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In-depth guide to learning Levantine Arabic

This in-depth guide explains how we think you should learn Levantine Arabic. It then gives advice for different levels. It also provides suggestions for how we can help you with our products and services.

We’ll assume you understand the choice between learning a dialect (like Levantine) or Modern Standard Arabic and you are now looking for advice on learning an Arabic dialect.

Overview

Comprehensible input = the foundation

Comprehensible input is theory about why people aquire or learn language that underlies ALL our products. We’ll do our best to outline it briefly. It means …. [INSERT]

Success with spoken dialects requires a different approach

The goal with spoken dialects is to understand native conversation, then speak confidently. This contrasts with Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) where reading, and maybe listening, are the dominate skill.

We think:

(1) Listening is the key skill

Listening should dominate dialect study from day one. Native-like speaking will only come after huge volumes of listening.

The longer you delay speaking while listening, the more native-like your grammar and accent will be. But there are obvious practical and emotional benefits to speaking earlier, so the value of a so-called “silent period” is up to you.

We downplay writing and reading in dialect. But transcripts of spoken content can of course clarify at a slower speed.

(2) Beginners need the same topics, while intermediates have different interests

Beginners have the same conversations like introducing yourself, commerical interactions, and small talk.

But intermediate learners personal interests differ. So the focus should be on narrowly aquiring these “islands of content”. This will help sustain your motivation and make progress clearer, as Arabic is a “harder” language.

(3) Beginners need “comprehensible input” while intermediates use more “authentic materials”

Beginners need listening that’s:

  1. About 90% understandable (comprehensible input)
  2. fun/engaging (compelling input)
  3. repeated many times (repetition)

Intermediates need an attitude change. Outside of lessons, it is hard to find 80-90% understadable listening input. So the ability keep listening to content where you understand less, becomes a key trait of successful learners. In other words, you need “immersion” (see below).

(4) Important grammar is learnt in context while complex grammar is downplayed

Learning some simple grammar – like the simple future tense particle رَح – has a huge payoff. But more complex grammar are hard to learn then successfully reproduce. Unconsious and native use of grammar and understanding of Levantine Arabic needs a huge volume of listening to internalise the patterns of the language.

What does this mean in practice?

Together

The main challenge of our teachers and tutors is to provide fun and engaging activities only in Levantine Arabic. This means our lessons use lots of storytelling, videos, and games.

We pick and choose from a range of established schools of thought based on “comprehensible input”:

  • Teaching Proficiency though Reading and Strorytelling (TPRS)
  • Total Physical Response (TFR)
  • Automatic Language Growth (ALG)
  • Growing Participator approach (GPA)

Alone

For our “self-study” resouces, videos are king. We are aiming to make plenty of short videos, and try to find plenty more of them out in the wild for you! See our blog post on using video content.

With the development of AI, maybe interactive Levantine learning will help, but for now videos your best bet.

The traits of successful language learners

In general:

  1. have a strong motivation to learn Arabic
  2. tailoring your plan to your context/personality
  3. spending time with Arabic (nearly) everyday

Specific to language learning:

  1. beginners need to cultivate listening and questioning skills
  2. as you progress, tolerating ambiguity becomes more important
  3. immersion, as discussed below, requires a specific mindset

Now for advice tailored to your level:

Total Beginner

What we recommend:

Learn the: (1) Arabic Alphabet and (2) Levantine pronunciation.

Our Levantine Arabic Alphabet Course gives you both for free! Once you have done this, see the Beginner’s advice below.

Beginner

Official level
Focus
Skills
Number of words known
Key activites
CEFR: A1-A2 (EU)
ACTFL: Novice Low - Intermediate Low (USA)
Understanding the core vocab (300-1200 words)
Sounds of the spoken language
Basic grammar
90% listening
10% reading/speaking
0% writing
Up to:
300 active
1200 passive
1. Video content
2. Guided tuition/classes using:
picturetalk, comictalk, clipchat, movietalk
guided video games
3. flash cards for the most common words/phrases

A clear sense of progress

As the first 1000-2000 words cover roughly 80% of speech, your progress will be clear and motivating.

