Studying Arabic in Beirut

An Interesting article by Ben Kalt.
Remember, if you want to really learn how to speak Lebanese, sign up for my online course.

What you need to know before taking the plunge

By:Ben Kalt


American: “Lao sa-maHt, ay-nuh el mah-tãm Ka-bab-ji?”
Beiruti: “Speak English or French?”
American: “Uh…English.”
Beiruti: “OK, go straight and first left…you will see. Welcome to Lebanon.”
American: “Shou-kran.”
Beiruti: “You’re welcome.”

The Lebanese local grins at his multilingual hospitality as the foreign student walks away grumbling, “I live here dammit, and I speak Arabic!” after yet another failure to pull off even the most basic of interactions in Arabic after months in Beirut studying.

The ubiquity of cock-eyed, cross-linguistic exchanges like this one have long put an asterisk by Beirut as a place for foreigners to learn Arabic. But with Damascus falling off the student map, Cairo seen as too overcrowded and stressful, and Amman viewed as boring and suffocatingly conservative, the question remains: Is Beirut the place to study Arabic?

Whether you’re a student of Middle East Studies or International Relations, a “heritage learner” trying to rediscover your roots, or you’ve settled in Beirut and long promised yourself you’d really learn Arabic – here’s some food for thought and some options for study in Beirut.

Before picking a place to study, you should know that Arabic is a hard language to acquire. The US Defense Department rates Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) as a “Category IV language” in terms of difficulty, the same as Chinese, meaning 64 weeks of intensive study (that is 30 hours a week) are required to become fluent in everyday conversation, whereas Spanish and German require 26 and 35 weeks respectively. In other words, learning Arabic requires a major investment of time and effort.

If that’s not discouraging enough, at universities, the only Arabic traditionally offered is MSA, or fohss-ha in Arabic. While across the Arab world, fohss-ha is the language of virtually all writing, media and formal speech, it is not used in everyday conversations. Rather, it is ahmeyyuh, or the colloquial Arabic dialect that varies by region, that rules all interactions.

Rana Dirani, Director of the Saifi Institute, asserts, “We don’t encourage [studying] fohss-ha for those living in the Arab world [because] it’s not a living language…Ahmeyyuh is.”

So which kind of Arabic to study? If your future plans are primarily academic, then fohss-ha is the obvious choice. But be forewarned, if you travel in the Arab world and speak only fohss-ha you’ll be understood, but expect bewildered faces and awkward pauses. In this case, you’ll compound your outsider status, you won’t understand much of what you overhear and you’ll forfeit much of the cultural capital and goodwill that accrues when locals happily recognize they can comfortably communicate with you in their everyday ahmeyyuh language. So it depends on your future language needs.

British aid worker and ALPS language institute student Martha Reggiori Wilkes hopes to “speak to refugees,” so studies three hours of ahmeyyuh a day but also studies one hour of fohss-ha because “reading articles would be great.”

Once you’ve settled on what to learn, it’s time to think about how you’ll learn. If you have a very small class, then it may be possible to get enough authentic communicative practice to keep improving, but this depends on your teacher and their method.

ALPS instructor Rima Nawfal tells NOW Extra that “when I was a student, I was always looking at my watch during class.” So now, as a teacher, she tries to create the ‘learning space’ to allow students to speak freely and joke around in Arabic during class, because “personal relationships with students are very important.”

However, larger or more structured classes won’t likely get you enough conversation practice and you will have to make due on your own outside class, which brings us to the main knock on Beirut: doubts about its “Arab authenticity.”

“Everyone will speak to you in French or English,” “Lebanese are not real Arabs” and “you will never learn Arabic in Beirut” are just a few of the stereotypes or, at best, half-truths. Still others belittle the Lebanese accent as overly feminine and the culture as pretentious, superficial or materialistic. But many foreigners are relieved to have the option of reverting to English for logistical needs – to not have to sink or swim in the deep end of Arabic all the time. They appreciate the relative social anonymity and cosmopolitan sophistication of Beirutis as well as the liberal indulgences of alcohol, dancing, Western dress and social mixing of the sexes in some parts of the country. In short, Lebanon comes in the “Middle East Lite” flavor.

