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Marco Rateitschak

Confessions of a lifelong learner of Arabic

How do you manage to motivate yourself to learn Arabic for years, even decades? Marco Rateitschak has been learning Arabic since 1999. In a guest article, he describes his journey and offers valuable advice for anyone in such a situation. A survival guide for lifelong learners of Arabic.

Last updated: July 18, 2021

Many people who start with Arabic quickly lose motivation because they lack a sense of achievement. Learning vocabulary takes too long, unvocalized texts are too annoying and, most importantly, many people in Arab countries can only speak in their dialect anyway. But some people do manage to bestir themselves to keep on learning.

One of them is Marco Rateitschak, a German native now based in Switzerland. He has managed to retain his enthusiasm for Arabic for over twenty years.

Marco_Rateitschak
Marco Rateitschak

Marco Rateitschak is an economist who has been liaising with institutional investors across the Middle East for over 15 years while also developing a keen interest in the region’s languages, literatures, and cultures. Originally from Berlin, he lives with his family in Fribourg, Switzerland.

In the following guest article, Marco describes his journey to Arabic, what motivated and demotivated him – and he reveals tricks and tips for all those who are in a similar situation.

Here is his story.

In Search of Magnets

What 20 years of learning Arabic have taught me about learning languages.

By Marco Rateitschak

Introduction

“Arabic is difficult”, I had been told when, in the fall of 1999, I had decided to enrol in a three-week introductory Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) course in Cairo. Originally, my plan for a break after my first-year economics exams had been to travel to Latin America and learn Spanish. But an unexpected internship opportunity with the German Trade Mission in Riyadh, Saudi-Arabic, due to start a few months later, made me change direction.

Riyadh sounded like an adventure, and Arabic like a real challenge. I was keen to get prepared and make the most of it.

My long, slow Arabic journey

Late 1990’s: Getting hooked on Arabic in Cairo and Riyadh

At the International Language Institute (ILI) in Cairo I practiced the alphabet and learned a few basic words and phrases. I recall long afternoons in the beautiful Zamalek villa that hosts the Netherlands-Flemish Institute library, practicing the unfamiliar shapes of the letters with the uneasy hand of a first-grader, over and over again. And evenings about town with students from our small class, drinking tea and trying to decipher the neon signs on Cairo’s skyline: “توشيبا – look, To-shi-ba!”

A few months later in Riyadh, I realized that picking up more Arabic in the Gulf through daily immersion would be a challenge. Business was done in English, Arabic paperwork handled by specialized office clerks, and social interactions with locals were rare – the compound I was staying in was accessible only to expats.

“My magnet was always a book, an author, a world of fiction expressed in a language. It was fiction, stories, that made me fall in love with a language in the first place. If I wanted to make progress in Arabic, it was time to fall in love with Arabic literature.”

Marco Rateitschak

Luckily, I found a way to register for the “Arabic for diplomats” evening program at the King Saud University’s language center. I joined the course mid-way and understood barely a word in it, as the Saudi teacher only spoke Arabic, but I enjoyed hearing the language and the campus itself was an experience – its architecture and students in national dress – providing the feeling of full immersion in Arabia I had been looking for.

Early 2000’s: Ploughing through classroom MSA in Constance and Zurich

Back in St. Gallen, Switzerland, I was keen to keep going with Arabic, or rather get started properly, and enrolled in an introductory course open to non-Arabists at the University of Constance, just across the German border. The course used Krahl’s “Lehrbuch des modernen Arabisch” (in the old Langenscheidt edition) and I remember getting discouraged rather quickly by the grammatical detail without much practical communication.

It all seemed geared more towards academic Arabists than a motivated amateur “just wanting to speak” the language. But was I right in making that distinction?

With my next economics exams coming up and no pressing Arabic goals ahead of me, I dropped the course in Konstanz, but I still fondly remember the springtime drives through rapeseed fields down towards Lake Constance. It wouldn’t be my last road trip searching for Arabic.