Comprehensible input first

You should spend most of your time seeking out comprehensible input that covers the core vocabulary and simple grammar, mostly implicitly. If possible this is best done with a teacher, tutor, language parent or video content, which we can help with.

Many students and courses overuse grammar as a measure of achievement and structure. Yet the focus should be understanding the meaning of core vocab in many contexts when listening.

This is best achieved through watching videos, tutors, or teachers give you fun and comprehensible input using: storytelling, picturetalk, comictalk, clipchat, movietalk, and guided games.

Being a beginner can be challenging for those who love to talk. It is not advisable, or possible, to speak that much. You need to take on the role of a basic questioner and listener.

Using flashcards

Ideally, you wouldn’t use vocab flashcards as language is better understood in context. But at this stage they are cheap way to learn core vocab, although they have diminshing returns after the after first 400–600 words.

What we offer and recommend:

  1. Watch our Levantine Arabic Beginners video course (on Youtube)(coming soon!)
  2. Find a tutor or class that uses comprehensible input
  3. Use X to learn the most common daily phrases (not words)

Intermediate

Level
Focus
Skills
Number of words known
Key activites
CEFR: B1-B2 (EU)
ACTFL: Intermediate Mid-Advanced Mid (USA)
(1) Specialise on "islands of content" that interest you and master them in turn
(2) Understand most of the grammar
70% listening
20% speaking
10% reading/writing
Up to:
2500 active
5000 passive
(1) Continue to consume as much comprehensible input via the activies listed in the beginner session
(2) Master speaking after getting enough listening
(3) Seek out listening roles in relationships or communities

Mastering “Islands of content”

As a beginner, the vocabulary and conversations of most learners will need are similar. As you begin to move beyond understanding that first 300–1200 words, you need to focus your efforts on specific topics that interest you and that are useful to you only. These “islands of conent” tend to be (1) practical, like getting haircut, or (2) topical, like family/friends or economics vocabulary. A narrower the focus will give you a greater sense of progress; so “exchanging money”, is better than “economics”.

Conventional group classes often suffer from a weak focus as they briefly cover a large range of topics that often don’t motivate you. Instead, our classes will only run if enough learners at a given level want to study a given topic of interest for several months.

Fluency is best developed unevenly. You should focus on topics for enough time to master each “island of content”. This will give you a greater sense of progress in a difficult languauge and help avoid the struggle of the so-called “intermediate plateau”.

Using comprehensible input

Understanding the power of comprehensible input will still be at the core of your journey. Once you have chosen your island of content, like getting a haircut (it can be this specific!), your self-study, tuition or classes, should follow a 5–step process:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the core vocab. Do not spend too long here, vocab without a context is of limited use.
  2. Intensively consume* the most relevant or interesting videos, audio and other input you can find. Read transcripts if it helps clarify meaning. Tutors/language partners can help explain and find content. Do this until you feel more confident. You should use all the tutor or native language partner guided activities from the beginner session: picturetalk, comictalk, clipchat, and movietalk.
  3. Extensively consume** video and audio content until you feel confident in your understanding. Do this still you feel like you understand most your island of content*. You can go back forth between (3.) intensive and (4.) extensive modes.
  4. Speak! Book in multiple sessions with tutor or friend/partner, and speak as much as you can on the topic through conversation, presentation, and games.
  5. Play! Alternatively, if your language island is more practical, or in real life, get stuck into the that activity as much as possible! (maybe there’s a limit to haircuts…).

*Intensively consuming input is what most language classes tend to do. You extract every last detail our of text or dialogue for example.

**Extensively consuming language input, means you do so quickly and don’t worry if you don’t understand every detail. This is a crucuial skill and one that is too rarely encouraged in a school environment.

If you not sure what resources to use, check our our Levantine Arabic resouces guide.

Focusing on listening first and then limit speaking to areas you understand. This will make you more likely to use the correct chunks of language in the appropriate context, rather than relying on your own langauge’s grammar and patterns, which leading to unnatural language characteristic most foreign language learners.

