Colloquial Arabic returns

After years of pleas from students, the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department will offer a class in a colloquial dialect of Arabic this semester.

Until this semester, Yale has only offered courses in Modern Standard Arabic, which is used only in writing and in the media. No one speaks Modern Standard as a first language, said Shady Nasser, the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations lector who is teaching the course.

Shady Nasser, a lector in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, leads Yale’s new class on Levantine Arabic.
Eva Galvan
Shady Nasser, a lector in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, leads Yale’s new class on Levantine Arabic.

But in the new class, Nasser will teach Levantine Arabic, the dialect spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan.

“When you learn the language, you learn Modern Standard, so you can read and understand some of the TV news, but … students can’t speak with Arabs,” Nasser said. “They have wanted to learn the colloquial for a long time.”

The course is intended for students have completed a year of Modern Standard Arabic, and Nasser said he will help them learn to apply the different rules of grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary in Levantine Arabic to their knowledge of Modern Standard. The class currently has about 12 students, Nasser said.

Student demand for an Arabic dialect class has been high over the past few years, Nasser said, as students have become more aware of the difference between Modern Standard and colloquial Arabic.

“Modern Standard is really great if you want to read a newspaper or something,” said Jasmine Dyba ’11, who is currently taking Modern Standard. “But most of the people in my class are taking it to be able to talk to people and experience the culture firsthand, and you can’t necessarily do that by reading.”

Colloquial Arabic was last taught at Yale almost 30 years ago, said Maureen Draicchio, the senior administrative assistant of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department. Cairene Arabic, the dialect spoken in Egypt, was offered from 1975 to 1980, Draicchio said. Nasser said he was told that Yale stopped offering the course because University administrators at the time were wary of colloquial courses, which generally lack formal grammars and reading texts.

Nasser, who arrived at Yale this fall, taught the Levantine course, as well as one in Cairene, at Harvard for two years and at the American University of Beirut summer program three times. When he came to Yale and found that no course in colloquial Arabic was offered, he talked to his colleagues about the need to have such a course.

Nasser first proposed the course in November, though he said he feared it would not be approved because of its colloquial nature. But after defending Levantine Arabic as a legitimate language, with textbooks, texts and audio materials for teaching, the course was approved and met for the first time last Tuesday.

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