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