Immersion in series

One way of getting a huge volume of input for very low cost, which may not strictly narrowly focus on one topic, is watching series. This a common way for many learners to signifigantly improve their languge skills. But it may be too hard/unenjoyable if your level is not high enough. The secret is if you enjoy the content enough, you’ll be less focused on understanding every last detail. If this sounds like something you could do, see our blog post on using video content.

Immersion abroad

Here we have assumed you are not in an Levantine Arabic speaking country. If you are based in an Arabic speaking country, then a whole world of opportunities opens up!

How to succeed with immersion

Rule number one is … avoid other English speakers. Then try chasing any social situation where you have a purpose and hopefully feel interested and engaged. Try to:

  1. Spend time with patient/friendly Arabic speakers who don’t feel comfortable in English
  2. Join clubs/groups with activies like sports or cooking
  3. Use apps for language exchange like Meetup
  4. Get invited to Arabic only speakers houses and events
  5. Extent any commercial chats with questions, small talk and humour
  6. Make the best use of taxi rides for conversation
  7. Watch broadcast TV, ideally with other Arabic speakers
  8. Join the local religious community if approriate
  9. Be open to a romantic partner who speaks Arabic
  10. Volunteer in a local charity organisation (schools and retirement homes are great)

How to pick a destination for immersion

Consider this advice:

  1. Move in with Arabic speakers in shared flats or use unversity-style “homestays” with a local family
  2. Plan time aborad in work exchanges like Workaway, HelpX, and WOOFing
  3. Hang out more with childeren and older people who speak English less
  4. Don’t head to metropolitan capitals (Beirut). Instead, consider smaller cities (Tripoli) or the countryside where English is less spoken.

Some potential difficulties with immersion

  1. These suggestions favour the bold and extraverted, but with some care, immersion can be created for the shy and/or introverted amongst us.
  2. Your identity (gender/ethnicity/class etc.) will make it more or less easily for you to interact in these different spaces.
  3. There can be signfigant cultural gaps betwen the average Arab and Westerner.
  4. Hours a day in a foreign lanaguage can be remarkably mentally tiring, so adjust your expectations accordingly!

If this topic of immersion abroad interests you, do say so in the comments, and we will write an more detailed blog.

 

What we offer and recommend

  1. Find a tutor or class that uses comprehensible input
  2. Sign up to our topic specific and tailored intermediate/advanced group classes
  3. Check out our guide to learning Arabic when abroad [coming soon!]

Advanced

Level
Focus
Skills
Number of words known
Key activites
CEFR: B2-C2 (EU)
ACTFL: Advanced Mid - Distinguished (USA)
(1) Master the art of speaking and coversation
(2) Linking progress back to MSA and reading
25% listening
25% speaking
50% reading/writing
Up to:
10000 active
20000 passive
(1) Immerse in series and film
(2) Continue the 5 step intermediate process for important and unfamiliar topics
(3) Maintain or seek out new enagaged roles in relationships or communities, as in the intermediate section

Mastering speaking

At this stage you should have sufficient input to really master your speaking or output, if that is important to you. This will mostly likley come from sustaining relationships, communities and activies outlined above in the intermediate section.

Re-introducing MSA

Because of diglossia, it is nearly impossible to reach an advanced level in Arabic without reading, and most serious texts are written in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), not dialect. Most spoken lanaguage is simpler than the written work, so if want native like fluency (a tall order) you need to read a lot!

If you are a university student you have little problem reading in MSA. So you will be able to mix and match you input between spoken dialect and MSA. If you reach a near advanced level in Levantine Arabic while mostly avoiding MSA, you’re a rarer beast. Get in touch with us if this is the case – we’d like to interview you!

Immersing in series and film

Although you can certainly do this at the beginner stage, you’ll likely need it to signifigantly expand your understading, especially if you don’t have access to plenty of social interactions with Arabic speaker, usually in the country. Of interest? See our blog post on using video content.

Any questions? Please put them in the comment box or email us through the contact form, as this is a work in progress!

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