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A Tool to Change How We Learn Arabic

posted on: Jan 24, 2017

BY: Hossam Abouzahr/Special to Arab America

I didn’t expect my life to take the path of developing Arabic learning tools and the first multi-dialect Arabic dictionary. As a Lebanese-American (Lebanese father and white mother) raised in Michigan, I hated Arabic growing up. My parents put my siblings and me in a private Islamic school where we had to take Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies classes. After eight years at that school, I was too pleased to never look at an Arabic book again.

By the time I finished high school, my undergraduate studies, and the Peace Corps, I had happily forgotten just about every word of Arabic I had ever learned. Yet, unbelievably, the year before I started graduate school, I decided to teach myself Arabic. Before starting elementary school, Arabic was fun, and I had a similarly enjoyable experience learning the Bantu language Shangaan during my Peace Corps service. The desire to rediscover that enjoyment in language learning, coupled with a growing interest in international relations, led me back to Arabic.

As a child, Arabic was songs with grandparents, playing with cousins, and games like barjees. In school, it became confusing. Classes were in Fus-ha (Modern Standard Arabic), teachers spoke different Arabic dialects, and the textbooks were meant for native speakers growing up in Arab countries. I did well in classes by memorizing all the material, but I never retained it, and Arabic became my most hated class.

My self-teaching, however, was surprisingly successful. I managed to test into the fourth year Arabic courses at the University of Michigan and focused much of my graduate studies on Arabic. After finishing my Master’s and completing a year in Egypt through the Center of Arabic Studies Abroad, I continued studying Arabic on my own, and I wanted to share my strategies for learning Arabic with others. How to do that, though, was not clear.

Arabic is complex because it is characterized by what linguists call diglossia, meaning it encompasses Fus-ha and the language’s dialects. Both play different roles: one is used in formal situations, writing, and media, and the other is used in day-to-day situations and popular culture.

Learning Arabic requires two lessons that have largely been forgotten when teaching Arabic: the educational process needs to tie Fus-ha and the dialects together, and the learning process needs to be fun without getting lost in grammar and linguistics. Students who come to love the Arabic language do so for the culture it represents, but the focus on Fus-ha to the exclusion of dialects makes the culture inaccessible and the language itself lifeless.

Breaking down the language is something that native speakers learn growing up through a combination of education and socialization. Growing up in the United States, though, I never learned to balance between the two. My spoken Lebanese dialect didn’t develop as well as a native speaker’s, or even as quickly as the other children of Arab parents in Michigan. No one explained the dichotomy between Arabic dialects and Fus-ha. When asking how to say a word in Arabic, I would get responses in either the colloquial dialect or Fus-ha, but not know the difference. I asked once, how do you say “will” in Arabic? Someone told me sawfa, which is the Fus-ha word. So I said to my cousins “Sawfa aruh”, a nice mixture of Fus-ha and dialect that made my cousins laugh hysterically.

In order to help others with experiencing the same issue, I decided to take my word list, which had reached over 15,000 words plus examples throughout the course of my studies, and turn it into a website for everyone to access. To help students differentiate between Fus-ha and the dialects, the database needed to have multiple dictionaries (one for Fus-ha and one for each dialect) that are then linked together. The seed for this is what an Arabic professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Waheed Samy, had said to me: see Fus-ha as the sun, with the dialects revolving around it.

I also wanted to show that Arabic is fun. Growing up, the focus on Fus-ha disconnected Arabic from the fun games, songs, and the context of family and family that it had in my early childhood. When I decided to start teaching myself Arabic before grad school in 2008, the first lesson brought back so many bad memories from painful classes, I closed the book and decided I would count the money I had spent on the books as a loss. But after a couple of weeks I gave it another shot, and the more I studied, the more the language came back to me. However, what came back to me wasn’t what I had learned in Islamic school – it was the songs, games, and “fun” Arabic I had learned growing up.

In 2013, I launched the Living Arabic Project, an online dictionary based on my word lists. Since then, the dictionary has grown to include a Fus-ha dictionary with 9,000 headwords, an Egyptian dialect dictionary with about 24,000 headwords, and a Levantine dialect dictionary with about 10,000 words. To continue developing the database, I translated texts, transcribed movies and songs, collected children’s stories and songs, and incorporated as much culture as I could.

The site is free and anyone can use it, but in order to continue developing the database, the project requires support from those who are also passionate about the Arabic language and its evolution. What has been completed thus far has been a laborious process that started in 2008 and has grown over the years. It’s a lifelong passion, but a worthy one because it can change how we perceive the language and connect students to the Arab culture. To help the Living Arabic Project, please visit its KickStarter page.

The growth of the Arab American population, increasing general interest in the Arab countries, and changes in technology have led to new educational tools for Arabic, such as the textbook series Al-Kitaab, which tries to build a bridge between Fus-ha and the dialects. However, we still have a ways to go to understand how best to teach Arabic. New tools like the Living Arabic Project are just scratching the surface of what technology can do for the Arabic language. If students of Arabic can change the approach to the language, they can make Arabic, in all its complexity, a fun method of exploring the cultures of the Arab countries.

Hossam Abouzahr is the founder of and nerd behind the Living Arabic Project. A Lebanese-American who grew up in Michigan, he graduated from the University of Michigan in 2010 with Masters in Public Policy and Middle East Studies. His day job is as an Arabic and English editor at the Atlantic Council.