A year or so later, my growing textbook library and Saudi memories kept reminding me that I had unfinished business with Arabic. At ETH Zürich, I enrolled in Hartmut Fähndrich’s Arabic course, having heard about his engaging but demanding teaching method. It was only years later, when reading Ibrahim Al-Koni in German translation, that I realized I had been taught by one of the most renowned translators of Arabic.

As in Constance, the course was for non-Arabists, taught with similar academic rigor but with more focus on communication. The class was initially overcrowded, but fast progress, homework, and constant Q&A ensured that only diligent students would stay on. Students would be called out for conjugations, readings, and translations so there was nowhere to hide for the likes of me who wanted to follow more passively.

Dr. Fähndrich spoke in Fusha in full tanween, not allowing a word of dialect to slip into the class. The problems of diglossia I would encounter later on still seemed far away – MSA was the Arabic that counted here. I liked the class and managed to stay for half the term, until I fell too far behind. I had no clear goal for Arabic, no vision of what I wanted to achieve with it, other than liking it and a desire to prove that I could do it, that I could finish what I had started.

I then lost sight of Arabic for a couple of years while finishing my economics degree, but I recall there were occasional bouts of self-study and aspirational textbook buying, as my library keeps reminding me.

Arabic library of Marco Rateitschak
Marco’s personal Arabic library.

Learn now how Marco managed to get back into Arabic.

Mid 2000’s: Working with the Middle East from Zurich and Geneva

Having finished my studies and thinking about a first job, my fond memories of those two months in Saudi resurfaced and I decided to join a Middle East desk of a large bank in Zurich.

It was time to dig out those Arabic books again!

I felt I had forgotten too much already and re-started from scratch in a beginner’s weekend class at a private language school. The teacher was great, but motivations in the group were too diverse and so as soon as the grammar became harder to follow, the class got lost in cultural discussions and Arabic cooking evenings.

I continued with private classes with the same teacher for some time, but he was too kind whenever I hadn’t prepared, and so I didn’t make much progress. At work I had expected my colleagues to be using quite a bit of Arabic in their client interactions, but in Riyadh business was done in English, and I didn’t meet anyone else with aspirations to learn the language. So my Arabic efforts, which I had hoped to get a professional push, remained a hobby.

“Dr. Fähndrich spoke in Fusha in full tanween, not allowing a word of dialect to slip into the class.”

Marco Rateitschak about an Arabic class in Zurich, Switzerland

I couple of years into the job, I decided to use my holiday budget for a 2-week intensive Modern Standard Arabic class at ALIF in Fes, Morocco. I had chosen a course in Media Arabic, however, the state news articles were often tedious (“H.M. received a cable of congratulations on occasion of…”) whereas the fast and heated discussions on Aljazeera offered more entertainment but were, at my level, too tough to follow.

Soon afterwards, a more important project emerged: founding a family. Arabic got shelved for a few years, but not forgotten.

When I was offered a position in Dubai, it seemed an ideal compromise between family life and more exposure to the region. While Dubai’s expat bubble didn’t seem ideal to “absorb” Arabic and interact with locals, frequent travel across the region was part of the job description and would offer new opportunities to learn, observe, and absorb. With a year to plan ahead, I decided to give my Arabic foundation another push, this time in earnest: I decided I would follow a proper Arabist curriculum and enrolled in the University of Geneva’s B.A. in Arabic program.

My goal was not to get a degree, time wouldn’t allow for that, but to follow the core first year MSA class which I just about fit into my work, travel, and family schedule. I had expected that my accumulated years of beginner Arabic exposure would provide at least some initial cushion with regard to the rest of the class. But within a couple of months, the other students’ full-time diligence had already proven its advantage over my eclectic approach. But I kept at it and passed the first-year exam.

Early 2010’s: Encountering diglossia in Dubai

A few months ahead of the planned relocation to Dubai, I was on a flight seated next to an Arabic-speaking family. I gathered my courage and addressed the father in Arabic.

He not only applauded my broken Fusha but, introducing himself as an Emirati from Dubai, promised to show me the “real, local Dubai” once I had moved there. His number in hand and wondering if the invitation had been real, I decided I would not let this opportunity pass.

