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 

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 10.01.18 AM

What’s the situation for Arabic study in Egypt? My chat with the Directors of ILI


Before 2011 Cairo was the undisputed top location to study Arabic in the Middle East. The last 5 years have been tough for Egypt and its schools that specialize in teaching Arabic to Americans and Europeans. Many US study abroad administrators and students are wondering what is the situation now, in 2016?

To find out more, I caught up with Aimen Hassanen, Managing Director of Cairo’s International Language Institute, and Karim Rogers, Executive Director of the International House Cairo, for a frank talk:

Let’s start with the Elephant in the Room – security. Yes it’s a serious issue that needs to be taken into consideration. However, it is also true that the media tends to dwell on negatives. This can make it hard for those outside of Cairo to know exactly what is going on. So let me just ask directly: is Egypt a safe place to study Arabic?

In my honest opinion, the American Embassy is extremely conservative with the travel warnings compared to European embassies. If you look at the European embassies, Cairo is in the Green.

Even during the Revolution, despite the fact that we had a lot of action in the areas near our school, we never shut a single day. We’ve been working very hard with universities to revive business; it takes time.

Our #1 strategy post-Revolution is attract back universities and study abroad customers. And we are seeing some great results. For example, this past year, for the first time in 5 years we had 5 [European] universities come back and complete a full-academic semester. That’s the first time that has happened post-Revolution.

Compared to Europe, these schools are finding Egypt a Safe haven.

Is this caution [about security] strictly from the US Embassy or is it American institutions in general? What about US universities that have sent students to Cairo to study Arabic in the past?

Yes, this seems to be American institutions in general.

Some of the [American] university professors are slightly conservative [about the risk issue]. Although this summer we have had lots of students from NYU, Texas, Georgetown.

However, at ILI we have always focused more on the European market, less so on the US market and so we’ve had more European students than Americans. Europe has been our core market. But we are going to the MESA conference in Boston this November.

Today in the US and Europe we have high schools and even elementary schools competing to offers languages like Chinese, Arabic etc. This wasn’t happening 15 or 20 years ago. Are you seeing that the Arabic language capabilities of students – at the time they come to ILI have improved compared to the past?

We are finding that Europeans at the point of placement when they come to us in Cairo – are at a higher level compared to US students, on average. If you look at US high schools, the focus is on Spanish, than Chinese.

Arabic is higher on the agenda in Europe. For example, there are more Arabic degree programs at European universities compared to the US.

Post-Revolution the Arabic level of Europeans has noticeably gone up. They have had to adapt. There is more and more interest in the higher level [government] positions that require Arabic, to focus in great detail on diplomatic , economic topics for example.

Such a surge in interest from European embassies has even forced us to adjust our placement system… we are now authorized to run the C2 diplomatic tests from ILI; most of the European diplomats are passing with flying colors.

Is it fair to say that the Europeans consider the learning of Arabic more important to successful diplomatic work than the Americans? Based on what you are seeing from your perch at ILI… 

Absolutely. The European diplomats definitely take the learning of Arabic more seriously than their American counterparts. … John Casson, the British ambassador to Egypt, is practically a native speaker!

What are the goals for ILI during the next few years?

In 2017, our #1 goal is to ensure we get the Institute back to 100% occupancy. We want to return all of our customers and get back to 2010 levels. We are headed in that direction.

Post-2017, we want to expand to other areas of Cairo – places like Maadi, which are in a different part of the city than our main facility.

Building up our Teaching Arabic as a foreign language program is a huge priority. This is something we had done very well at in the past but got away from. Many European universities are looking for their teaching instructors to have more formal credentials in this regard. Our program is catering to both Egyptians and non-native Arabic speakers and it’s a major priority for us.

Another long-term goal is to expand into the international market. Scaling the market – but options are limited in the current Middle East situation.

That’s very interesting given the situation now in the broader Middle East. I don’t want you to give away your business strategy – but anything you want to share about particular ideas on location? 

We are looking around at various places.

Jordan we are not a fan of. When the Arab Spring happened, many foreign universities decided to concentrate on Jordan as a study abroad location instead of Egypt. But the schools and the students were surprised at how expensive Jordan was comparatively. Many people thought the lifestyle there was less interesting than Cairo…they also found that the Arabic levels of the students coming out of these programs wasn’t as good as from Egypt.

It’s a tough market – in 2006 we set up a school in Syria.  We wanted to strategically position ourselves in Syria. We saw that as a very strategic market. But then there was the tragic assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. We left almost immediately after that happened given that the Syrians were accused.

We are exploring other locations and will continue to evaluate the market.

I am trying to choose the phrase that most accurately characterizes your outlook on the situation for ILI and Arabic study in general in Cairo based on what I have heard from you here. Am I right to say you are “cautiously optimistic?” 

No. We are “very optimistic.”


Are you an Arabic student or teacher interested in getting more content on these topics?  Sign up to receive posts by Email or via Twitter at @nathanrfield1

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 10.01.18 AM


Coming in September – The E-Text Book on developing practical spoken Arabic skills

“Taxi:” a highly underrated resource for spoken Arabic students


This is a book I strongly recommend for Arabic students, especially those trying to develop their speaking skills. From the original book cover:

حواديت المشاوير الذي لاقى نجاحا نقديا وجماهيريا كبيرا وغير متوقع، فأثنى عليه الكثير من الكتاب والنقاد واستضافت مؤلفه عدد من البرامج التلفزيونية مثل العاشرة مساء والبيت بيتك والقاهرة اليوم، ووصفه د. عبد الوهاب المسيري بأنه “عمل إبداعي أصيل ومتعة فكرية حقيقية”، وقال عنه د. جلال أمين أنه من أجمل ما قرأ من كتب في وصف المجتمع المصري كما كتب عنه صفحة كاملة بجريدة المصري اليوم. والكتاب عبارة عن حوارات بين الراوي وسائقي التاكسي بالقاهرة يتناولون فيها بصراحة بالغة أوضاع البلاد والسياسة والاقتصاد والتطرف والمظاهرات والجنس وحياتهم وهمومهم الشخصية. كتاب ممتع ومرآة صادقة لفئة لماحة تتعامل مع المجتمع كله. المؤلف خالد الخميسي حاصل على ماجستير في العلوم السياسية من جامعة السوربون، إعلامي ومنتج ومخرج وكاتب سيناريو، له العديد من الدراسات الاجتماعية والسياسية، ويكتب في عدة صحف

The Good News for Arabic students: 

Continue reading ““Taxi:” a highly underrated resource for spoken Arabic students”