Talking Arabic as a 2nd Language Teaching & Learning Strategies with David Wilmsen

Wilmsen photo

Professor Wilmsen is author of several books on Arabic, including his most recent Arabic Indefinites, Interrogatives and Negators: A Linguistic History of Western Dialects, and has taught the language at Georgetown University, The American University in Cairo, The American University of Beirut, and now the American University of Sharjah. I sat down with my friend and former Professor to discuss how today’s students can get good at Arabic.

Many people don’t realize this – you have become a distinguished scholar of Arabic yet you didn’t know a word of the language until you were 31 years old. What does that say about the theory that “younger is better” when it comes to language acquisition?

In theoretical linguistics, there is an assumption that younger is better, and that there is a certain critical period where one needs to learn a language. Some say that window ends five years of age, other say 15 years of age. In any case, there seems to be agreement that once you reach adulthood it closes off.

I say it’s not so simple. Many of these debates cover whether adult learners use the same parts of brain, as children do, but we can’t really study what’s in the brain. We can’t see it. We really don’t know.

The second thing is that adults are involved in so many things that kids aren’t involved in. Adults have more things on their mind, like career and family. Whereas kids can absorb everything of language is around them. So perhaps it is more a question of priorities and not whether there is a natural advantage for children versus adults.

Theoretically, 31 is later, but I have seen others who have learned at that age too so it’s not just me. I may be slightly talented at learning languages, but I had a certain interest and passion that was key. As an adult, if you decide you are going to learn a language, you have to find something about that language that turns you on. It’s a way of self-motivation.

Find things that you like about the language. A personal example: Once when I was going through a dictionary of Egyptian Arabic, trying to find out how many words I know, I found myself smiling in delight at the sheer fun of hearing the words in my mind’s ear, as it were, while reading them off. This isn’t just another exercise focusing on grammar rules. That’s the kind of thing that gets me excited.

You recently moved from the American University of Beirut to the American University of Sharjah. The Gulf in general is carving out a reputation in the Arabic studies field. Where would you like to see the program after a couple of years?

As you have been writing about at Real World Arabic, given the relative or perceived risk of places like Egypt, the Gulf has a justified reputation of being as safe as milk. That’s a big advantage for universities here. There is a boom now.

What I hope to do is make the American University of Sharjah the center of it.

We have 30 students here right now. The AUS has exchange agreements with other universities in the West. Where they can send roughly equal numbers of Emiratis to American universities, and vice versa. Most the students are American but Maastrict University in Holland is also very active in sending students to Sharjah.

One thing I would say is that the UAE and the Gulf have a reputation of being hard for Arabic students to get speaking opportunities due to the presence of many foreign workers. Some places in the UAE are challenging in this regard, such as Dubai. But there have been many studies lately which call into question the myth that full immersion is the only way to go. There are lots of benefits for students to be inserted into environments where they find bi-lingual speakers and can make real gains.

You have taught thousands of students over the years. Is there a specific trait that you see in those students who reach the highest levels of Arabic proficiency?

It is hard to point to any specific trait or characteristic.

What I have seen in common with all students who reached a very high level is that they found that Arabic or some element of Arabic was worth investigating for its own sake. My best students – probably all were motivated by a degree by career advancement. But they still found an element of the language that they were captured by. They found it fascinating and that drove them to reach a very high level.

Many years ago, when I took your class, you said something along the lines of “Fusha is Amiya.” That has stuck with me given that many approaches to teaching seem to portray, perhaps unintentionally, a significant Gap between the two which can make it intimidating for Arabic students. Is in fact “Fusha Amiya?”

Yes. Fusha and Amiya have the same types of constructions and agreement between adjectives, gender etc. And if you do actual word counts they are surprisingly similar. Take for example the Frequency Dictionary of Arabic by Dill Parkinson and Tim Buckwalter. They found that about 80% of the vocabulary is shared.

The major difference between Fusha and Amiya is in two areas, interrogation and negation. For example, ma hatha matha taamel, shu hatha, eysh hatha etc. But the structures and the vocabulary are shared.

