by Jacqueline Salzinger, Development and Communications Officer (ACOR)
Screenshot of the Arabic Wikipedia article for “Second Language Acquisition” (SLA).
In a typical year, as an academic center in Amman, ACOR buzzes with the speech of Arabic-language enthusiasts. Whether through study-abroad students flipping through vocabulary flashcards in our library, researchers debating historical periodization or academic terminology, or international archaeologists in our hostel exchanging ideas with tourism professionals, new ideas—meaning new terminology, new grammars, and new rhetorical and intellectual frameworks—are circulating in discussion at ACOR.
The pandemic has undoubtedly challenged our ability to host such exchanges. Nevertheless, we continue to get conversations going through other means, sometimes venturing down online communication avenues that lead to wider and more diverse audiences as the world turns to the digital. Online lectures, remote internships, and web publications have allowed ACOR to continue to serve as a conduit of exchange, even offering opportunities through which newcomers to the Arabic language can gain practical linguistic experience. Even—and especially—during this pandemic, ACOR staff are repeatedly asking and finding new answers to that all-important question: how can we help the global academic community stay connected? And what does multilingualism have to do with all this?
On a personal level, as a local alumnus of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, I have always been keen to discover how ACOR’s range of activities can benefit language students. Jordan has certainly become a—if not “the”—major node of immersive study-abroad learning in the region in recent years. The influx of international students has markedly increased since the Arab uprisings of the 2010s, after which many study-abroad programs moved from Damascus and Cairo to Amman. Here in Jordan, ACOR has been supporting Arabic learners of all levels throughout its fifty-year history. Thus it is no surprise that we pay attention to how the lockdowns and travel restrictions of 2020–2021 have caused entire fields of global and area studies and language learning to pivot to the virtual educational space.
Even as we hope to return to in-person programming soon (thanks to vaccination campaigns), I wish to share several online resources that language students wanting to practice Arabic at home can make use of in the meantime. Nothing can truly replace immersive in-person learning, but the internet offers us not only clever learning tools, but genuine meeting grounds and opportunities to immerse in authentic communication. Increasingly, the web is an indispensable medium for a growing number of digital opportunities that help learners explore language in a manner conducive to discovering and retaining linguistic information. The resources below should be useful for anyone seeking to practice Arabic as it used in Jordan, ranging from “colloquial” to “Fuṣḥā,” with special focus on that register of speech that sociolinguists variously refer to as “educated spoken Arabic,” “educated colloquial Arabic,” or “’ammiya al-muthaqafeen” (عامية المثقفين).1
A recently launched (and, amazingly, free!) online service, Playaling offers a fabulous interface for fun semi-structured and self-guided learning. The site is essentially a catalog of hundreds of video clips in Arabic, searchable by dialect, difficulty, and style of content (comedy, politics, etc.). This alone is useful, particularly for beginning and intermediate learners, but Playaling goes even further by providing English and Arabic subtitles that viewers can easily toggle on and off at their leisure. Perhaps the best feature of Playaling, however, is that hovering the cursor over an individual Arabic word or phrase in the transcription brings up its English translation—including far more cultural contextual details than one finds on common tools such as Google Translate. Whatever your level of Arabic, this tool is so rich and well-produced that you are sure to walk away with new communicative knowledge after even just a few minutes on the site!
Formally established in 2017, Sowt is a podcasting platform based in Jordan that presents over a dozen shows in Jordanian Arabic. Linguistically, their tonal register could be said to range from formal, news-style Fuṣḥā to interviews in Jordanian ‘ʕĀmmiyya, often blending the two in the course of a single episode. One can consider the majority of Sowt’s programming to epitomize the linguistic variety called “’ammiya al-muthaqafeen,” the middle ground between local vernacular and standard varieties of Arabic (a conceptual binary that is often debated).1 Sowt shows cover a range of topics and provide listeners with opportunities to hear from a multiplicity of voices as curated by local writers and production teams. My personal favorite is a podcast recently characterized by Dr. Christine Sargent during an ACOR public panel as having an “ethnographic sensibility;” Eib (“عيب”) reports on local subjects of social stigma, especially gender issues (particularly during its first season). You can explore and listen to any of Sowt’s offerings for free wherever you listen to podcasts!
