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.

24 thoughts on “Learning Arabic: Robert Lane Greene’s perspective

  1. Thank you both for the thought-provoking posts. I’m enjoying discovering Arabizi, and am, coincidentally, happily in the middle of _You Are What You Speak_.

    I’ve long been wanting to learn Arabic (and in fact learned to read the alphabet some years back, which, surprisingly, got me out of a few binds in Morocco). I’m simultaneously relieved and dismayed at your description, Robert, of the situation for a learner. Relieved that my bewilderment is well founded, but dismayed — daunted is the better word — by the size and nature of the challenge, even in just deciding where to start. The analogy that comes to mind is the idea of someone deciding to learn “Romance language.” That narrows the field, right? Sure, and good luck.

    My primary interest in languages is always the human connection: being able to chat with someone in a cafe, say. (Much as I would love to read Homer, I’d choose Demotic over Ancient Greek.) In the end I suppose it comes down to deciding where I want that cafe to be. Let’s say I pick Cairo. Can I go straight to studying the colloquial? If so, would I want to, or would that be a fool’s errand? In truth, all of this bewilderment (even frustration!) is a great part of the whole polyglot adventure.

    Thanks again — keep on Arabizi-ng.

    1. Glad you are enjoyed the post, I too share your sentiments, and I think Robert did a great job at describing the Arabic language experience for non-natives. Learning the Alphabet is always a good start and it can give you the key to self-study (with a dictionary) and it will always set you apart from those people who simply begin Arabic by learning the spoken. Usually, they fall into bad habits and they find these hard to break when learning the correct forms and rules. Whereas, for someone like you having learned the alphabet and hopefully a minimal level of standard Arabic, will find it easier to master the spoken because you know where the rules are broken and how it is done. In actual fact you will learn things faster, the sayings, the concepts and your standard will improve at the same time, given that you have access to the news or newspapers and something good to read in Arabic. Yes, I think for many people the point of language is communication with others and that natural need or want to understand the other’s point of view.
      As for your colloquial question I am not an advocate for studying colloquial in a ‘standard’ manner, and I usually do not advise my students to do it either. But, I am sure Robert can tell you more on that since he has great experience with Shaami (Syrian, Jordanian, and Palestinian) Arabic. In my experience colloquial is learned best among its speakers if you get the chance to live among them and mix with them in places like cafes, universities, and markets. You get to hear others talk and use the spoken in action and that way you learn how to conjugate, how to use expressions, verbs etc….. but of course if you cannot live there then books are the next best thing.
      Thanks for stopping by and hope you can share more with us in the future, here at Arabizi- Shukran

  2. Pingback: Learning Arabic: Robert Lane Greene’s perspective » The Language Hunter

  3. Lane

    Call me Lane! (Robert has been my byline forever; too late to change it I reckon…)

    Of course one can go straight to colloquial, and for many people it will make sense – whether you’re an aid worker, a journalist or a soldier stationed in the middle east, you’re going to be dealing with people much more than printed matter. I’d also at least learn the alphabet, so you don’t feel illiterate walking around. I can’t *stand* being somewhere where I can’t even sound out what the signs around me say…

    Only slightly related, but some foreigners do learn the colloquial better than MSA. John R. Bradley, a journalist and author, tells a story in his book about Egypt. He was fluent in colloquial but uncomfortable in MSA. Once when talking with an Egyptian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian *insisted* on MSA with him, despite Bradley’s repeated requests to *please* speak the colloquial they would both have been much more comfortable in. One can guess at the Egyptian’s motivations – religious, or simply wanting to put on airs. But it must have been weird.

  4. Thank you both — again! I’m actually at the very early brainstorming stage of a scheme take some time to go, to study and immerse. I’m not driven by an external need, unlike Lane’s aid worker, journalist or soldier. Rather, I’m after a linguistic and cultural experience both for its own sake and as the basis for a creative project: I write and make film, and I believe it would make for an compelling, eye-opening and indeed timely project.

    So here’s a question for both of you: given your knowledge and experience, if you could go anywhere in the world to study Arabic, where would you go? Is there a place that stands out for you, for whatever reasons, linguistic, cultural, historical, etc.? Is there a school or teacher that stands out?

    1. That sounds really interesting! I like your motivation because it will allow you to see Arabic language and culture in its true form I hope, and then you’ll show the world :-). It is indeed timely and there is a need for such a project I agree with you there.

      As for your question it’s an interesting one. But if I were to go anywhere it would have to be Damascus or Yemen. These two places stand out in their systems of teaching Arabic not just to non-native speakers but to native speakers as well. In addition to that their English is not so good, and so you have to rely on your Arabic. Most people master Arabic within a few months in these two places because the people have the time and interest to speak to non-natives in Arabic (both standard and spoken, but I think Yemen is more complicated in that dialect changes even from tribe to tribe! But with effort most people are okay). Both are culturally very Arabic, they still keep the cultural customs that their great grandfathers did, and even still visit the same cafes etc…. You’ll find too that they still have time to sit and talk (not virtually) and take their time to be interested in people- if that makes any sense. I think it is also true for both places that the people are so historically aware that they know dates in their respective histories; they can show you a building and explain its significance and so on. So student who go to these places usually come out with more than just having learned a language…that’s in my short experience but I am sure others might have other opinions. The one place that stands out as a place of learning I think is Damascus University brilliant teachers and native students are always willing to help and chat… but the problem is currently both places are going through upheaval and change so no one knows about the future, we can only wish god for them. I hope you’ll get to do your project and I am sure it will be most successful inshaAllah keep us posted here at Arabizi!
      Thanks again

  5. Thank you, Fatma, for your thoughtful reply (and enthusiasm!). Most interesting — I would have had no idea. Of course, the current upheaval in those places is, I must say, daunting. It will take time to develop this project, and in the meantime here’s hoping, إن شاء الله, that things improve soon in both of those places. I will certainly investigate Damascus University. If anyone especially comes to mind to contact, by all means let me know!

