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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.


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