Arabic is one of the most rich and diverse languages in the world because it has something most other languages don’t. Alongside a formal written standard and a centuries long linguistic tradition, coexists a cacophony of unofficial, stubbornly independent vernacular Arabic languages. From Uzbekistan in the East to Morocco in the West and from Syria to Nigeria, there are dozens of species adapted to the lifestyles of desert nomads, Beiruti business consultants and every barber, shopkeeper and Sri Lankan maid in between. In short, the vernacular is the language Arabs speak – everywhere in fact, except behind a podium or a TV camera – and communication in the Arab world is impossible without it.
Of the five commonly recognized regional dialects (Gulfi, Iraqi, Egyptian, North African and Levantine), Egyptian is the most widely understood, followed by the language of Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon called Levantine Arabic (عمية الشامية). This is due largely to the pan-Arab popularity of Egyptian and Levantine movies, music and television programs, which, given most people’s difficulty using Formal Arabic for everyday situations, makes these dialects the closest thing approaching a lingua franca in the Arab world today. Situational switching between dialects and into more formal Arabic is common amongst educated native speakers, however, the wide variations in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and orthography (writing system) mean that it is very rare for a single person to become fluent in all forms of Arabic; most make do with a vernacular related to their ancestral home, a regional dialect and a smattering of Formal Arabic.
Levantine Arabic grammar is flexible and allows for subtle indications of verbal mood and variations in word order, and its eclectic vocabulary retains many formal Arabic words while borrowing extensively from French, English and Turkish. Like all dialects, Levantine orthography has yet to develop a widely recognized system of spelling, but its pronunciation is unique among dialects, often called the most lyrical for its rounded off g’s and q’s, and liberal vowel dropping, which softens the mid-word staccato common elsewhere.
Urban Arabic is our attempt to explain Arabic from a Levantine perspective; in a way that makes sense to native speakers unaccustomed to seeing their mother tongue in standardized written form, as well as a non-native learner expecting modern second-language teaching method. As the name suggests, our curriculum teaches the urban vernacular of Levantine Arabic – specifically the Beiruti accent: the default means of communication in Lebanon between strangers and people from without ancestral links. Differences with Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian vernaculars are minimal, limited to a few differences in pronunciation and minor substitutions in vocabulary. As the curriculum progresses we integrate these vernacular idiosyncrasies as well as commonly used aspects of Formal Arabic, with the goal of enabling the learner to communicate with all of the situational dynamism and flexibility possessed by an educated Levantine.
The Urban Arabic Approach
Arabs speak Arabic. This approach – the equation of the Arabic language and Arab identity – has frustrated many learners under the false impression that all Arabs speak the same language. It is true that formal education and writing in the Arab world is based on a single language, however, Formal Arabic is almost never used in daily life. Consequently, even after years of study, students of Arabic very often have difficulty speaking in even the most basic way with Arabs, and have trouble discerning the most obvious meanings when an author or someone speaking formal Arabic switches to a regional vernacular, a practice that is almost unavoidable due to the limits of formal Arabic. The traditional approach to learning Arabic needlessly obscures the depth of meaning available to Arabic speakers in the context of their everyday lives.
Rather than start at the top and try to fit everything under one roof, the Urban Arabic curriculum takes the opposite approach by starting with the Arabic mother tongue used in the streets, homes and businesses of the Levantine cities, and working up towards a practical linguistic system, geographically limited, but complete, flexible and practical. This doesn’t mean that the Urban Arabic curriculum ignores Formal Arabic, only that it is addressed in the way it is used by actual people: as a linguistic tool used for specific purposes. People living in the Levant (especially in cities) often speak and understand a variety of vernaculars and maybe even a couple of dialects in addition to some Formal Arabic. Mixing, switching and playing with different forms of Arabic, even using French or English words, is common, and it is simply a part of the vocabulary of Urban Arabic. Teaching these linguistic gymnastics – how to use them in a natural and systematic way to understand and be understood – is the approach of Urban Arabic.
Upon completion of the complete Urban Arabic course the learner will be equipped with the skills to communicate in an effective and engaging manner in the same way that Arabs communicate among themselves; free from the rigidity of Formal Arabic, yet with flexibility and dynamism of a culturally and academically well-educated Levantine.
Click here for a sample Urban Arabic lesson