Photograph: Dome buildings on the horizon

The teaching methodology for Colloquial Arabic continues to engender controversy in the field of Arabic pedagogy. One approach is firstly teaching Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), then teaching colloquial Arabic (CA); another is introducing both MSA and CA at the same time. A third approach is starting with CA then introducing MSA, which is less common in USA and Middle East educational institutions.

At Portland State University (PSU), the Arabic program is designed to teach MSA for at least one year, after which the students can learn CA. Because of how the Arabic program at PSU is designed (similar to many programs in the USA), the importance of this book arises. This transition can be challenging for some students.

Many current texts do not address the transition from MSA to CA. Some authors assume that both varieties are taught at the same time, or that colloquial is taught first. These approaches are not the best fit for the PSU program design. This book provides information needed to transition from MSA to CA and is useful for PSU students and any student who is following the same pattern in learning Arabic.

The book targets students in NM (Novice Mid) who have studied Arabic for a year or more and aims to help them advance to IL (Intermediate Low) according to the Oral Proficiency Interview standards by ACTFL, the American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages. This book documents answers to questions from students in CA classes. It is also a reference for students to “get a feel” for MSA and CA similarities and differences.

Content is displayed at the beginning of each chapter. Section A discusses a feature in MSA and compares it with CA. Section B has dialogues with different topics related to section A; each dialogue is preceded by a table that has three columns: the word in Arabic, the word in English, and the equivalent word/expression in MSA. In the second column “the meaning in English,” I included both the literal meaning (LM) and the intended meaning (IM). Including the LM, as I noticed in class, makes the words/expressions more memorable to the students and more comprehensible even though it might not sound idiomatic or make full sense in English.

The last section of the chapter (C) is cultural insight related to the main topic, making the students more culturally familiar with acceptable behaviors and offering ideas to consider while living in an Arab country. At the end is a glossary organized in English for easier search.

This book is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of all the issues arising when learning CA after learning MSA. Its goal is to transition students smoothly from MSA to CA, giving them confidence to explore both varieties while reaching the NH (Novice High) or IL level, navigate predictable social situations in CA, and utilize their previous knowledge in MSA to learn CA.  The content and structure are based on my teaching experience and as an ACTFL OPI interviewer to assist students in their quest to speak CA with native speakers with relative ease.

In this book, you will notice several features, one of which is adding a practice dialogue at the end of each chapter to encourage speaking. From my interactions with beginning students, I noticed that they like to practice speaking with Arabic native speakers but are shy or not confident enough or do not know how to reach them. The practice dialogue section is a venue for gaining confidence, where the speaker in the recording pauses during the dialogue, leaving lines for the student to complete orally and in writing. This allows the student to have a real conversation during the recorded dialogue.

In addition, you will find voweling on some of the words when first introduced to help in correctly reading them. From the second time onwards, the voweling disappears. Thus, students receive help the first time when they read the full voweling of the word, then encouragement to remember the correct pronunciation by more practice, while having a reference.

Voweling is somewhat rare in CA books because this is how Arabic native speakers read. However, I noticed that students have struggled with reading and practicing many words even after listening to them in the audio recording.  This is partially because many MSA books are heavily voweled. For some students studying MSA, switching to CA where the books have no vowels is unsettling. Thus, I have attempted to reach a middle ground between both approaches in this book where voweling is used only when a new word is introduced then disappears after its introduction.

 Transliteration is not employed because the target students of this book have had one year of Arabic or more and can read Arabic script.

One final feature is having hyperlinks to resources, including more information about cultural items and songs. For songs in particular, I am not expecting the students to fully understand what is being said, but the exposure to the language can gradually lead to fluency, increase interest in the Arabic culture, and provide chances to listen to different speakers’ intonation and terminology.

Since I grew up in Cairo, this book introduces the Cairene Egyptian dialect; however, it also explains commonly used expressions in the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel). The goal is to introduce students to more varieties, allowing them to choose which dialect to specialize in and still be able to communicate with Arabic speakers. Although this book does not introduce Gulf dialects, many of the expressions and terms are frequently used in most of the Arab world, and many are derived from MSA.

I sincerely hope that this book will benefit students of Arabic at PSU and elsewhere, reduce their textbook expenses, and help them improve their CA speaking. I also hope that the dialogues (recorded by PSU students of Arabic) will be enjoyable for learners and provide successful examples for others to follow.

This book will be used in classes and the wider online audience. I welcome suggestions and comments to improve the content and format in future editions.

Learning outcomes:

On completion of this book, the students will be able to:

  • Differentiate between MSA and CA (particularly Egyptian)
  • Navigate predictable social situations in CA including:
    • Greetings in formal and informal settings
    • Asking questions and making requests
    • Expressing themselves in the present, future and past in CA
    • Using negation in the present
    • Accepting and rejecting invitations