Yair Gruzman is a teacher of Literary Arabic and holds a MA in Middle East Studies
There are at least four misconceptions regarding learning Arabic in general and Spoken Arabic in particular that some people consider to be Arabic facts. These misconceptions lead to problematic policy making in the public sector and misguided behavior by consumers in the private languages learning market.
It is one of the Arabic facts that the two types of Arabic are related and anyone who has taken Arabic and/or Mid-East studies in high-school or university, has probably heard that strange argument at least once or twice. Surprisingly, it is an opinion often held by people who are well aware of the vast differences between Literary and Spoken Arabic. Despite the proximity between the two, knowledge of Literary Arabic can not substitute a methodical and structured process of learning the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of Spoken Arabic.
Practicing conversation without learning Spoken Arabic will not lead to the desired results.
Speaking with a local Arab, using Literary Arabic and “bits and pieces” of Spoken Arabic, can be loosely compared to speaking Shakespearean English, with a hint of modern slang, with a businessman in New-York; Old, outdated and irrelevant at the best of times, but in many cases completely incomprehensible and downright embarrassing. In any case, Spoken Arabic proficiency won’t be gained using this laid back technique.
These Arabic facts, arguing for the studies of spoken Arabic as a unique subject and as a topic on its own, are an undisputed fact for many language teachers. Of course a person with previous knowledge of Literary Arabic has an advantage, but this advantage can’t replace a methodical process of learning and practicing.
There is of course an array of different local dialects of Spoken Arabic that is only one of known Arabic facts. Moreover, not only is Arabic spoken differently in different Arab states, but it is another one of many Arabic facts that there are also a variety of different “sub-dialects” in every state. For example, differences can usually be found between city dialects and village dialects. Nonetheless, all languages are based on linguistic laws and Spoken Arabic is no exception. It would seem that this concept came about as a way of giving students the confidence needed to use the language. So instead of saying “making mistakes is the only way to learn”, you can say “well it’s not really a mistake, because strict rules are non-existent anyway”.
You would think that understanding the importance of being able to speak Arabic in Israel would be a no brainer. There are many obvious practical advantages of being able to understand and communicate with neighbors, at peace times, as well as during times of war. Americans are teaching their children Spanish and Chinese, even though most Hispanics and Chinese speak English fluently. Where does that put us? How can we be so indifferent to the Arabic facts of the region we live in? Wouldn’t it be prudent to be able to listen and understand our neighbors in their own language, in a direct, non-distorted and unbiased manner?
It’s true that culture is manifested in language and that proverbs and songs contain a great amount of “cultural DNA”; but this too is only a tool that can supplement, but not replace a structured learning process that must include a full arsenal of learning tools.
The time has come to give Spoken Arabic the status and prestige it deserves, as the major means of communication for the majority of our neighbors, and to start learning Spoken Arabic as a language in itself. Disposing of misconceptions of Arabic facts is an important step in the right direction.
Watch an example lesson with Lingolearn:
LingoLearn is an online Arabic school that offers beginners level Arabic courses, as well as intermediate and advanced level courses. Learn Arabic with our experienced teachers and excellent learning materials, in a state of the art virtual classroom!