But these very comforts and the sheer number of foreigners in Lebanon are a double-edged sword, as ALPS manager Joëlle Giappesi laments. “Too many [foreign students] stay in a Western bubble and live in shared flats with other foreigners in tourist areas [or] in dorms near the university, spending [their] leisure time in cafes and pubs speaking English,” she says.

Giappesi adds that she “love[s] when students ask for a homestay” but acknowledges that there is some reluctance among Lebanese to accept foreigners into their homes, though they’re becoming “more open to the idea little by little.”

Aliya Saidi, Assistant Director of AUB’s Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES), tells NOW Extra that “older grad students sometimes want to live in an Arabic-speaking only [neighborhood] off-campus for more immersion.” She adds that AUB students sign a “language pledge” to use Arabic in and out of class to the best of their ability. However, she admits that the pledge “doesn’t work very well; students still speak English to each other.”

She added that a place like Damascus offers “more immersion [than Beirut]” but students can get stressed out or feel homesick, so it “requires [more] student maturity and motivation.”

Saifi Institute director Dirani stresses that maintaining “strict rules and structure,” in terms of homework, attendance, exams for advancement, is important for creating the ideal atmosphere because “many students’ priorities are going out and having fun, many are floaters…30 to 50% are really serious students.” Dirani advises that “if you want to learn, just use [Arabic] and don’t be shy,” adding that one of Saifi’s goals “was to create a cultural environment to use Arabic.”

Apart from seeking out Arabic-speaking friends (or better still a lover) to regularly converse with and reinforce what you’ve learned in class, your next best option is to scour the internet for learning resources, and remember the more you enjoy studying, the more likely you’ll stick with it. Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint.

My own preferred way to “study” is watching Lebanese web series like Beirut I Love You, Shankaboot, Mamnou3 or Fasateen, making notes of the new Arabic expressions I catch and brainstorming humorous ways I can try them out on Lebanese I know the next day.

All four series are in Lebanese ahmeyyuh and have English subtitles so you can pause and rewind to try to piece together and decode bits of the Arabic you hear. The context is rich and the language is undeniably authentic, but most importantly, they provide a funny, colorful and entertaining slice of Lebanese life, so there’s no temptation to be lazy and put off “studying.”

As for dealing with your frustrations with Beirutis not engaging you in Arabic, the bottom line is, Beirut is a partial- or optional-immersion environment. Beirutis don’t owe you Arabic practice any more than you owe them English practice. In every encounter the default is Arabic vs. English linguistic arm wrestling – may the best lingua franca win. If you start out confidently and express yourself strongly and clearly with a decent accent, you can earn your Arabic-speaking stripes and most Beirutis will engage you in Arabic. If, however, they judge their English to be better than your Arabic (or are oblivious and just see “foreigner”), they may fire back in English, in which case you can: A) throw in the towel and speak English, or B) smile, show your gumption and insist, by unleashing the best Arabic performance you can muster and see if you can outduel them. Better to accept the communicative challenge and play the game when you are faced with English rather than to grumble and meekly plead “please speak to me in Arabic.”

In the end, whether or not Beirut is the place to study depends, overwhelmingly, on you – your preferences, resilience, attitude and language needs. As ALPS student Michelle Cousland says, “In Beirut, foreigners don’t need Arabic… So the burden is on you to be pro-active and seek people out to practice.” So if you’re hard core and inspired to take on total Arabic, Arab culture immersion and the challenges that come with it, then Beirut may not be the best place.

But if a modicum of Western familiarity, freedoms and fun – and the prerogative to bite off as much Arabic language and culture as you want to chew on any given day – is more your style, then Beirut might bring the best balance of comfort and challenge. As Cousland put it, “Comfort level is important… If you’re stressed about daily life [it affects] your learning and the whole experience…I mean, they have Oreo milk shakes here, what more do you need?”