If I might play devil’s advocate about what you identify as “the major differences.” If the major difference  is  Ma instead of Shu or Eysh – mentally isn’t that something that is as much a Tweak as anything? Plugging one word in here and there? A difference for sure, but not the massive gulf that is sometimes portrayed that intimidates Arabic students…..

Yes. Good point.

Does your view on the similarities between Fusha and Amaya influence your teaching tactics?

Yes. Here is one example. Oftentimes I have “heritage learners,” meaning people from Middle Eastern backgrounds who grew up in Europe or the US, who have spoken Arabic at home, but never learned formal. What I find is that they often speak colloquial Arabic at nearly native speaker levels, while often having a minimal command of Fusha. When they have trouble with a certain point in Fusha, I say to them “well how do you say that in Amiya?’ And “Boom” they immediately understand.

What’s the # 1 mistake that you see Arabic students make that prevents them from reaching a high level?

They let themselves get intimated. Everyone is going to find learning Arabic hard. It’s natural.

If you find something in the early stages becomes challenging, it is important to figure out how you can get over that early stage hurdle. Like math, if you don’t get the early lessons, you won’t get the later lessons.

For example, I sometimes give a struggling student a trick for mastering verb conjugations: I say, “I want you to go home and take one verb, practice it in the past, do it for half an hour; go do something else, come back and do it for ten minutes, go do something else, come back.” This is a workable technique that has the backing of research. Don’t let that mental block prevent you from making permanent progress.

However, there is an aspect to it that the students aren’t responsible for. Teachers often want to teach them Fusha. Whereas I think you should learn to speak the language first. For example, if I go and teach you Arabic, words like Al-Bab [door], Al-Beet [house], Muftah Al-Siyyara [car keys]. Not a single one is cognate to a European language, but we are talking about things that are in the House. These are more conceptually close to hand, then if we are talking about Al-Umam Al-Mutahada (the UN). They are conceptually closer and focusing on these at an early stage can be more effective.


What’s a benchmark for level of fluency the student should be aiming for?

I had a teacher of Spanish once who laid out a role of thumb that I think is quite good. She said the goal of a language student shouldn’t be that a student be mistaken for a native speaker of a region they are in. If in Mexico, be mistaken as a Mexican, by Mexicans. You want to be mistaken for a native speaker of Spanish from some other region, for example, while you are in Mexico, you might be mistaken for someone from Puerto Rico. That’s a good benchmark. When I was in Cairo, people would sometimes ask are you from Tunis? Then I once got “are you from Bosnia.” But the moment I thought I had really arrived was when someone asked me if I was from Alexandria.

In the last ten years in the Middle East social media has exploded, you have Facebook, Twitter. More people are both writing in Amiya, for social reasons,t hat wasn’t happening before. And while Moroccans and Iraqis have been exposed to Egyptian dialect through cinema and music for well over half a century, this new trend seems different. Are the borders between Dialects being diluted because of this changes?

With television I think this was happening before social media. A colleague of mine has been looking at this . There is a sort of common Gulf dialect, shared from Kuwait to Muscat, Oman; he finds it in all Gulf States, a pan Gulf dialect;

It’s happening from Morocco to the Gulf. People know more about Moroccan Arabic outside of Morocco than ever before.   When you are looking at social media, you are looking at the words, commentary that is written. If you have got a blog, anyone who can write Arabic can write on it. You are now seeing Moroccans writing on Lebanese blogs in Colloquial. You don’t just hear it, you see it. It’s an interesting trend to watch, and it certainly presents good opportunities for those studying Arabic, because seeing it written cements it in your mind.

Finally, do you have any advice on a specific tactic that you tell all Arabic students to follow?

Get to know one text really well. Text can be defined very broadly. It could be a movie, a written text, a transcription, for example, a transcription of an Amiya discussion. If you read it over and over again, you learn. The text could be any extended discourse in any language. What you have written about on your website – I did the same thing with an Egyptian film called Al-Bey al-Bawwab. About a man coming from Upper Egypt and starting out as a doorman but who gets rich in real estate scams. I used that as a test of my proficiency. I could understand the plot at first. That was a way of measuring my own progress by how much more I understood the film each time I watched it.


