Stories from Afar & Up Close

Learning Arabic in Beirut

It’s been a few months since I’ve left Lebanon, but I still get emails asking for advice about learning Arabic in Beirut, so instead of writing the information over and over again, I figured I’d put my advice out here for all those who are interested. If anyone still has questions after this, please email me, I’ll gladly answer! My first piece of advice for those who want to learn Arabic in Beirut is this: Don’t.

Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular are not good places to learn Arabic for two reasons: 1) the people on the street are too proud of their (sometimes very limited) knowledge of English or French to speak Arabic to you, and 2) some (many) Lebanese people don’t even speak Arabic, especially in the social circles which you are most likely to encounter when studying in Beirut. I actually spoke English with a Lebanese accent before I spoke (some) Lebanese. So: go to Damascus, or even Sana’a or Cairo if you want to learn. Really, I mean it.

That being said, if you insist on going to Beirut to learn Arabic – either the local dialect or modern standard – because you have family there that you have to visit, or you can’t stand to have a Syrian accent, or you are simply looking for a reason to be in Lebanon and wait for the next war or political upheaval so you can be cool and say that you were there ‘when history was made’, there are some places to do that.

First: Lebanese dialect I started with classes at the CCF (Centre Culturel Français, on Rue Damas) in 2006. Twice a week in the morning, very affordable, a class with French expat wives who needed a time-filler and a nun from Germany. The teacher was very good, but the chatting wives were rather distracting – since they took the course for the second or third time (they never became good enough to go to the next level), they didn’t really feel like they needed to pay attention.

I then tried some classes at the American Language Center (Bliss Street across from AUB), but couldn’t get used to the transliteration system with numbers for certain sounds (which differed from the one I’m used to seeing in my friend’s sms-language). I also didn’t appreciate the fact that the book was written using a Palestinian dialect, which, although very polite and widely understood in Lebanon (especially in the South), is quite different when it comes to the nuances of daily speech.

I went on to the American Learning Center (Old Saida Road, Tayyoune), which basically is a cheaper rip-off of the American Language Center. It uses the same books (illegally), but the teachers were younger and more open to suggestions for change.

When I came back in 2007, I took a course in modern standard Arabic at AUB (more on that later) which included some hours of Lebanese dialect. Unfortunately, it was kind of a sideshow to the ‘real’ course, because the teachers were actually quite good; structured and with interesting and useful exercises, including going out on the street and actually talking to people.

I tried to take private classes from ‘teachers’ who offered their services on bulletin boards and the like, but without success – it was always a hassle to pick a time to meet somewhere, and because they worked without a book it usually ended up being just an hour of chatting without structural progress. They also tend to think that everyone who speaks a language can automatically teach it, which is not exactly the case.

Eventually I ended up at Berlitz Language Center (Sidani Street, Hamra), which was expensive but mostly worth it: they use their own method which is not transliterated, so you actually learn and use the Arabic alphabet and it’s easier to make connections to modern standard Arabic. I had to take private classes because there was no-one studying at the same level (or so they said), which meant lots of time and attention for my progress. There are several teachers available so classes are hardly ever cancelled due to absence, and most of the teachers actually studied the language and they are trained how teach it.

I think the only big institute I never went to was the Saifi Institute. I’ve had mixed reports from friends who went there – some said it was ok, others were not so happy about it. If anyone has something to say about them – please do so in the comments!

That’s it for my advice on learning the Lebanese dialect, on to Modern Standard Arabic.

I made two attempts to study modern standard Arabic in Beirut: one was a 6-week intensive summer-program at AUB in 2007, and the other consisted of private classes at ALPS in 2009.

The course at AUB (American University of Beirut) was, quite frankly, grossly overpriced and suffering from a severe case of arrogance. It took a lot of paperwork (including letters of reference and the like) plus some 4000 dollars to get in, after which we spent 2 weeks learning the alphabet and then were hushed through the curriculum by teachers more concerned with finishing the required amount of chapters than the progress of the students. My classmates were mostly Americans whose course was paid for by some governmental institution or another, with an interest in very specific vocabulary and topics. Aside from using a crappy book (Al Kitaab), designed to understand Al Jazeera as soon as possible, we had obligatory classes in making tabbouleh and an excursion to the offices of Solidere (the company that bought rebuilt downtown Beirut) where asking critical questions was discouraged. The only good thing about the course was the amount of homework, which meant we actually learned something.

Much later I went to ALPS (also in Hamra, close to Clemenceau), where I took private classes with a teacher called Mohamed. He was very knowledgeable, sometimes a bit too much so: he could spend an hour dissecting one sentence, giving me all the rules and regulations and expecting me to deduct the complete Arabic grammar from that one sentence. Needless to say that this was the other extreme – where AUB was too geared towards understanding the news without regard for grammar, Mohamed’s class was all focus on grammar without one inch of interest in understanding the actual text – so after a few months I stopped taking classes there as well.

I now hope to find a good place to learn Arabic in Amsterdam…