What is it like to learn Lebanese Arabic in Beirut? We asked Olivier Baas, currently a student at the Lebanese Arabic Institute, to tell us about his experience.
Hi, my name is Oli. I’m from the Netherlands. I studied in Scotland – nothing related to Arabic – I studied mathematics and statistics and finance. And before I came to Lebanon I was working in a bank. And because I wasn’t happy with my work, I decided to quit and I wanted to travel. I was already learning Arabic from friends that I met at university.
The reason I started learning Arabic is because I befriended a Palestinian through whom I met the other Arabs in the same… in the business school, in the same school. And whenever I was with them, they always spoke Arabic with each other. So just out of curiosity, I said: “Can you teach me some stuff?” I started with the very basic phrases, basic words, and then I thought: “Why don’t I start learning the script?” So they taught me the script, how to read and write in Arabic, so I decided to continue learning Arabic by moving to a country in the Middle East.
Why did you choose to come to Lebanon?
There are several reasons why I came to Lebanon. The most important is that the Arabic that I was learning, towards the end, before I came here, was the Syrian dialect. And I wanted to choose one dialect and learn only that dialect because I’d encountered many problems with people from different dialects telling me different things about how to say certain things in Arabic, so I decided if I want to learn to speak, I need to choose one country and stick to that dialect. And because I was already learning Syrian, and I couldn’t go to Syria because of the war going on, I wanted to choose a country with an accent similar to the Syrian accent, which for me left Palestine, Jordan, or Lebanon. I looked at all three options, but I decided not to go to Palestine because I couldn’t find schools that I thought were very good for learning Arabic. I think I saw more opportunities like teaching English there than learning Arabic. I knew there were, there are schools in Jordan as well, which is where the other reasons came in, namely that I heard amazing things about Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, from my Arab friends. Every Arab seemed to love Beirut. And because I wanted to not just come for the language but also for the cultural experience and for… to have a good time, after all I was travelling after a break from work, I decided to choose Lebanon rather than Jordan to continue learning Arabic.
It’s, I would say, the most – from my experience – the most open and free country in the Middle East, so I think it’s very easy to be yourself in Lebanon without having to worry too much about what’s culturally accepted or socially accepted, which might be a problem in other Arab countries.
What type of Arabic are you learning?
At the moment, I’m only learning spoken Lebanese Arabic, so the dialect spoken on the streets here. Before I came, I was learning Modern Standard Arabic a bit as well, from self-study, but I decided for me, for the purpose I was learning Arabic for, which was purely out of interest or as a hobby, I figured I would benefit more from learning the spoken dialect first and maybe trying to learn Modern Standard Arabic later on rather than doing it the other way around, which is what I guess most people would do for example coming from university studying Arabic and then trying to learn a dialect.
Lebanon (Beirut in particular) has a reputation for being a difficult place to learn Arabic because many Lebanese speak English and French. What has been your experience?
People did warn me before I started studying Arabic in Lebanon that people in Lebanon, the Lebanese, speak a lot of English and French. And having been to other Arab countries as well, I can confirm it is the case that people in general speak good English and French, but I don’t think it’s something that should ever stop you from learning Arabic in Lebanon, because in my experience, before I came, I had the impression that I would hear more English and French on the streets than I would actually hear Arabic. I find this completely not the case. It really depends on the areas you go to as well. For example, if you go close to the American University, you do tend to hear students speaking English and Arabic with each other, and in the more French neighborhoods people like to use French in their Arabic as well, but in general on the street when I hear people speak, I hear Arabic. And the same goes for many shops and places and daily interactions with people, they would be in Arabic although there are many cases where the person would be able to speak English in case either they notice you’re a foreigner or you can’t express what you’re trying to say in Arabic so you say it in English. This is the case. But in general I find there’s a lot of Arabic being spoken in Beirut, a lot more than people told me before there would be.
What are some challenges you have faced with learning Arabic in Lebanon, and how have you met these challenges?
I guess the most difficult thing with speaking Arabic is, while you’re learning the language the temptation to switch to English can be very big, especially when you’re having a discussion with someone and you can’t say exactly what you’re trying to say, it’s very tempting to just switch to English when you know the other person knows how to speak English as well. In these cases, it’s very difficult to actually speak Arabic and be corrected and struggle without switching back to English. However, I did find that in these situations forcing yourself to struggle is the best way to learn, because if you always switch back to English you won’t say it right the next time, but if you struggle and struggle and struggle, you’re going to be able to say more and more eventually. And I’ve seen a huge difference from when I came and I could hardly say one sentence correctly in Arabic to now where I’m using more English words every now and then rather than switching the whole sentence to English, which is what I used to do. But for this you need to be persistent in speaking and you need to not change to English all the time when you can, because you will be able to do it very often.
What are some of the best ways you have found to practice Arabic?
I think it’s really important if you want to properly learn to speak the language, to speak, that is the most important thing. So that means you need to put yourself in situations where you can actually practice speaking and not get embarrassed from saying something wrong or not knowing how to say something. So this is what I’ve been trying to do. So a couple of things I’ve done to try to speak as much Arabic as possible is trying to befriend locals and trying to hang out with locals more than foreigners and other students. Although hanging out with other students can be good to work on the grammar or what you discussed in class, in the end you want to be practicing speaking as well. Other situations would be, I go to the hairdresser here and speak only Arabic with him, there’s fruit and vegetables stores where the people tend to speak Arabic more than other languages as well. Taxi drivers or ‘services’ normally speak Arabic only, and it definitely helps if you speak Arabic with them, not only to make it clear where you want to go, but also not to get ripped off. Another example: I joined a very very local, small gym here, where the people don’t speak English at all, and the funny thing is if you can’t manage at all in English you’ll learn the words very quickly. You can’t refer back to things with pointing and grunting forever, so you’ll just listen and hear how they say certain things, and in a way start copying them and seeing how they use the language. So these situations have been really beneficial for me.
Find Olivier Baas on LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/olivier-baas-44008863