Did you find the issues discussed in this post helpful to your work as an Arabic teacher or a student? Sign up to receive future content via Email or through Twitter at @nathanrfield1 

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9 thoughts on “Talking Arabic as a 2nd Language Teaching & Learning Strategies with David Wilmsen

  1. Peter Fremlin

    Thanks for a really useful interview, and another perspective on the fusha/ammeya divide.

    As someone studying Arabic now, I had a few follow-up questions for Professor Wilmsen…

    I was wondering in particular on strategies for students to avoid getting intimidated by the range and quantity of things to learn. I don’t feel my intimidation is a block to my learning, but it does make me often frustrated by mistakes or feeling helpless in the amount there is to learn. So ways to reassure oneself, or calibrate expectations, would be really helpful!

    It would also be great to hear about Professor Wilmsen’s own trajectory in learning Arabic and how he got from knowing no Arabic to being an expert.


    1. Peter,

      You’ve said a mouthful! There really is a lot to learn. The way to control that is to go easy on yourself. In your lessons, stick to the points at hand and don’t try to get too far ahead. You will eventually arrive at an answer to those other questions floating round in your mind. I often find myself telling students that there is an answer to whatever question they may be asking but I don’t want to go into it at the time. I’ll usually give them a sense of when we will get to it in the course of the class or I’ll say that whatever it is will be addressed in the next level. That’s just to let them know that they are on the right track in asking or wondering or thinking about those things. The idea is that we don’t want to address too much at once; that gets confusing. About making mistakes, it is frustrating, but it is normal, expected, and, in fact, one of the ways we learn. It sounds to me that you are aware of your mistakes as you make them or shortly afterwards. That’s really good. It means that you are self monitoring, and once you get to that point, you will make good progress. Remember when you were first learning; you were probably not even aware of where and how and why you were making mistakes. It really does help to self monitor. Don’t be hard on yourself. Well, you will be, but scold yourself and move on. Studies show that people who are willing to make mistakes make greater progress than those who don’t. And that quality alone is often the difference between a successful language learner and one who gives up. (I think Nathan has blogged about this, too.) Another odd thing is that when you are in the midst of learning Arabic, you often are not aware of the progress you are making. This is especially true at the intermediate levels. So, every once in a while, go back to look at things that you have looked at before. You’ll be surprised at how much more you comprehend now than you did then. Make it an outside text that you haven’t been studying in your lessons. Or, if it is something from the lessons, let it be something that you found interesting, amusing, or in some sense remarkable. Not some of that dreary whining of Maha. A reading text, a film that you watched in class, or a listening exercise. And, speaking of fims, get yourself a film to watch, just for fun. It can be subtitled. Watch it a few times – over several months. Then try watching it or part of it without subtitles. Or do the same with a short story. Something engaging and not related to your classes. Start with really short short stories. Speaking that, there is a really good series of readers called Sahlawayhi. You can find it on Create Space. The name is a pun on the word sahl ‘easy’ and the writer of the first grammar book of Arabic Sibawayhi (died, c. 790 AD). Each story has an extensive glossary (in four languages!) But, try to read the stories without always relying on the glossary. And when you are reading anything, especially out of interest or for amusement, try to do as much as you can without relying upon the dictionary. Only look up the words that keep repeating themselves. And only go on until you know what is happening. Give yourself a rest, and then, if you want, go back to it.

      Do that with newspapers (not online – get a paper newspaper). Thumb through it and stop at anything that catches your attention, even the ads. Read only until you understand what the piece is about. Then stop.

      How did I do it? The other thing is was pure determination. I would tell myself things like “I started this language because I wanted to try a hard language. I’m not going to quit because its getting hard.” And the hardness wasn’t constant. Some things come easier than others. And I found things about the language that I liked to keep me motivated. Music is a good thing. Listen to it for understanding the lyrics. Find ones that you understand easily and listen to them to show yourself how cool you are for digging Arabic music and understanding it. Advertisements. Same thing: They’re short; they tell stories. See how much you can understand. There is a site called “Arabic culture(s) in the classroom” ( where you can find ads to watch. Short films, too.