Online publications (with browser plug-ins)
If you use Google Chrome to browse the web, you are likely already familiar with its plug-in extensions. Among them, there are a number of free tools to help the Arabic student learn while surfing the net. A good first choice is certainly Arabic Dictionary, an extension that allows users to hover over any Arabic text on any website and see not only the English translation pop up but also a word’s root and vocalization (harakat). I myself combine this tool with Vocab Saver and a couple of other dictionary plug-ins (just to cover my bases!) for smooth, seamless reading experiences, gathering and retaining new vocabulary as I go. If you are looking for content to read about Jordan, I especially recommend 7iber for investigative reports and nuanced cultural commentary (see, for example, their recent coverage of the effects of the pandemic in Petra). We also increasingly offer Arabic-language content on ACOR’s publications website, as well!
This may seem a surprising recommendation, but hear me out! Wikipedia, the world’s sixth-largest website, features articles in 310 languages, including, of course, Arabic. Perhaps you are already familiar with the idea of toggling between Wikipedia translations of an article as a creative method of exploring more obscure translations, particularly for specialized terms.2 Content on Wikipedia is ultimately published by volunteers—and, as with any other publication, it should be read with a critical eye—but Wikipedia articles and their references are often uniquely discoverable sources for identifying likely translations of complex terms in specialized fields. In addition, if you are an advanced learner wishing to practice your skills in reading, writing, and researching in Arabic, consider connecting with editor communities in the region to see if any local “Wikimedians” would be willing to help review your translations of existing articles or your own compositions for new subsections or even entirely new articles. Perhaps you could make this a bilateral bilingual exchange, helping one another through writing (especially if there are considerable time differences, which make arranging spoken exchanges considerably harder!). I have personally found that the Wikimedia Levant community has been one of the most welcoming and natural spaces for me to continue developing and exploring my writing skills while also learning about this region’s past and present. If you have questions about this, feel free to get in touch with ACOR’s in-house volunteer network (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Do you have further thoughts or questions about learning Arabic in Jordan or online? Feel free to contact us with feedback and inquiries (email@example.com). You can also read about the history of Arabic-learning programs at ACOR on our website.
Jacqueline Salzinger is development and communications officer at ACOR since August 2019. She assists the director with fundraising and organizational development as well as composing and distributing external communications to various ACOR stakeholders, partners, and supporters as lead on the center’s outreach strategy. She coordinates ACOR’s communications team, manages social media and website functions, and supports logistics and planning for the internship program and public lecture series. She graduated from Yale College magna cum laude in 2018 with a bachelor of arts in anthropology. Thereafter, she studied at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Amman, 2018–2019. Her professional background includes both administrative and program development and spans various nonprofits in the U.S., including refugee and immigrant services and community organizations. She conducted ethnographic research in Amman in 2017–2018 on localization in humanitarian practice, analyzing workplace dynamics and multiculturalism in Amman-based NGOs. She is passionate about language education and Arabic pedagogy and is working toward a certification in teaching English as a second or other language. Other intellectual interests include gender studies, translation studies, and transcultural psychiatry.
1. The boundaries between varieties of Arabic are not empirically discrete and should be explored by learners as continuous, mutually-enriching spectra of linguistic diversity. This is especially true today, when the internet has “collapsed” geography and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated development of virtual “spaces” that can be uniquely transnational in their formation. This, among other contemporary phenomena, should cause us to question the standard sociolinguistic categorizations, such as the binary “prestige” vs. “vernacular,” “written” vs. “spoken,” and “standard” vs. “dialect.” To learn more about Arabic dialectology, below are just a few possible further readings:
Holes, Clive. 2013. “Orality, Culture, And Language.” In The Oxford Handbook of Arabic Linguistics, edited by Jonathan Owens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Subscription or institutional access required.)
Jarrar, Shaker. 2019. “Qāl wa Qulnā: What the Letter Qāf Means in Spoken Jordanian.” 7iber. Published originally in Arabic, translated by Al Jumhuria. 21 November 2019.
Suleiman, Yasir. 2013. “Arabic Folk Linguistics: Between Mother Tongue and Native Language.” In The Oxford Handbook of Arabic Linguistics, edited by Jonathan Owens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Subscription or institutional access required.)
Younes, Munther. 2015. “Solving the Arabic Language Dilemma: First Steps.” (To be published in a forthcoming festschrift in honor of Prof. El-Said Badawi.) (Free Academia.edu sign-up required.)
2. For more on this, see the video of “Wikipedia and Wikidata for Middle East Librarians,” a workshop held during the Middle East Librarian Association’s 2020 annual meeting. Participants refer to Wikipedia as an “information literacy tool” and “a pedagogical tool” and compare it to Google Translate as a public record of popular linguistic usage.