Two months later, a few weeks after our arrival, my family and I were invited for Friday lunch at his home, meeting the extended family. This started a four-year tour of majlis evenings, wedding invitations, Ramadan Iftars, and farm visits.

Marco Rateitschak - majlis Ramadan
A Ramadan Iftar in the Gulf – Marco was invited by friends.

It was my lucky break into “real-life” Arabic: I became a fly on the wall, always welcomed, often unnoticed, sipping my Arabic coffee, listening to the flow of the conversation, trying to pick of works of phrases, someday asking whoever was next to me for a live translation.

The curiosity to understand, to decipher the greetings and social codes of the majlis, and to participate – one day perhaps – suddenly gave my Arabic studies a purpose. The dry textbook grammar came back to life. Knowing why I wanted to learn Arabic – to be part of a real conversation, here among this group of people – would pull me through the hard yards.

“I became a fly on the wall, always welcomed, often unnoticed, sipping my Arabic coffee, listening to the flow of the conversation.”

Marco Rateitschak about his experience in Dubai

Having focused on MSA until this point, I began to realize why Arabic was, in the end, a difficult language to learn.

Not just because of its initial hurdles – unvocalized script, complex grammar, rich vocabulary without European cognates – but mainly because of diglossia, a phenomenon I had first encountered in Switzerland when I was initially struck how strongly the spoken Swiss German dialects differed from the mainly standard German (Hochdeutsch) I had grown up with in Berlin.

Now I saw the same at work in the majlis: not only was Emirati Arabic incomprehensible to my MSA training ears, but the family I had met also mixed that with another Arabic dialect from the Iranian south coast [1]Note: If you are interested in the Arabic on The South Coast of Iran – click here and read a paper about The Arabic Dialect of Bandar Moqām, Hormozgan.

Note: If you are interested in the Arabic on The South Coast of Iranclick here and read a paper about The Arabic Dialect of Bandar Moqām, Hormozgan.

The realization of how fluid and multi-faceted “Gulf Arabic” actually is made the prospect of learning the dialect – or rather versions of it – more daunting, but also more interesting.

The language schools I had checked out in Dubai didn’t offer Emirati Arabic (at that time) but Levantine Arabic was a possible next step to at least start speaking, if not in the majlis then at least elsewhere in Dubai. So one Ramadan summer month when my family had travelled home and I stayed alone in Dubai, I made the investment and worked with a private teacher one-on-one twice a week.

Orxy in the Emirates
Orxy in the Emirates.

We swiftly reviewed Al-Kitaab 1, which I had used in self-study over the years, and ventured into Al-Kitaab 2 with side exercises in Levantine conversation. I wasn’t going exactly where I wanted – I was keen on the Emirati dialect – but it felt good to keep going with Arabic.

In the next paragraph, you’ll learn why Marco drove two hours (one way only!) through the Hajar Mountains to get to his Arabic classes.

Mid 2010’s: Learning Gulf Arabic in Buraimi

I couple of years later I discovered the Gulf Arabic Program in Buraimi which finally offered a new path into the dialect. I signed up for some private lessons.

The problem was that Buraimi is in Oman, just behind the UAE border, and the easiest immigration route was by crossing from Hatta south towards Mahda through the Hajar mountains. A long but beautiful detour! Starting at 6 am, these road trips took more than two hours each way and were the most beautiful I have taken in my life – the mountain scenery changing every minute during sunrise. Nowadays, GAP offers Zoom-classes and everyone can join easily from anywhere, but back then going there in person was the only way.

Hajar mountains
The Hajar Mountains – what a breathtaking secenery. Marco had to travel for two hours each way to get to his classes.

At GAP I experienced my second big Arabic push, thanks to their excellent teachers and material [2]Check out the GAP “camel book” series, for which flash cards can be found on ANKI: https://gapschool.net/anki/. Having stored up so much active listening exposure over the years, I started to recognize so many words and phrases, it felt like playing memory when in the last rounds one starts to collect all the remaining cards on the table [3]Donovan Nagel has written about it as the snowballing effect and makes an important distinction about (in-)efficiency of passive listening at various learning levels: … Continue reading.

