Reader Mail: 5 questions from an Arabic student in Cairo – how to transition from Amiya to Fusha


Hi Nathan,

I have been studying Egyptian Ammeya for 6 months now, through 14 hours/week 1-1 classes. I’ve gotten to the level that I can have a conversation with a patient interlocutor about any subject. I watch Egyptian soap operas and while I miss a lot I can follow the story lines. My reading is pretty basic – I have been reading the dialogues in Taxi (as you recommended, thanks!). I read them with the help of my teachers, and we can now get through a page an hour. But I learn the words I know in terms of their Arabic spelling. I haven’t tried much writing.

My goals going forward are to get more conversational and also to learn to read. My priority for reading is around professional issues – I work on social issues for UN/NGOs. I would like to be able to follow the news and read newspaper articles and op-eds. While many papers/reports on my topics will be in English, I will need to be able to read, or get the gist of, official communications (like government notices, or inter-office communication). It would also be good to follow social media in Arabic. Later in life it would be good to read poetry or literature but this is not my priority.

So my question is on how to approach the study of Fusha. My teachers are saying that it will involve starting again from the beginning, and quite a bit of textbook work. They would also teach in a style where we would speak Fusha in classes. Given that I really dislike textbook work (preferring real material and dialogue), and am wondering whether I need to speak Fusha, my questions for you below.

Thanks for providing such a valuable resource for learners of Arabic, and helping to foster a community around it!

Best wishes,



Hi Peter,

Very happy to help and I’m so  glad to hear you are taking advantage of what Cairo has to offer. All things considered I still consider Egypt the #1 place to study Arabic in the Middle East. Here are my answers to your questions, one by one:

(1) Do you recommend that I start “learning Fusha” now, or after strengthening my Ammeya further?

Continue reading “Reader Mail: 5 questions from an Arabic student in Cairo – how to transition from Amiya to Fusha”

The Challenges of Improving Arabic education in the UAE

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The National has a series of very interesting articles on concern about problems with teaching Arabic in the UAE. In the Emirates, the teaching of Arabic as a 2nd language is mandatory through the 9th grade at international schools.

I found this article which quoted a parent unhappy about the mandatory requirement to study Arabic in the first place, to be the most revealing:

… a civilian contractor with the military, said that as his son embarked on his GCSE studies and tried to cope with a new school and curriculum, hours of Arabic studies each week on top of his other school work were a struggle.

“I think it is something that can be taught in the earlier years,” he said. “But my son has just moved here, it is GCSE years. As he is not doing his GCSE Arabic, I wouldn’t choose for him to do it because he has just got here and you can’t pick up a GCSE language when you are 14 years old.

“The enforced teaching of Arabic I find to be a distraction from his other studies.

Continue reading “The Challenges of Improving Arabic education in the UAE”

9 Arabic language takeaways from watching a brawl between an Egyptian Security officer and a Tunisian Lawyer

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As I’ve written about in several previous posts, studying transcripts from Arabic media programs is an underrated way to develop your spoken abilities. This week I watched an excellent and highly entertaining 2008 Al-Jazeera debate on the theme of Arab security cooperation.  This was a good one for language learners for four core reasons:

#1  – The Brawl Aspect

Both of these guys  – a Tunisian Human Rights activist and an Egyptian Security Officer – are good and fiesty”trash talkers.” They came out swinging at each other from the get-go. You will never ever hear this type of confrontational language taught at a language school which is extremely valuable for the Arabic student.

It reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s point that an episode in a foreign jail may be better for learning languages than spending time in a classroom.  To see the formulations, the insults, the back and forth, the sarcasm, the skepticism, this is true “Real World” Arabic that you will be hard-pressed to see in action anywhere else.

#2 – The Regional and Functional Differences

Watch the variations in how one guy from Tunisia and a 2nd from Egypt each speaks to say the same things. Also, when you see “how a security person frames” versus “how a Human rights person” frames, the student should be able to make strong vocabulary associations.

#3. If you heard it said on Al-Jazeera, it is correct Arabic

In my  recent interview with Zora O’Neil we touched upon an insistence by some Arabic teachers that there can only be “one way.”  While I respect that local teachers of Dialect have that view especially as relates to teaching their dialect, I believe that Arabic as a 2nd language students who are not locals, and whose main goal is career functionality, should be aiming for a multi-dimensional hybrid of Fusha and Amiya that can be used everywhere.  This transcript shows several good examples of this.

#4. Studying Case Endings/ Tashkeel

The Tunisian guest speaks 100% fully Tashkeeled.  Whereas in textbooks you will only get to see a few sentences here and there, these kinds of transcripts provide volumes of “the rules, applied.”

