Taking Arabic from the screen to the street

BEIRUT: In less than 24 hours over the course of two-and-a-half months, freelance journalist Joshua Foer used an online resource to learn Lingala – a 19th century Congo basin trade language which today has some 2 million native speakers and a further 7 million who use it as a second language.

Foer, relates in an article published in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper on Nov. 9 that he subsequently traveled to the Ndoki forest, a remote area at the northern tip of the Republic of Congo, ditched the translator he’d brought with him from the capital Brazzaville, and conducted his interviews in Lingala alone.

Now, Foer, you may correctly assume, is an exceptional individual. He was, it must be admitted, the 2006 USA Memory Champion, capable of memorizing an entire deck of 52 cards in just 1 minute 40 seconds.

But, by his own admission, Foer is bad at languages: Years of lessons failed to earn the journalist competence in Hebrew. Yet, an online leaning tool unlocked one of the world’s most obscure tongues for him.

For English-speaking residents of Lebanon struggling through hours of lessons to learn Arabic, Foer’s story may serve as inspiration.

Of course, in isolation web-based programs are unlikely to yield fluency – real life exposure to the language and face-to-face practice are doubtless also vital – but they may help learners make considerable and tangible headway.

Foer used to commit over 1,000 Lingala words to his long-term memory.

The website, designed by experts in cognitive science, offers thousands of free courses in everything from Afrikaans to architecture, including 25 different programs in Arabic. Its objective is to help people learn faster.

So, how does it work? Users select a course, or develop their own, and work their way through its lessons.

Each short tutorial – they are mere minutes long – introduces the target vocabulary and pairs it with a “mem,” which is a rhyme, an image or an association that aids the user in recalling the target word. Users can also add their own mems, if they’d rather not use the ones already provided.

Words are introduced slowly and are tested repeatedly as pupils progress.

Users are reminded by email to return to the site to practice what they have already learned so that the words are committed to long-term memory.

As learners progress through the courses they also earn points and are ranked against others following the same course, thus adding a competitive aspect to the proceedings.

The Arabic courses currently available on Memrise cater for multiple levels, but some will prove more useful than others.

“How to read Arabic” has some great mems for the Arabic alphabet and could prove useful to beginners trying to commit those 28 pesky combinations of lines and dots to memory once and for all.

“Arabic Foundational (all you need to know)” is another good beginner course, replete with audio so that users can hear how each word is pronounced.

“Basic Arabic Vocabulary” also has audio, but many of the more advanced courses do not, which may, especially when Arabic script is used, be problematic for intermediate learners after the correct pronunciation.

Currently on Memrise there is one course available for Lebanese Arabic. “Beginners Levantine Arabic” offers a 14-hour program of 35 lessons, teaching vocabulary and phrases specific to this region.

While the website focuses on helping users commit as much information to memory as possible in the shortest amount of time, other online resources are also effective tools for learning and studying Arabic.

Launched in November last, is co-founded by Lebanese expatriate Antoine Rizk.

Now residing in France, the father of four boys decided he wanted to develop a tool to help his sons learn the language of their paternal family, namely spoken Lebanese Arabic. The outcome was a website comprising a total of 99 lessons, divided into three levels of 33 lessons each.

Abjadiye, or Alphabet, is definitely a tool for beginners for whom the objective is communication, rather than reading or writing: It uses exclusively Latin script and teaches no formal grammar. Of course, Rizk says, “grammar is present all over,” but it is “learned by similarities, rather than fundamental rules.”

Like on Memrise, the lessons are short and readily digestible, but Abjadiye has no competitive element.

The latter also charges users a token amount for access: A three-month subscription, which comes with an additional month free, costs $10.

Rizk compares the charge to the cost of buying an Arabic course book, but such a book would certainly be on the cheaper end of the spectrum.

A subscription also comes with access to a lexicon, containing thousands of words and phrases.

Rizk’s two youngest sons have, he says, now worked their way through to lesson 30 and he reports that he can now hold small conversations with them in Lebanese.

However, while Rizk knows that full fluency cannot be gained through following an Internet course alone, he says that followers of his program “should be comfortable when Lebanese speak.” Abjadiye, he adds, gives users “sufficient background to build on, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for practice.”

For learners who want a human voice and face to deliver their lessons, “Learn Arabic with Maha” on YouTube is probably the most popular option.

Maha Yakoub’s energetic and entertaining lessons have earned the language teacher a following of some 80,000 on the website.

In clips of varying lengths she teaches basic Arabic, situational Arabic, grammar, and essential phrases. For all her vivacity, Yakoub teaches constructively and deliberately, allowing time for repetition, building exercise for students to participate in and assigning homework. Of course, she won’t be able to check whether you’ve done it or not.

Maha also occasionally delves into cooking and cultural classes.

For serious learners of Arabic, two additional Internet resources may prove invaluable.

The essential website enables one to type in Arabic script while using a qwerty keyboard, while allows students to create their own Arabic flash cards and then test themselves with them.

The latter is undoubtedly labor intensive, but it allows students to build a key learning device tailored precisely to their own needs, and embed in their memory vocabulary which might otherwise be lost almost as soon as it is introduced.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 08, 2013, on page 2.




Your feedback is important to us!

We invite all our readers to share with us their views and comments about this article.

Disclaimer: Comments submitted by third parties on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual(s) whose content is submitted. The Daily Star accepts no responsibility for the content of comment(s), including, without limitation, any error, omission or inaccuracy therein. Please note that your email address will NOT appear on the site.

Alert: If you are facing problems with posting comments, please note that you must verify your email with Disqus prior to posting a comment. follow this link to make sure your account meets the requirements. (

comments powered by Disqus



Interested in knowing more about this story?

Click here