“Starting at 6 am, these road trips took more than two hours each way and were the most beautiful I have taken in my life – the mountain scenery changing every minute during sunrise.”

Marco Rateitschak about the Hajar mountains

I was able to pick up more and more in the majlis discussions, even throwing in a few words here and there. Full of renewed energy and motivation, I had a fresh go at Al-Kitaab 2 on my own and also discovered the book’s revised version with new audio-visual material in Levantine in addition to Egyptian [4]As a side note: Al-Kitaab became much more fun once I discovered Caitlyn’s and Chris’ hilarious posts and commentary on the “teammaha”-blog: , … Continue reading.

Nizwa Oman
Nizwa in Oman.

I felt the thrill of starting to “get” the different dialects, and – almost magically – progress in Fusha also seemed to get easier.

With our relocation back to Switzerland approaching after four years in Dubai, I felt a mix of achievement and frustration. I had made friends in every GCC country, but despite all my Arabic pre-work I felt hadn’t been able to break the glass-ceiling of even basic fluency.

I wasn’t able to sustain a conversation, watch TV without subtitles (which, back then, were rare), let alone read the newspaper or a book. How could I hope to make progress once I was back home, out of Arabic surroundings?

When the boxes with my Arabic textbooks arrived in Switzerland, I hid them at the back of my library as unwelcome reminders of a failed project. But as I kept travelling to the region often, whenever I got enveloped by a conversation in Gulf dialect my “Arabic pangs”, the desire to understand and participate, would come back. The obsession was still there, hidden but alive.

Late 2010’s: Reflecting on magnets back home

A couple of years later, I read an old interview with Philip Roth about his writing process in which he said: “I need a magnet to draw everything to it.” [5]Read the full interview here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2957/the-art-of-fiction-no-84-philip-roth. It sparked an idea of what I had been missing during my 20 years of stop-and-go Arabic learning.

I had suffered through high school French class for years, but once I discovered Marcel Proust’s Recherche as a student and developed the idée fixe to one day read it in the original, I started learning French by starting to absorb all things French for a while. I fell in love with the language because I loved the world of La Recherche.

The same had happened in Spanish when I had started to read Javier Marías. It was my love for the world created by Marías that sparked my love for Spanish, which in turn led to an exchange semester in Spain. This had been the real sequence of events, not the other way around.

It took me a while to figure this out: My magnet was always a book, an author, a world of fiction expressed in a language. It was fiction, stories, that made me fall in love with a language in the first place. If I wanted to make progress in Arabic, it was time to fall in love with Arabic literature.

I started reading Arabic authors in translation trying to follow the Arabic in parallel, but this proved hard going. The unvocalized texts left too many gaps in how to pronounce them, the translations were not literal enough to follow the text word-by-word, and having to look up every second word destroyed the pleasure of reading.

Marco Rateitschak
A local food store in Doha, Qatar.

Also, even where I managed to follow a text, the Fusha seemed more intellectual, less emotionally engaging than I had hoped, particular in dialogue. Even with my limited Arabic, I knew this was now how people spoke in real life. It was like the Fusha subtitles I had read under Western movies – they felt too detached from the content. [6]For further reading on the controversial topic of “Colloquialising Arabic literature” see: https://www.mashallahnews.com/language/colloquialising-arabic-literature.html and … Continue reading.

So my reading project got challenged by several hurdles I had not previously encountered in other languages: I could not read unvocalized texts and audiobooks were not (yet) available to help with pronunciation; I could not look up vocabulary efficiently as e-books were not (yet) available on Kindle; and I did not find books that were using the kind of Arabic I had heard spoken in real life.

And yet, I knew from my previous language-learning experiences that reading is actually the best way to build fluency from an intermediate level. I only recently discovered Alex Strick van Linschoten‘s excellent article on this topic.

