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Learning Arabic: The Classroom and The Text
Based on your unique situation, a Palestinian dialect is the Arabic you want to learn. Your maternal grandmother is Palestinian, and you want to travel to the old country to explore your roots. But where to start? What is the next move? The biggest determinant is, of course, money. Nothing is free! Well, not so fast! Thanks to the Internet and modern technology, there has been a phenomenal growth in free or affordable resources tailored for language learners on a budget. For now, let’s focus on traditional “IRL” options like classroom, tutoring, and tutorials and figure out how to keep those costs down.
If you have the funds or are currently enrolled as a student, you can take Arabic language courses at a local college or university. The larger the college, the more Arabic their foreign language department offers; and more and more community colleges are beginning to offer it because of the growing demand and relevance for the language. A less expensive class option is the non-credit “continuing education” or “community education” courses offered by many community colleges to the general public. For example, Portland Community College offers a six-week Arabic course for under a hundred dollars! Even more incredible, they offer both MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) and an Egyptian dialect.
Non-credit community education classes are a great introduction to the language, but they will only take you so far. This puts many people in a difficult position because they cannot keep up with university level courses. Believe me, they are not small expenses. Including fees, one five-credit course at Portland State University costs almost $1,000! A third option is to attend an independent language institute such as Berlitz. Ironically, language institutes are more accessible abroad because they are cheaper. If you have the freedom to do so, I highly recommend it, as you will find no shortage of affordable private language institutes in an Arabic-speaking country abroad and happy people willing to help you learn.
If you don’t have the chance to travel the world, don’t hesitate! You can look for help closer to home and find a native (or non-native) speaker to tutor you. And the best part? If your tutor is still struggling to achieve perfect English, you can often replace English lessons with Arabic lessons as payment. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to find an interesting native speaker who is as eager to share their language as you are to learn it. Start asking around! Surely someone you know has a friend, colleague or acquaintance who speaks Arabic. It is also a great way to foster cross-cultural understanding and strengthen ties between communities. It really is a win-win situation.
If that seems too intimidating or not possible for your particular situation, just pick up a book and start hammering away! There is a large variety of high-quality texts on the market designed for the self-taught learner. My best advice is to read consumer reviews to get a feel for how the book actually performs in the hands of the learner. These assessments can be very helpful and have served me well in the past.
Remember: MSA or dialect? The question I cannot stress enough is; your answer will completely change the parameters of your search. Contrary to the general lack for dialects, there are many books out there that teach MSA. But the more popular and widespread a dialect becomes, the easier it is to find the correct text. For example, Egyptian Arabic books are relatively easy to find. Cairo Press has a great series by American University Kallimni Arabi, By Samia Louis. Regarding MSA, it is the most popular and frequently used classroom text Al-Kitaab fii Taallum al-Arabiya series by Kristen Brustad, Abbas Al-Tonsi and Mahmoud Al-Batal.
There’s just one problem: both of these texts are written in Arabic script, which means you already have to understand the letters well to use them. Al-Kitab The MSA series includes an “introduction to Arabic letters and sounds” that can successfully instruct beginners in the script without the help of a teacher). The truth is, if MSA is focused, it helps to have instructions to learn the script before working independently. Since mastering the script is so central, you’ll want to build a solid foundation. Having a mentor will help you build confidence when you face the most difficult part of the language.
On the other hand, if your passion is dialects—what the locals speak in everyday life—then you have the option of forgoing writing altogether and diving straight into transliterated textbooks. Transliteration means that the Arabic script has been transformed into the Latin script, a process that results in an infinite number of different spellings (you have to see it to believe it, but we’ll save that for another day!). With the transliterated text, you will be able to read what you see: gul-li, il-mektebe maftuha yom s-sabt?even if you don’t know what it means.
Two examples of transliterated texts come to mind Kullu Tamam, an introduction to Egyptian colloquial Arabic and Spoken Arabic for foreigners, an introduction to the Palestinian dialect. A few differences between the two: the first text is grammatically complex, can easily be ordered online from Amazon, and includes an audio CD, while the second text minimizes grammatical explanations, must be ordered from the author in Palestine, and does. don’t include an audio CD — a major drawback I’d advise against if you’re learning without expert advice. Hearing the language is the key to success.
Bottom line, explore your options. Indeed to read those product bios and consumer reviews and buy used! If you’re focusing on MSA, get a good dictionary like Concise Oxford English-Arabic Dictionary or Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary. Note that the first dictionary is translated from English to Arabic and the second from Arabic to English.
Next week, we’ll explore some affordable and innovative digital tools that perfectly complement the aforementioned options. And remember, the traditional classroom setting is only one way to go. With the right tools and a little persistence, you’ll be learning Arabic in no time!
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