Thursday, May 20, 2010

Arabic Language Programs in Cairo Part 2


Before I came to Cairo, I sent an email to the Cairo Scholar listserv to inquire about language schools and asked their opinion about MSA (Foosah or Formal Arabic) vs. Ammayah (Egyptian Arabic or ECA). When considering Arabic studies abroad, the 2 most important decisions you can make are 1) where to study and 2) what type of Arabic to study.

Here are some of the best responses:

Mon, 12/14/09
Welcome to the challenging but rewarding (and never ending) world of Arabic studies! ;)
I think that it's good to study both Ammeyya and Fosha. There are lots of common words in all eastern dialects, so it was relatively easy for me to learn Syrian after having learned a strong basis in Egyptian.
Knowing any Ammiyya will also help you communicate to speakers of other dialects, as Arabs of various dialects tend to use Ammiyya when speaking to each other in non-formal circumstances (or even English or French if they know them). So you can expect most Arabs to understand Egyptian Arabic, although you will understand them less well, unless they are good at talking Egyptian (some can).
Of course, when you advance in your Arabic studies, you really need both since eventually Fosha starts giving you the vocab you need to talk about more complex topics.
With regard to choice of location however, I would highly recommend you NOT study at the AUC new campus unless it is being paid for you. Although quality of instruction is truly excellent, that is only one factor affecting language acquisition. It is extremely isolated from the rest of Cairo (1-2 hours into the desert depending on traffic) which severely limits your time available for studies and interactions with Arabic speakers, and these negatives outweigh, in my opinion, the benefit of the excellent instruction.

I think that AUC actually has some of the best Arabic instructors and programs in the Middle East, and the teaching method, while very American, is decent. Of course, the type of program you do best in depends on the methods you prefer. AUC often gives lots of homework and micromanages your learning, but for some reason this does not always lead to great improvements in proficiency.
If you are paying on your own, I think a better choice in Cairo would be ILI, Kalimat, or DEAC. ILI is the best in quality I believe (I don't know this though since I never studied at ILI or Kalimat), but more expensive than Kalimat. DEAC (cours intensif) sometimes has places available in the spring. However, I've heard that DEAC was a bit disorganized due to administrative changes. ILI is probably the best Arabic institute in Cairo, other than AUC. They have a good curriculum and good materials, for both Fosha and Ammiyya, and it's pretty close to the center of Cairo. I've heard that students at Kalimat aren't so serious, so sometimes the classes aren't very rigorous. do have a program in Alex as well, which I think would be a better location for studies!
Lastly, if you are not tied to Cairo, then I'd recommend considering another place to study. In Cairo, foreigners often fall into a bubble and hang out exclusively with other foreigners. It's not a problem to have some foreign friends, but for some reason, it's hard for many foreigners to make ANY close Egyptian friends (I personally think it's because the city is just so big, as well as cultural reasons), especially ones that will speak Arabic with them.
I think a much better place to study Arabic is Damascus, where costs of instruction (at Damascus Univ, or private tutoring, or even IFEAD) are very affordable, and the environment in general encourages (or requires) you to speak Arabic (even if you are a beginner), and in many instances where you'd speak Arabic in Egypt. Many people studying in Damascus make rapid improvements in proficiency -- I learned more in 1 year in Damascus than 3 years in Cairo.
Although Egyptian is probably a more useful dialect, Levantine Arabic is also well understood throughout the Arab world, and it will better prepare you than Egyptian will to understand dialects of the Gulf, Iraq and other levantine countries. Also, you will probably improve both your fosha and ammiyya more quickly in Damascus, so if you compare your communicative proficiency with Arabs of the eastern dialects (including Egyptian) after one semester in Damascus and one semester in Cairo, I feel it will be higher after studying in Damascus.
You might also consider Yemen, which I've heard is great for studying Fosha. The Ammeyya is closer to Gulf dialects though. You can also probably find teachers that can teach you some Egyptian Arabic there. I think it depends on how culturally open you are (I think Yemen is more of a culture shock)
I expect that others will disagree with my opinions here, which is perfectly acceptable, and these are just my personal opinions based on studying Arabic for 4 years in the Middle East in two countries and at about 7 different language institutes.