Early 2020’s: Finding new bridges online

Looking for other media content that could work as a magnet until I was ready for ready, I was amazed how much more interesting content had become available since I had left Dubai: better Arabic series on Netflix and Shahid, often with subtitles in both English and Arabic; a whole range of Podcasts and Vlogs focusing on Gulf dialects, and – finally – Arabic e-books on Kindle, audiobooks on KitabSawti and the free ArabCast library.

They all help me bridge the gap between my language level and the real-world content I’m interested in, which provides the magnet pulling me forward without it feeling like heavy work. Guy Sharett, who teaches Hebrew through songs and slang expressions on his brilliant podcast [7]See: Guy Sharett’s podcast: https://tlv1.fm/streetwise-hebrew/2013/10/01/accent-and-pronunciation-streetwise-hebrew, calls it the “inhaling approach”, or “homework that does not feel like homework”.

“Knowing a person’s language and dialect is, in my view, the best way to stop seeing the ‘Other'”

Marco Rateitschak

Best of all, with italki making private lessons in any language or dialect available at very reasonable costs, language learning can be incorporated into any busy schedule over a Zoom lunch-break conversation from a mobile phone. Recently, I started reading Nadia Kamel’s “Al-Mawlouda” with a lecturer in Arabic literature over italki, and it’s so much more engaging and productive than ploughing through on my own. [8]Donovan Nagel has written an insightful article on the benefits of “forcing output” – turning receptive knowledge into productive knowledge – through italki: … Continue reading

That brings me back to what attracted me to the Middle East twenty years ago and how that has evolved: When I first travelled to Cairo and Saudi Arabia, the exotic “otherness” and inaccessibility of Arabic was part of the “enchanted Orient”. The book I read before these first trips back in 1999, Peter Theroux’ “Sandstorms” captures this sentiment well.

As my understanding of the region gradually grew, as mysteries gave way to the mundane and people came into focus as individuals – Bani Adam [9]Explanation of the Persian term Bani Adam: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bani_Adam -, I realized that the initial magnet of enchantment can be replaced by something much more powerful. As the anthropologist and fluent Masri-speaker Samuli Schielcke said in an interview:

The journey really gets interesting…

… when the strange becomes less, and the usual starts to appear.

لما الغريب بدا يخف والعادي بدا يبان…

Knowing a person’s language and dialect is, in my view, the best way to stop seeing the “Other” and start understanding a person’s unique perspective. “The limits of my language define the limits of my world”, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, and an Arabic proverb says:

كل لسان بإنسان

Every tongue is a person.”

It expresses the idea that each new language acquired greatly increases a person’s character and potential.

Adding that new perspective, enlarging the limits of my world, becoming a new person – it makes even the longest language journeys worthwhile.

Don’t miss out! Marco shares some useful Arabic sources and websites he uses – highly recommended!

Musalsalat with subtitles (available online)

  • Takki S1 and S2 (Netflix, Saudi Hejazi dialect) – my personal favorite.
  • Whispers (Netflix) – with Arabic subtitles in Hejazi dialect.
  • Fauda (Netflix) – for the Palestinian Arabic parts.
  • Juman (MBC Shahid) – this one probably wouldn’t make the cut if it wasn’t for learning Arabic, but it’s the best Kuwaiti dialect show I found and useful for learning all the small prayer phrases that fill up dialogues, particularly in the Gulf dialects.
  • Ureem (MBC Shahid): Not yet subtitled (I think) but very funny and not too difficult to follow.
  • Boxing girls (Banat Al Molakama, S1 and S2 on MBC Shahid): I don’t think it is part of the subtitled Shahid selection yet but the story is (mostly) interesting (particularly for Saudi/Gulf Arabic).

While watching, I usually record the audio (e.g. with Audacity, which captures the PC internal audio) so I can re-listen at the (slower) speed I want, and for Netflix shows I use the subtitles plugin in Chrome, so I can print both the English and Arabic subtitles to read along.

