The problem: You’re stuck in your apartment for the foreseeable future and you want to have an authentic Middle Eastern experience.
The solution: Instead of thinking, “How can I get to the Middle East?”, think, “How can I bring the Middle East to me?”
Now we’re talking. This is probably a controversial statement, but I don’t think you need to ever study abroad to learn Arabic fluently. Actually I’d prefer if you didn’t even think that studying or living abroad was a crucial part of learning a language. After living and studying around the world for 10 years — from the Middle East, to Africa, Asia, and South America — I promise you: Studying abroad is a valuable part of becoming a global citizen, but not a crucial part of learning a language.
Ultimately, you can study abroad from the comfort of your home. Embracing this method has skyrocketed my reading, speaking, and listening skills in quarantine. And if I’m honest, I now spend more time immersed in Arabic than I ever did during a study abroad program or college class.
The key is this: I transformed my home environment to simulate me being in the Middle East.
Also, I realized something unexpected in the process. The hardest things about study abroad isn’t understanding language. It’s understanding culture. When you study abroad, what’s harder to figure out is answers to questions like: What do these people care about? Why is it so important them? What are their values? Why do they value them? Creating an at-home study abroad environment will give you a strong foundation to answer to these questions as well.
Okay, let’s get to it. Here are the 5 best ways to become fluent in Levantine Arabic without studying abroad. (For specific Levantine learning resources, head to my article: The Best Levantine Immersion Resources of 2020.)
1. Turn on the radio (aka blast those stereos)
Find the most popular or interesting radio station you can find. Make sure they feature a mix of shows — humor, political and pop culture interviews, news, and music. I use Online Radio Box and listen to a Beirut radio station called, The Voice of Lebanon, every day. For this reason, I could tell you about fun radio programs from Lebanon that I love, like one that has listeners guess the names of obscure songs. I could tell you about what diplomats and artists feel about the economic crisis, and what Lebanese college students think about the raising tuition prices at top universities. Also for good measure, I now know many random jingles for different products in Lebanon. All of these are great conversation starters with a Lebanese person + I would definitely never learn these things just by studying Arabic in a classroom in Beirut.
2. Turn on the television (aka veg out and never feel guilty)
There are soooooo many free shows on YouTube and available shows on Netflix that have hundreds of thousands or millions of views. As we know, anything that goes viral is culturally, socially, or politically important. So start watching these shows. By watching many shows you’ll start to notice who the top and most popular actors are. (Especially in Syria, there seems to be a cast of 25 – 30 actors who you will see in almost any show.) Once you start to recognize the most popular faces, you can safely assume that 1) they’re considered great actors and that 2) their most recent work is also very popular in the Middle East at this current moment. After this, you can start using paid streaming from sites like Shahid, and MTV Lebanon, which provide more recent content and have a wider database than Netflix or YouTube ever could.
3. Turn on a movie (aka stay for the double feature, why dontcha?)
Good movies are just… Mm mm good. We all know the power of a great movie to leave us feeling transformed, excited, and wanting more. Watching popular movies is a way to get all the feel good feels but also learn what people in your country of interest truly enjoy. You’ll see what stories, conflicts, ideas, experiences are considered important. I also think watching movies from the Middle East will also dispel myths that the West has about the Middle East being oppressive, closed off, and backwards. When you see great art, you see the humanity of entire peoples. Find then on Amazon, YouTube, or Netflix for starters.
4. Open a book or an article (aka make people think you’re smart)
There are always going to be writers and stories that are dear to a culture. Think back to your high school English class. What did you read? Probably, the Greeks, the Romans, Shakespeare, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, James Baldwin, etc. etc. etc. Each of these writers is revered not just for their writing, but for what their writing reveals about what it means to be a Westerner or an American.
Find the most famous Levantine writers — Ex. Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabanni, Kahlil Gibran. Much of their work is translated, so if you’re not ready to read it only in Arabic, read the texts side by side.
I’ve personally never read a book in Arabic from front to back, but I read articles, graphic novels, and am making it goal this year to read Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid in Arabic, so that I can build my Fusha reading skills.
5. Turn on a trending playlist on Spotify or Apple Music (aka shake dat azz)
This is the music that would be playing in bars and dance clubs, that people would be humming and jamming to in the street, and that kids would feature in their schools’ talent shows. If you were in the Middle East right now, you likely wouldn’t experience much of this music live because of quarantine measures. But that doesn’t mean you can’t bring it into your home and get bumpin.
So why wait to study abroad when you could start now? As for me, I spend every day in Lebanon and Syria and I love it.