    All the best — and I’ll stay tuned to Arabizi,

  6. Kamal Sobhy

    Hey! This is another great post thanks for it. I will share with my students I am sure they’ll find it useful. Oh by the way your answer to ‘which place would you recommend’ is most interesting I would add Jordan Amman to that I think they are similar to Syria the Arabic is very good etc… But Yemen is also good and the people, scenery, food just a treat it’s language and culture in one. Shukran Kamal

  7. Thanks, Kamal! And, both of you — Cairo, not so much? I’ve been told that if one learns a colloquial form, Egyptian is a good idea because the film & media are so influential across the Arab world. What do you think?

  8. Thanks Kamal for your comments they are always welcome! Yes, I also heard Amman is a good place for learning Arabic but not sure which university or institution maybe you can suggest it to the readers and to Leo too. I am sure your Arabic students will benefit from Lane’s experience and thoughts on learning Arabic.
    Leo! Thanks for keeping the comments section active :-), I do not know about Egypt but I heard it is another popular place with students for learning Arabic. Egyptian is a good idea though I do not think that they have the monopoly over the media/film industry as they used to have. These days, in addition to Egyptian you also have the very popular Levantine (Syrian or Damascene to be more specific) colloquial that has more or less taken over. During the month of Ramadan they produce over 20 soap operas in Syrian Arabic (whilst I think Egyptian soap operas are slightly less in number?) and that has allowed many people to learn this difficult, rare and yet very nice Arabic. So yes you learning Cairene Arabic is not a bad idea, I just wanted to mention that it is not the only influential colloquial out there- you have options!
    Hoping that answered your query, it would be nice if others contributed to the discussion, and that we knew about other places for learning Arabic etc…

  9. I often hear Arabs describe Damascene as lovely, sophisticated and so forth. If I could, and upheaval weren’t the issue, that’s where I’d go. Egyptian has a reputation as “earthy”, and is, as you say, widely understood. I’d avoid, unless you had a specific need, the more physically peripheral dialects. Moroccan is of limited wider use, for example. (If you’re interested in Morocco, that’s a different story obviously.) Lebanon is fascinating, and their Arabic is pretty to me, but I’ve been told by a near-native-level speaker with a Lebanese mother and Iraqi father that they love switching to English or French on you, and it can be hard to get people to actually speak Arabic.

  10. Ah — that is a great summary, Lane. Thank you! I’m getting more interested in Damascus by the day, which is frightening to contemplate at the moment.

    PS. Just finished YAWYS yesterday. Very nice note you end on, and I’m happy to find more substance to back my lifelong sense of multilingualism as just plain a good thing. Encouraging others to pick up the book! Cheers.

  11. Dilda Roberts

    Hi all!

    Firstly, I love this blog big thanks to Fatma! Love the way the whole blog goes, and this comment section is particularly interesting today. Ever since I subscribed I have to say I learn facts about Arabic that I would never learn in a classroom- thanks Arabizi. Oh by the way I copied a new verb ‘I’m Arabiz-ing thanks Leo! For me that means v; reading the Arabizi blog and super-enjoying myself. Sorry it’s my Americaness that you’ll get used to!

    Right, Damascene Arabic it has to be, I learned my standard and then studied with a gentle little lady the Syrian Arabic> It was soooo hard at first but after 2 months of serious study I could hold a few minutes conversation with others. Now 8 years later I speak Damascene Arabic and put some 2nd generation Syrians to shame 😛 so funny! So Leo wait for the calm and Damascus should be your destination. Avoid Lebanese and definitely rough Egyptian they are not so good. Yemeni well you’ll need to be excellent in your standard already but it is beautiful too. Well that’s my small contribution to the discussion here a way of giving back to this great blog.
    Keep Arabizi-ng 

  12. Hi all! Thanks for the comments here. Lane you are right there is a tendency in Lebanese Arabic to switch to French and/ or English (Hi, keefak [hi, how are you]? and so on. Dilda thanks for your kind words and I’m glad you are enjoying the blog, keep ‘Arabizi-ng’ and any comments are welcome as I want to make the blog better all the time. Thanks also for sharing your experience of learning the dialects, I agree Yemeni Arabic you need a really strong foundation in Standard, and for Damascene basic level will do. Glad your Syrian is excellent and that is hope for non-speakers that they can master Arabic despite its complexity. Leo, you have options to choose from and yes we are hoping for peace and calm as soon as possible 🙂

    1. Thanks Magdalene for the kind words- I feel a bit of pressure now because you ‘wait’ for the posts 🙂 keep reading and I hope your understanding of Arabic related issues improves all the time.

  13. Lianne

    I recently came across your internet-site blogs and i always definitely appreciate the information and facts you give us as readers. Will come back for more of the exciting content you put here for us thanks gracias

  14. Gwen

    The actual artical is exceptional! Lane and Arabizi you have to give us another one please, thanks Arabizi for being brave and asking him to write this ciao!

  15. Pingback: » Árabe dialectal… ¿para qué? Ta Marbuta

  16. GeorginaME

    I’m so glad I found this blog, I am now slowly catching up with all these lovely blog posts love the passion here

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