Learning Arabic: The Classroom and The Text

Based on your unique situation, the Palestinian dialect is the Arabic you desire to learn. Your maternal grandmother is Palestinian and you want to travel to the old country to explore your roots. But where to begin? What's the next move? The biggest determiner, of course, is money. Nothing is free! Well, not so fast! Due to the Internet and modern technology, there's been a phenomenal rise in free or reasonably priced resources tailored to language learners on a budget. For now, lets focus on traditional "IRL" options like the classroom, tutoring, and textbooks, and figure out how to keep these costs down.

If you have the funds - or are currently enrolled as a student - you can take Arabic courses at a local college or university. The bigger the college, the more likely their foreign language department offers Arabic; and because of the increasing demand and relevancy of this language, more and more community colleges are starting to offer it. A cheaper classroom option is the non-credit "continuing education" or "community education" courses offered to the wider community by many community colleges. For example, Portland Community College offers a six-week Arabic course for under a hundred bucks! Even more incredible, they offer both MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) and the Egyptian dialect.

Non-credit community education classes are a fine introduction to the language, but they will only take you so far. This leaves many folks in a pinch because they can't afford to keep the momentum going by attending courses at the university level. And believe me, they are no small expense. With fees factored in, a single five credit course at Portland State University cost almost $1,000! A third option is attending an independent language institute like Berlitz. Ironically, language institutes are more accessible abroad because they are cheaper. If you have the freedom to do so, I highly recommend studying abroad in an Arabic speaking country where you'll find no shortage of affordable private language institutes and happy people willing to help you learn.

If you don't have the good fortune of gallivanting around the globe, don't be deterred! You can seek out help closer to home and find a native (or non-native) speaker to tutor you. And the best part? You can often swap English lessons for Arabic lessons as payment if your tutor is still struggling to achieve that perfect English. You'll be surprised how easy it is to find an interested native speaker who is just as enthusiastic to share their language as you are to learn it. Start asking around! Surely someone you know has an Arabic speaking friend, colleague or acquaintance. This is also a great way to further intercultural understanding and strengthen bonds between communities. It's really a win-win situation.

If that seems too intimidating or simply not feasible for your particular situation, just pick up a book and start hammering away! There's a large assortment of high quality texts on the market geared to the autodidactic learner. My best advice is to read the consumer reviews to get a feel for how the book actually works in the hands of the learner. These assessments can be very helpful and have served me well in the past.

Remember though: MSA or a dialect? That is the question I can't emphasis enough; your answer will change the parameters of your search entirely. There's an excess of books out there teaching MSA, in contrast to a general shortage for the dialects. But the more popularized and widely spoken a dialect is, the easier it is to locate the right text. For instance, Egyptian Arabic is relatively easy to find books for. There's a great series put out by The American University in Cairo Press called Kallimni 'Arabi, by Samia Louis. In regard to MSA, the most well-known and oft-used classroom text is the Al-Kitaab fii Ta'allum al-'Arabiyya series, by Kristen Brustad, Abbas Al-Tonsi and Mahmoud Al-Batal.

There's just one problem: both these texts are written in the Arabic script, which means you must already possess a solid grasp of the script in order to utilize them (the Al-Kitaab MSA series does include an "introduction to Arabic letters and sounds" that could successfully instruct a beginner on the script without the aid of a teacher). The truth is, if MSA is your focus it helps to have guidance in learning the script before working independently. Because mastering the script is so central, you'll want to build a firm foundation. Having a mentor will help you build confidence when confronting what is arguably the most difficult aspect of the language.

On the other hand, if your passion is the dialects - what's spoken by natives in everyday life - then you have the option of dispensing with the script altogether and diving straight into transliterated textbooks. Transliterated means that the Arabic script has been converted into the Latin script, a process resulting in an endless variety of spellings (something you'll have to see to believe but we'll save that for another day!). With a transliterated text you will be able to read what you see: qul-li, il-maktabe maftuha yom s-sabt?, even if you don't know what it means.

Two examples of transliterated texts that come to mind are 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 intricate, can be easily ordered online from Amazon, and includes an audio CD, while the second text keeps grammatical explanations to a minimum, must be ordered from the author in Palestine, and does not include an audio CD -- a major drawback that I advise against if you are learning without guidance from an expert. Hearing the language is key to successful acquisition.

Bottom line, explore your options. Really read those product bios and consumer reviews and buy used! And if you are focusing on MSA, purchase a good dictionary like The Concise Oxford English-Arabic Dictionary or The Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary. Notice that the first dictionary is translated from English to Arabic, while the second is Arabic to English.

Next week we'll explore some affordable and innovative digital tools that perfectly supplement the options outlined above. And remember, the traditional classroom setting is just one way to go. With the right tools and a little perseverance you'll be learning Arabic in no time!

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