now since I started my course in Syrian Arabic on Italki. At first I was sceptical about learning with an online tutor, but after just two classes I’m convinced it’s an excellent method.

I’ve learned more vocabulary and grammar than I did in attending 10 weeks of in-person group evening classes, and I’ve spoken more Arabic than in two years of living in Qatar. So what have the classes been like?

Well, it’s a bit intimidating at first, being face-to-face with a stranger over Skype video chat and compelled to speak the language you’re learning. My Arabic is still basic, so I had to drop a lot of English into the dialogue with my teacher, Fadi.

Fadi is from Syria and lives in Italy; an experienced Arabic teacher. The best thing about the class was Fadi’s determination to keep me speaking Arabic as much as possible. He spoke in English only when necessary (and his English is top-notch) to help me understand, or when I asked him to do so. This Arabic-first approach was challenging and could be tiring at times, but it’s what I wanted and it certainly makes me learn faster.

After the first class I’d already remembered many of the long-forgotten words from my days in Qatar (although some of these were entirely different in Shami). Fadi gave me an extensive homework task of conjugating two verbs; to find and to look for, followed by using those verbs to create as many example sentences as possible. My sentences were pretty short, but at least I managed to construct some. I’m getting faster at reading Arabic now, which makes the overall learning process easier.

The second class was better because I’d become more familiar with Fadi and his teaching style. I was ready to speak in Arabic, even if it felt strange, and I was already starting to understand most of the words he was speaking to me. But Syrian Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) differ in many ways, all of which I’ll have to learn (and unlearn) during this course.

For example, Syrian Arabic has a distinctive word for ‘please’ (iza btreedi), that’s completely different from the usual min faDhlak, as found in MSA.  And the language has regional variations within Syria too. Between classes I tried practicing my new skills with friends via Facebook.

One friend, originally from the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor but currently living in Damascus, told me that his own Shami language isn’t perfect. He explained it’s because the people of Deir Ezzor have their own dialect, different from Shami, which includes two letters not even found in the Arabic alphabet! People who want to use the letters need a special app to input them on phones or computer keyboards.

This is fascinating and I can’t wait to learn more Arabic. There’s a entire hidden world waiting to be discovered. In the current climate of intolerance and bigotry, with idiots like Trump creating anti-Muslim policies, it’s important to expand cultural understanding and ability to communicate. Perhaps Arabic can help me do that more effectively.

Here’s my second homework, a dialogue at passport control in China.



صباح الخير

صباح الخيرات جواز السفر اذا بتريدي


شكرا. شو اسمك؟

أنا اسمي   سام/ سامنثا Samantha

و انتي منين؟

انا من بريطانيا. انا صحفيَّة

طيب تفضلي، هي بسبورك، اهلا و سهلا فيكي الصين!


Tackling Levantine Arabic

New challenge for 2017: Arabic!

Today I’ve scheduled two trial Arabic lessons on Skype, with teachers I found using the iTalki website. The classes are going to focus on the Levantine dialect, which I feel would be the most useful for the work I eventually hope to do.

I’m still a beginner but not completely new to Arabic. I recently completed a level one course at SOAS, which was somewhat disappointing because it didn’t progress as fast as I’d hoped. We learned the alphabet, which I already knew quite well, studying a few letters per class. The course was quite expensive too, at £300.

So I’ve been casting around for other ways to learn Arabic, looking for a method that would allow me lots of interaction with native speakers. I discovered iTalki thanks to recommendations from friends who’ve used it to achieve a useful level of Arabic.

I’ve been interested in Arabic since 2011, when I visited my first Arab country: Qatar. Arabic looks daunting, which encouraged me further having already mastered Mandarin (and been surprised by how doable that was). I signed up for a Modern Standard Arabic course at the local Berlitz school in Doha, and began. I didn’t make much progress. To my disappointment, the words and phrases I learned in class weren’t much use on the streets of Doha. This was the case for two reasons.

First, the large expat population of Doha (it’s around 80% foreigners and 20% Qataris) meant that English tended to overrule Arabic as the language of the Doha street. Captive audiences, such as taxi drivers and waiting staff, who’d been frequent targets of my Mandarin attempts in China, usually spoke better English than Arabic. Most of them were expats from the Philippines, India, or Pakistan.

Second, my Arab friends from Lebanon and Qatar told me the vocabulary I learned in class was different from the Arabic they spoke in daily life. I felt discouraged. All that effort to learn something that wouldn’t necessarily help me to communicate better. Instead people told me to choose an Arabic dialect and focus on learning that.

But I had no idea which one to choose. If I studied Gulf Arabic, would I be confined to only Gulf-based interactions? If I went for Egyptian Arabic, would people in Lebanon understand me? These questions, which seem trivial now, were enough to confuse me, and put me off from learning Arabic for a couple of years.

After two years, I left Qatar with knowledge of the Arabic alphabet that was shaky at best, plus a few polite words and phrases. That was the extent of my Arabic arsenal.  In contrast, I’d picked up Mandarin quite fast in China, because I was compelled to speak it every day in many situations. That, for me, was the key to Mandarin.

Fast forward to 2017 and I’m ready to try Arabic again. This time I’ve done better research. I’ve found out that Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) isn’t the best focus for someone who wants to communicate with Arabs on an informal basis. People may understand MSA, but they probably won’t use it.

Instead it makes more sense to focus on a common Arabic dialect used in a region that’s of interest to the learner. I can study some MSA alongside that, but learning to speak and understand the chosen dialect should be first priority. My focus will be Levantine Arabic, as spoken in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I plan to blog a bit about my progress, starting with a review of the two trial Skype lessons I’m doing this week on iTalki.