Follow the Arabic Road: Journey into the heart of a language.

The events of 9/11 transformed the status of Arabic language teaching in universities and schools worldwide. In many European and North American universities, Arabic went from being treated as a dead language equated with Latin or Ancient Greek to being taught as a living, breathing modern language for everyday life. Interest in learning Arabic remains on the rise but learning one of the world’s most complex languages (for English speakers) is not for the faint-hearted. In this episode, Vanessa Newby and James Shires speak about the challenges of learning Arabic as a foreign language in the Middle East. Vanessa Newby introduces her latest book ‘Follow the Arabic Road: Going Off Track in the Middle East’ which describes her first tumultuous year of learning Arabic in Syria and travelling across the eastern half of the Middle East to Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon and Iran.

James and Vanessa, now both Assistant Professors at Leiden University, describe the pain and joy of learning Arabic in Oman, Egypt, and Syria. They discuss the challenges of: negotiating the nuances of the dialects that permeate the language; the tongue twisting pronunciation; and the complexity of the grammar. They find their journeys with Arabic often intersect leading them to similar conclusions about how to approach learning Arabic today. They reflect on the cultural norms that infuse the language and what it taught them about Arabs and the Middle East.

In the second part of the podcast (starting at 42:06), our host Jake Wright calls on the expertise of a professional Arabic teacher, Dr Hossam Ahmad from Leiden University to ask his views on learning Arabic as a foreign language and to relate his experiences as teacher. We learn – perhaps unsurprisingly – that Europeans often fare better owing to their familiarity with multiple languages, but every nationality has its own challenges to contend with. The question of which to learn first – a local dialect or formal Arabic called ‘Fussha’ – remains a pertinent question for students and instructors alike.

This pod is for anyone interested in the Arabic language or language learning in general, the modern Middle East, or anyone interested in travelling to the region. It provides a great introductory overview to the region and learning one of the world’s richest, and most vibrant languages