Quite possibly the best online resource for Arabic students in existence

Yesterday I received a tip from an Arabic student (thanks Svetlana) about a good online resource. This morning I spent some time looking through the site – LangMedia at the 5 Colleges Arabic program.

I am in agreement. I can’t overstate how good a resource this is. Here is the  link.

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Confusing the Tactical & Strategic: 2 mistakes of Arabic language social media analysis during Egypt’s Arab Spring

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Marc Lynch and Deen Frelon of George Washington University have published an interesting report called Blogs and Bullets. They study how social media data was analyzed during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and conclude that “social media undermines transitions to Democracy.”

In this post, I offer my take on the kinds of conclusions that can be drawn from analyzing social media data in this context.

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Top Secret: The Crossing Into the Unknown

I want to highlight two relatively unknown but extraordinary 2008 episodes from the Al-Jazeera program “Top Secret” ( سري للغاية). These are excellent resources for Arabic students, especially those who are studying Arabic as part of the career objectives in government or the military.

Investigative journalist Yousri Fouda snuck into Syria at the heart of the uprising against US soldiers in Iraq and interviewed rebels, the subject of Part One. The second part covers more of Al-Qaeda’s broader plans in the Levant and interviews a variety of policy makers in Lebanon and Syria, as well as Jihadis and their sympathizers.

What Should Arabic Students Focus On? 

#1 – Note the narration in Fusha whereas most of the speakers use a variety of Levantine dialects. You are on the edge of your seat for 90 minutes weaving in and out of different dialects.  Seeing those variations in action is invaluable for students.

#2 –  The unusual nature of the conversation. How often do you hear detailed discussions of this kind of thing? If you are already broadly familiar with these themes and the issues, you can make obvious vocabulary associations.  You may not know the Arabic per se, but if you can guess the themes because of background knowledge of the topic, you can advance your language skills by association.

#3 – The transcripts. See Part One and Two.  If this is the kind of topic that interests you, watch the documentary standalone.  Then read the transcript.  Watch the documentary again. Repeat. If round one you “get” 50%, round two you get 60%, keep going until you reach 100%.

#4 – A suggested goal: If you reach a point where you become an “expert” on the Arabic in this program, in the sense that you understand every single line, and can explain any point to someone who doesn’t, you would have an extremely strong grasp of this topic in Arabic.   That’s a clear benchmark reachable by anyone.

Part One: 

Part Two: 

Do you know Arabic students who might benefit from this post? If so – don’t hesitate to share on relevant social media feeds. 


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,



Dear Peter,

I am very happy to help and glad to hear you are taking advantage of what Cairo has to offer. All things considered I still consider Egypt the #1 place overall 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”

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

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:


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Stop Overthinking: a chat with the author of All Strangers are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

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I recently had the pleasure of reading this excellent new book  about studying Arabic by the American writer Zora O’Neil.  The book’s core focus on studying in Egypt, Beirut, the UAE and Morocco in the post-2011 period makes it essential reading for those looking to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in teaching Arabic as a 2nd language.  

Even better than reading a good book is getting to conduct an interview with the author after reading, so thank you Zora for sharing your thoughts with Real World Arabic readers.

Your book describes your journey as an Arabic student that you began in 1990. Based on everything you have learned over the years, if you could go back in time what Arabic language-learning advice would you give to your 1990-self?

I’d say study a dialect sooner. I didn’t understand the importance of that initially. My teachers didn’t really explain there was a different way of speaking, and my listening comprehension has never been very good because I was only trained with Fusha material for a long time. I didn’t get into dialect until after my 2nd year of Fusha, when I went to Egypt for the summer.

Second, I would have maintained dialect more over the years. There was a huge gap between when I first started studying dialect and when I picked it up again. I was in Egypt in the summer of 1992, then studied it at home for the fall semester after that—and then didn’t get back to Egypt until 1998, so I wasn’t able to keep it up.

Continue reading “Stop Overthinking: a chat with the author of All Strangers are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World”