Continue reading “9 Arabic language takeaways from watching a brawl between an Egyptian Security officer and a Tunisian Lawyer”

Why does Awlaki’s Influence Linger? Because He Was Bi-Lingual

This Sunday New York Times article on the “enduring” influence of the assassinated American Al-Qaeda cleric Anwar Awlaki, kinda/sorta asks why that influence lingers, but never really put a finger on it.

American “Jihadologists” far too often get caught up in the weeds of obscure religious debates and assume that recruits join the cause because of some nuanced reading of the scriptures (and by contrast might not join the cause if someone else can come up with a better reading saying not to).

In reality, the ideology of Jihadism is fairly simple. And while the  vague analysis in the NYT might lead casual readers to believe that Awlaki was a highly original, deep and innovative thinker, and that explains his influence, there is a far more obvious explanation:

Because He Could Proselytize in English, Not Just Arabic 

As’ad Abu Khalil is basically right:

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A huge portion of the people in the US likely to join Jihadist groups have limited or no ability to understand Arabic. For example, my extremely strong suspicion is that the Afghani-born guy who lay pipe bombs all over NYC this weekend and the Somali-born guy who stabbed eight people at a mall in Minnesota on Saturday had minimal ability to understand Arabic lectures. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they listened to Awlaki lectures.


The letter the NYC bomber was carrying was filled with praise for Awlaki

“Algeria Debates The Value of French vs Arabic in Modern Society”

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An extremely interesting Quartz article by Abi Latif Dahir. It’s for Algerians to say what should or shouldn’t be in their country. I am sympathetic, however, to the argument that all subjects can and should be taught exclusively or predominantly in Arabic in Middle Eastern countries.

Whether intended or not, when English or French is deemed the language of status and sophistication in a country, it has the effect of making the socio-economic divisions that lay at the heart of most problems in the Middle East even more rigid.

Why? As a rule, according to the law of averages, only so many people can perfect English or French. And those of higher socioeconomic background are vastly more likely to do so.  Which means that essentially, it has the effect of making the Arabic identify to be lower-status. That directly fuels the appeal of those groups claiming to represent the truest, local, Arab-Islamic identify (most are peaceful, but some are violent).  It isn’t a coincidence that Tunisia has sent the most recruits to ISIS, none of them coming from the Francophone elite.

I am also worried about Algeria.  Bouteflika has kept things in check, but his successors may have a harder time keeping these identity divisions in check…

It was the beginning of the school year, and Boudras was telling the young students how they were going to use only Arabic in her primary school class. As she made the statements, the students gathered around her, repeating and completing her sentence  “Arabic is one of the richest languages in the world,” Boudras said. “This year, my language will be Arabic, and we will not express ourselves except in Arabic.”

Boudras’s video elicited a response from Nouria Benghebrit, the country’s education minister. Speaking during a press conference, Benghebrit called the video a “disaster,” criticizing the teacher for recording the children and turning her back to them. Benghebrit said she’ll open an investigation, and if the incident proves accurate, the teacher will face a “disciplinary council.”

The minister’s criticism of the teacher’s actions turned the conversation among Algerians towards language use in the classroom – especially given that the teacher was talking in Arabic and the minister in French. The criticism soon traveled throughout social media outlets, creating a controversy (link in Arabic) in the North African nation, and showcasing the delicate place of language in Algerian society

All the Arabic You Never Learned the 1st Time Around

A month ago I was at the beach hanging out with a friend in the Army.  He told me about a useful book called “All the Arabic you never learned the first time around.”

Then – not a week later a reader – with an excellent blog covering her Arabic studies sent me an email with a PDF link to this very same book.

These nine questions from the book’s introduction convey it’s Added Value better than anything else I might say:Screen Shot 2016-09-12 at 1.57.15 PM.png

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3 tips for learning the important skill of reading hand written Arabic

While not usually taught in courses, possibly the most underrated skill an ASL student can learn is how to read hand-written Arabic. You will almost certainly be called upon to do this at some point if you aspire to a career in journalism, translation, consulting, Foreign Service, academic research etc.

In fact, this is more important than learning how to write Arabic itself. It is hard to envision many situations where a non-native would be called upon to write a document in Arabic. Whereas I can list dozens of  work scenarios where the skill of being able to read hand-written Arabic would come in handy.

Here is The Bad News:

99.9% of the time,  the documents you will encounter will look nothing like this:


Continue reading “3 tips for learning the important skill of reading hand written Arabic”