Mon, 12/14/09

With the help of a good teacher, and thanks to the availability of text-books, grammars, written and audio-visual sources (many things could be found on-line nowadays), MSA could be studied well anywhere in the world. It is not essential (though it might be benefitial) for the learner to be in an Arabic-speaking country. Also, the best "schools" to learn MSA are not necessarily in the Arab world. The student can acquire the rules of the grammar, work on her listening and reading skills and build-up vocabulary according to her needs. In real-life, outside-classroom settings, especially here in Egypt, and except when artificially imposed by the learner due to her inability to communicate in colloquial Arabic, contexts of prolonged, naturally occurring, unprepared conversations in "pure" MSA are, to put it mildly, very difficult to find.
Spoken language, on the other hand, is best learned where it is spoken. As Adam pointed out well, Egyptian Arabic is not a non-written language (look at the billboards, blogs, on-line forums, as well as many books that are these days being published predominantly or exclusively in Egyptian, i.e.Cairene, Arabic). Many text-books introduce the learner to the Arabic script at an early stage, so "illiteracy" is not a necessary outcome. However, since speaking and understanding what you are being told are the main goals, what you learn in the classroom, you can easily practice and expand in your everyday life. Many Egyptians can be very nice and helpful, and your learning experience can be gratifying and a lot of fun.
Once you acquire the basics and start moving around expanding on them, you can start learning MSA as well. Why not? And why not after you have learned the colloquial. If that is the experience of every single Arab in the universe, why would a foreign language learner be any different?! Why would they need to start from the MSA and then later somehow move "down"? If Arabs first acquire one of the dialects as their native tongues, and then later, through their education and religious practice start acquiring MSA, why wouldn't a foreigner attempt at repeating the same experience. (Despite the uneasiness of many Arabs to accept this claim, there are no native speakers of MSA in the sense there are native speakers of standard, literary English, Serbian or Turkish. Everybody learns a dialect first, fusha comes in later).
So, if you are contemplating whether to study both varieties , then I might also align with those who say "go for it". At first, it will be much more difficult than focusing on just one, but it will undeniably have its long-term advantages. If, however, the purpose is to communicate in daily life, then I would need to challenge those who might claim that artificial dialogues placed in contemporary MSA textbooks for the sole purpose of modelling them according to similar language instruction material for English, German, or French, would get the learner very far. In that case, as I said in my first, short, post, you should go for Egyptian Arabic.

Mon, 12/14/09

My main motivation has to learn to speak with people in informal settings, and this is still pretty much my goal. But even so, I think studying some Fosha has helped that.
Actually, I think probably a best strategy for most people would involve initial study of Ammeyya exclusively for several months, and then beginning MSA and continuing the two in parallel for some time until the learner decides which one is needed more for his or her interests.
I think starting both at once is a bit overwhelming for students, who inevitably get confused by similar but slightly different vocab and grammatical rules (especially with dual, numbers, female plural adjectives, verb conjucations). At least learning one first, you can then "convert" it to the other. And I think the best one to learn first is Ammeyya, since for it will allow the student to advanced more quickly since they can practice it more easily with Arab speakers, and this gives them a better basis to then later "convert" from.
However, waiting too long before starting Fosha can impede overall learning as well, as was in my case. The materials in Ammeyya simply aren't as good and are limited. For example, it's difficult to improve your vocabulary on more advanced topics using Ammeyya materials. Also, studying Fosha gives you access to tons of well written materials and you can get that ever useful feedback through the exercises of reading and writing. Ammeyya study tends to involve listening and speaking, and I feel I learn a lot from reading and writing.
Later on in studies, students will have a better idea what they want to concentrate on.... but for a foundation, I think that Ammeyya-only first, then both is a better strategy. BTW, some universities in the states are using Ammeyya-only first now, rather than the traditional Fosha-only first that was most common before.


Tues, May, 18, 10
I just finished the ALI program this year at the High Intermediate level. For what it is worth, it is where the US diplomats study Arabic. I can't address the cost for you because the US taxpayer footed the bill. I think around 10K/semester.

That said, I thought it was a top notch program. The professors are well...professors. Real education professionals. A lot of language tutors think they can teach a language because they know it--not necessarily true.

It is a university program so it is academic which you may not like. It will teach you a high level of MSA. I liked that because I think it is easier to rachet down a notch when you want to then find yourself in a situation where you need a more formal Arabic.

From my perspective, I am glad I didn't take ammeya. I think studying ammeya at the same time as MSA is distracting. I am starting to learn ammeya now and it is easier because I understand it's derivation and I can speak at the level the situation calls for.

How you study and where you study depends heavily on what you are going to use your Arabic for. I plan to work in the entire region and I work in a lot of formal situations.



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