The Arabic subtitles are of course more useful if they are also in dialect, which is rarely the case (mainly used in Masri movies so far with Whispers being the first Gulf dialect show I found) but hopefully increasing.

Movies with subtitles (available online)

  • Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The perfect candidate (Saudi dialect; on Amazon Prime UK)
  • Wajda (Saudi dialect, now on Netflix)
  • The Right One (Netflix) – story/humor is a bit painful like most Egyptian movies (I find) but Arabic subtitles are in Masri, so it’s useful.

YouTube shows with subtitles

Anas Bukhash

My favorite interview show, I particularly liked:

SYRIAN ARABIC:

EGYPTIAN ARABIC (MASRI):

EMIRATI ARABIC:

Hadeel Marei

Comedy clips in Masri, a few episodes are subtitled in dialect.

Lina – “Arab in Korea” channel”

Vlogger from Lebanon living in South Korea, some episodes are subtitled and the ones on trips around Korea quite interesting

Books for Kindle with Audiobook versions

Audiobook versions are available on ArabCast (free!) or storytel (subscription but free trial; formerly KitabSawti app).

Reading Arabic novels is something I only really started over the past 12 months, and it has been the most significant boost, as I really started to expand my vocabulary. Initially, I read on two Kindles side by side in the Arabic and English version, but then I’ve moved on Arabic only and working more with the dictionary and translation functions (Kindle uses Bing) before re-reading a longer passage/chapter in the translation.

The audio-book is particularly useful for reading aloud practice or re-listening to a book I have already worked through. Great books with fascinating stories I can highly recommend (for all of them you’ll also find the English e-books easily):

Saud Alsanousi’s Mama Hissa’s Mice and Souq Al-Bamboo

Arabic audio is available at arabcast.org

Jokha Alharthy’s Celestial Bodies

Arabic audio (paid) is available here.

Amir Tag Elsir’s The Grub Hunter

Khalid Alkhamisi’s Taxi

Written in Egyptian Arabic.

Arabic audio (free on the livingarabic.com site). Explanations on Nesrin Amin’s Bilmasri blog.

Nadia Kamel’s Al-Mawloudah

My favorite Arabic novel to-date! Written in Egyptian Arabic.

Arabic audio in parts on the Bilmasri blog.

Related movie:

Interview with the author (2 parts):

Amoz Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness

This is a translation from the Hebrew, but a must-read for anyone interested in the Middle East. The audiobook is available at arabcast.org

Youssef Ziedan’s Azazil

The audiobook is available at arabcast.org

Ahmed Mourad’s The Blue Elephant

There is no English translation so far. The audiobook is available at arabcast.org

Radwa Ashour’s The Woman from Tantoura

References

References
1 Note: If you are interested in the Arabic on The South Coast of Iran – click here and read a paper about The Arabic Dialect of Bandar Moqām, Hormozgan
2 Check out the GAP “camel book” series, for which flash cards can be found on ANKI: https://gapschool.net/anki/
3 Donovan Nagel has written about it as the snowballing effect and makes an important distinction about (in-)efficiency of passive listening at various learning levels: https://www.mezzoguild.com/good-and-ugly-perfectionism
4 As a side note: Al-Kitaab became much more fun once I discovered Caitlyn’s and Chris’ hilarious posts and commentary on the “teammaha”-blog: , http://teammaha.com/2014/11/who-is-maha
5 Read the full interview here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2957/the-art-of-fiction-no-84-philip-roth
6 For further reading on the controversial topic of “Colloquialising Arabic literature” see: https://www.mashallahnews.com/language/colloquialising-arabic-literature.html and https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/translating-frozen-into-arabic
7 See: Guy Sharett’s podcast: https://tlv1.fm/streetwise-hebrew/2013/10/01/accent-and-pronunciation-streetwise-hebrew
8 Donovan Nagel has written an insightful article on the benefits of “forcing output” – turning receptive knowledge into productive knowledge – through italki: https://www.mezzoguild.com/negotiation-in-language-learning/
9 Explanation of the Persian term Bani Adam: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bani_Adam

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