How to Learn Arabic

My little brother has decided to study Arabic. The occasion has me considering what I would do if I had the chance to do it over again.

1. I would listen to Arabic at least 15 minutes per day, every day from the beginning. See this post and consider this book.

2. I would hire a speaking tutor to meet with at least once per week.

3. I would study dialect for the first six weeks spent in any Arabic-speaking country.

4. I would keep a notebook with me and write down a list of words that I would like to know.

5. I would look up in a dictionary, or ask my tutor, how to say the words in number 4.

6. I would take every opportunity that I could to speak.

7. I would read more Arabic poetry. I always liked the selections in this book.

8. I would keep looking for a good grammar book. I have heard good things about this one.

9. I would write many more sentences every time I learned new grammar rules or new words.

10. I would do the Master of Arts in Arab Studies at Georgetown.

Arabic language resources: The BBC Xtra Podcast

When I was an undergraduate, my French teacher Zoe Petropoulou pushed me to listen to 15 minutes of radio in French every day. She said that just by listening to the sounds of French, even passively while doing something else, my language skills would improve.

When I became an Arabic student, it was several years before I stumbled upon the BBC Xtra Podcast, but when I did, I applied the lesson I learned in French and began listening to the podcast regularly. Usually, I download it to my phone and listen to it when I am walking or driving somewhere. It is the easiest way to practice listening to Arabic every day.

Review of Language Schools in Morocco

Today I received an email asking me which school I prefer in Morocco: Qalam wa Lawh or ALIF. As I receive many questions about language schools, I've decided to publish my response here. The student is coming from a security studies background, so the response is in some ways tailored to him.


It’s nice to hear from you. I’m glad that you found the blog insightful. You are writing at a good time, because I am currently a student at Qalam wa Lawh so my thoughts on the two schools are fresh!

First, I’ll say that either school will meet your needs. I have studied at ALIF four or five times, and at Qalam just this past summer. In general, Qalam is better at administration, answering emails quickly and thinking of small useful things (like a shuttle from student residences to the school), while ALIF has more experienced language instructors and a longer pedigree of working with American students. Qalam has some fun programming elements that are included in the hours of classes, so some of your time will be spent in journalism club, Islamic club, etc. This has pros and cons. Sometimes it allows for learning  interesting vocabulary and sometimes it is a waste of time as speakers are late or you are stuck listening to a student with less language experience than you struggle to make a comment.  

Additionally, ALIF gives classes two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. The break tends to make each class more well-organized, in my opinion. At Qalam, all four hours are right in a row and teachers and students fatigue. I find that at Qalam we frequently spend more time on activities than we need to, in part trying to fill the time. Add to that that the teachers are a bit better at ALIF, and I think the quality of instruction there is better. Nevertheless, Qalam has some unique elements that make it a fun place to study. There are lectures from guest speakers given in Modern Standard Arabic, and field trips and tours given also in MSA. ALIF also has speakers and field trips, but they are less consistent in the use of MSA in these extracurriculars.

Despite the differences in these schools, in my opinion the most important thing to do to assure a successful time here in Morocco is not to pick a particular school but to start with six weeks of Moroccan Colloquial Arabic, darija, before you continue your studies of Fusha or Modern Standard Arabic. Dialect is indispensable and necessary for all of your interactions throughout the year. Then you can continue with either language as your needs determine.

Second, I’d say that since both schools offer excellent quality instruction, you may want to pick your location based on your research interests. In this regard, it may make sense to spend your first six weeks in Fez studying MCA at ALIF, and then the rest of your time in Rabat at Qalam where you will be closer to government offices and be better situated to work on your research.

I’d also recommend that during the first six weeks you live with a host family in the old city of Fez, and that you request to have a host family that knows no French or Fusha, to force you to learn as much colloquial as possible. Then, when you move to Rabat, I recommend that you either stay in one of the student residences offered by Qalam in Agdal or that you rent your own apartment. It is wonderful living with a family, but it does distract from research, and gives your days a degree of unpredictability that could harm your productivity. This is why I recommend an intensive period of interaction in your first six weeks living with a family, and then a more controlled environment once you come to Rabat.

These are my general thoughts. Let me know if you find this approach useful. I am happy to answer any other questions that you have. Just let me know what they are.


Review: The Arabic Language Institute of Fez, part I

I am frequently asked for my opinions regarding the Arabic school that I have attended in Fez, Morocco. The Arabic Language Institute of Fez ("Alif" as it is affectionately known) is housed in the Centre Americain, a large villa with a lovely English language bookstore and coffee stand in its courtyard.

The center is run by David Amster, a classicist by training. I believe he took out college loans while a university student and used the money to buy Greek vases at one of the auction houses. He assures me that he has long since paid back the loans and it was "well worth it." Amster's commitment to the preservation of the historic old city of Fez (or "medina") is truly legendary. He once drove to Casablanca to rescue two old wooden doors that had been poached from a riad house in Fez, and returned them to their owner. David is delightful, informative and full of advice and wisdom about life in Morocco.

I think ALIF is one of the best places to study Arabic in North Africa, both because of price and quality of instruction. Many of the Arabic teachers there also work for the local university and many have advanced degrees. They also have worked for years with American students which has taught most of them that Americans are accustomed to a particular pedagogy when it comes to learning language, and it is not the memorize-regurgitate-repeat of the French system.

The school is organized around six week modules. Their schedule is available here. Students can take three week or six week sessions in both Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Moroccan dialect or darija. The school abbreviates this dialect as "CMA" for Colloquial Moroccan Arabic. It's my sense that the curriculum is more standardized for the six week MSA sessions. The three week sessions are more variable and the students have more say in what is taught in those courses.

Nevertheless, the quality of instruction there varies by instructor. I think Zaim is an excellent professor for beginning students, and he will have you speaking in case endings by the end of your first six week session. Hamid is a great teacher if you are interested in politics. He is a true political junkie. He was horrified the morning after Obama's State of the Union speech to learn that I, a political scientist, had not stayed up to watch the address at 3am like he had. He has also read virtually every piece of literature available to him in either English, French, Spanish or Arabic so he can be really helpful to those interested in literature studies.

It is better for graduate students looking for serious language study to take classes there during the school year, rather than during the summer. During summer months the Center can be overrun by American undergraduates studying abroad with the intentions of normal American undergraduates. In the fall the center is full of Fulbrighters, so those who intend to do research can meet a community of other young scholars by studying at the center.

It's important to note that dialect on the street, CMA, is very different from MSA. I recommend anyone traveling to Morocco for the first time to take either the three week intro to CMA class, or to take private instruction in CMA for at least two weeks prior to beginning MSA. It will lubricate all of your social interactions during your entire stay if you can communicate people on the street: every taxi driver, restaurant owner or waiter, not to mention your Moroccan friends will appreciate your grasp of even a few words of dialect.

Speaking of your Moroccan friends, I also highly recommend that during your first stay in the country that you live with a host family. Moroccan hospitality is truly legendary and you will learn a million small details about daily life in the presence of a family than in a dorm or apartment. I recommend living in the Old City and requesting a family that speaks no French or English and has small children in the home. They will teach you more words than any adult companion.