When the pandemic hit Jordan in March of 2020, online sessions became Shababeek’s only avenue of helping people learn the Levantine colloquial dialect of Arabic. We bought a laptop for each of our staff and conducted training intensives before the country went into lock down. For two months we worked strictly from home; all Arabic language sessions moved online. Our nurturers quickly mastered delivering Arabic learning to people all over the world. Online learning became our specialty.
I was skeptical, to say the least. While we had provided Arabic sessions for advanced phases via Zoom for years, most of our clients moved to Jordan in order to become fluent in Arabic. We did not know how or if we could really help beginners learn Arabic through distance learning.
Can you learn Levantine Arabic online as a beginner?
In April of 2020, we attempted our first group of beginners and were amazed to see their ability to both progress in Arabic learning as well as connect deeply with the nurturer facilitating their sessions. Many of them went on to progress to advance phases completely using the online platform. We were on to something wonderful as we began forming groups of beginning learners from time zones over the world. People could now connect with an Arab voice while in Hawaii, Australia, Taiwan and Germany–all at the same time. In the midst of the pandemic, lemons turned to lemonade as we developed new strategies to facilitate online Arabic classes.
What has the experience been like for people learning Levantine Arabic online?
Recently I asked one of our clients learning Arabic online to answer a few questions. Here’s what James, based in New York, had to say:
“What are your thoughts overall on the effectiveness of learning Arabic online?”
“Online learning overall is extremely effective for me. I work with non-profits who assist diaspora Arabs and other immigrants in the United States. With numerous responsibilities at this stage in life, I thought it would be impossible to pursue upskilling in the language. It seemed especially daunting in my diaspora setting where multiple Arabic dialects are spoken in the same neighborhoods. I needed to interact in one dialect, long enough to grow more capable, but I had no time or freedom to travel to the Middle East to do so. I can now with Shababeek.”
“What were your expectations, and what does learning Arabic online look like compared to your expectations?”
“When the pandemic was at its worst, I was exhausted by meeting online. I expected my online language sessions would feel dull and less engaging than in-person, in-country sessions. I was concerned about how exactly my growth and effectiveness would be monitored. Would Shababeek be able to assess my growth and make adjustments like they would at the center? Could I interact in the same manner with my nurturers? Would online sessions be too casual and lack depth, or would they seem too formal and hollow because of the medium?
Online sessions help fully simulate an immersive experience at Shababeek. I find myself visiting Jordan every day from afar. I find no obvious differences between how my nurturers interact online and how they might in person in Jordan. I was assured of online session quality when I discovered that supervisors would occasionally drop in and monitor our sessions. Indeed, one can grow at a similar rate by doing online learning sessions.”
“How has learning Arabic helped you in your everyday life functions or role?”
“Because I am in the Eastern Time Zone, I can work language learning around my work schedule, studying beforehand. Staying in the Jordanian-Palestinian dialect gives my accent authenticity. Often, I am asked by immigrants we serve if I am married to an Arab or have studied abroad extensively. I feel that when I communicate in the mother tongue, those we assist with felt needs or difficulties are reassured that I can be trusted.
Many immigrants who need aid are unable to speak English, and now I am able to ensure their needs are met. Using Arabic also greatly eases the ice-breaking process between us. We need to give our very best to immigrants. Speaking Arabic, instead of imposing English upon new arrivals, honors them and sets us apart from others who engage diaspora peoples.”
Does learning Arabic online compare to learning Arabic in person?
James’s experience in learning Arabic online at a distance is not unique. Even after returning to our facility to deliver in person sessions, more than 20% of our clients remained online only, taking daily, full time Arabic language lessons. Even many clients who live in Jordan chose to continue taking sessions through Zoom; preferring online sessions from the quiet of home without a commute. Some clients (like Mark in the short video below) visited Jordan or moved here after taking all of our beginner phases online. They arrived able to fully function, direct taxis, and launch into relationships with people from their very first day on the ground.
Whether you plan to live in the Arab speaking world someday, have Arabic speaking friends or relatives, or work with refugees in a country outside of the Middle East, you can begin learning Arabic effectively, now, from wherever you are.