      Watch soap operas. I’ve become an addict of Arab soaps – even the bad ones. Sometimes I follow one because it is so stupid that it is amusing! They’re good because you can understand a lot just from the action. And you get a lot of repeated phrases idioms. After all, it’s a single writer, he or she will be repetitive in language use.

      Watch cooking shows. Watch talk shows.

      I just kept plugging at it until I felt that I had it down, and then kept plugging at it.

      In any case, language learning is a lifelong project. And I still make mistakes. Just today, I made a mistake in the use of demonstrative pronouns. Their conception is a little different in Arabic than in English. I was taking about where to put a table about two metres from where I was standing, and I asked, ‘hināk’? ‘there’? and the answer was la, hōn, fi-l maṭbakh ‘no, here, in the kitchen’. I am well aware of the differences in the apportioning of space between English and Arabic, but I still made the mistake. And I beat myself up about it, and then shrugged and went on. That’s the way to do it.


    1. Peter,

      I really like this:

      “See how learning the language is changing your world. You learnt a word for an idea you didn’t have before. You understand some great lines from a song, or a poem. You’ve talked with someone you could never have talked to before. You made new friends. At the end of the day, these are probably the reasons you’re learning the language, and so are more important than the words you still don’t understand.”

      So right. It does. There are also studies that show that language learning changes your world. People who learn languages develop better cognitive skills. And, people who become bi-lingual are more resistant to developing Alzheimer’s syndrome. On average by about 6.5 years. And some cognitive research with Arabic shows that Arabic speakers use more parts of their brains than do speakers of other languages. The technical reason for this is that Arabic diglossia obliges users, whether native speakers of the language or not, to use their cognition – the frontal lobes, not usually used in language processing or production – in comprehending the language. Which, the researcher suggests enhances the protective effect against Alzheimer’s. So, we Arabic learners are doubly protected!

      At the conference where I heard the results of these studies presented, I stood up during Q&A and said, “I’ve always told my students that learning Arabic shouldn’t be any harder than learning any other language; but it is, even for native users of the language. So now I’m going to tell them that. But I’m also going to tell them that the payoff is greater!” (Much laughter.)

      But that’s not what you meant. I think what you are saying is that just learning more (and more and more) about the language opens entire new vistas for you. And they keep opening.


      1. Peter Fremlin

        Thanks again! What an interesting discussion.

        I saw a great article that argued that Arabic’s diversity and diglossia was a reason *to* learn it

        Yes, I was talking about the new vistas and connections and relationships that language creates. For instance, I think it puts you and Nathan in really interesting places as people that are moving between worlds-in-English and worlds-in-Arabic (and maybe other languages). What a fascinating position to be a bridge between so many similarities/differences/contradictions/conflicts/exchanges in cultures and languages.

        But you’re right, what the diglossia and the dialectical aspects of Arabic mean for the learner (or for the native speaker) could well be explored further. For instance, It would be great to see real-world examples of how diglossia means Arabic speakers have to pay a different type of attention to the language.

        Also, learning Arabic, where dialects and diglossia are really highligted leads for interesting reflections on other languages I know. Say, in English, we don’t recognise explicitly so much the difference between formal and informal languages, altho in some places this is really important, and perhaps especially so for the “learner” (e.g. in Singapore). And also this perspective makes me look at Bengali (which I know) in a different light, seeing the differences between formal/informal and the practice of mixing in with English in speech but not so much in writing.

        Not to mention that in Arabic we are also covering up differences within dialects – so we talk a lot about “Egyptian Arabic”, say, but surely there are plenty of different types of that, too?


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  3. Pingback: What to do when learning Arabic gets intimidating? A Professor’s advice | Desibility

  4. Pingback: Reader Mail: 5 questions from an Arabic student in Cairo – Real World Arabic

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