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Review of  Formal Spoken Arabic FAST Course with MP3 Files

Reviewer: Alex Bellem
Book Title: Formal Spoken Arabic FAST Course with MP3 Files
Book Author: Abdelnour Zaiback Karin C Ryding
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, South Levantine
Arabic, North Levantine
Issue Number: 16.1594

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Date: Fri, 13 May 2005 10:19:33 +0100
From: Alex Bellem
Subject: Formal Spoken Arabic: Fast Course with MP3 Files

AUTHOR: Ryding, Karin C.; Zaiback, Abdelnour
TITLE: Formal Spoken Arabic
SUBTITLE: Fast Course with MP3 Files
SERIES: Georgetown Classics in Arabic Language and Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Georgetown University Press
YEAR: 2004

Alex Bellem, SOAS (University of London)

This course is a book comprising one volume (215 pp. incl. glossaries
and appendices) and a CD with 95 MP3 files. This reprinted version
has been produced to provide updated formats of the audio material.

The course was developed from a 6-week intensive (FAST) course for
US Foreign Service personnel, at whom it is primarily targeted. The
choice of vocabulary taught and settings of dialogues largely reflects
this. The course aims to teach what the authors term Formal Spoken
Arabic, a 'hybrid' of Modern Standard Arabic and (Levantine)
colloquial Arabic. The aim is to provide learners with enough Arabic to
cope with communicating with educated Levantine speakers, taking
the learner from a proficiency rating of 0 to at least 1+ (limited working
proficiency). It is not so much a language course as a 'survival crash
course' (the authors themselves state that it is 'not strictly a language
course', but 'designed to make life more manageable in the host

The book aims to provide "realistic roleplay, listening comprehension,
expansion drills, and the like" to develop linguistic creativity and build
communicative competence in spoken Arabic. Throughout the book, a
system of transliteration intended to be consistent and user-friendly is
relied on, with only the sample dialogue of each lesson being given in
Arabic script. Additionally, the authors aim to provide where
appropriate "cultural notes on topics such as bartering and price
haggling...or confronting a hostile authority".

There are 14 lessons in the course. They are preceded in the book by
a useful list of the MP3 files on the CD, a four-page section of notes
for the instructor, and notes and an introduction for students ('The
Sounds of Arabic'), as well as a page with the letters of the Arabic
script and their transliteration as used in the book. The core of the
book is followed by four appendices ('Names of the Months of the
Year' -- both Gregorian and Islamic; 'Arabic Names of Government
Ministries'; 'Arab Countries and their Capital Cities'; 'Courtesy
Expressions and Idioms of the Arab East') and by two glossaries,
English-Arabic and Arabic-English.

The 14 lessons cover the following topics: 'Who are You?'; 'Taxi'; 'On
the Phone'; 'I Need Help'; 'At the Gas Station'; 'At the Market
Place'; 'At the Restaurant'; 'At an Arab Home'; 'Before the Party'; 'On
the Phone (to the Maid)'; 'Around the House'; 'The Duty
Officer'; 'Weather and Leisure Time'; 'Problems with the Police'.

Each lesson is made up as follows (components not included in all
lessons are in brackets):
1. Sample dialogue (an Arab and an American interlocutor): first page
in Arabic script, facing page in transliteration with English equivalent
underneath. Dialogue is broken down into numbered sentences.
(Some lessons have two sample dialogues.)

2. Vocabulary -- new vocabulary introduced in the dialogue (given in
transliteration with English equivalent).

[3. Supplementary vocabulary -- related vocabulary, including
alternative inflections of forms used in dialogue.]

4. Working with words and phrases -- practical exercises as follows:
A. Matching English with Arabic -- list of English equivalents of Arabic
words from dialogue to be matched with the Arabic list.
B. Completion of Arabic dialogue -- transliteration of dialogue given
again (without the English), with missing words to be filled in.

5. Working with sentences -- practical exercises as follows:
A. Matching spoken Arabic with written English -- a listening exercise
where some of the sentences from the dialogue are played, for the
student to match with the English equivalents listed on the page.
B. Scrambled Arabic dialogue -- each sentence of sample dialogue
(minus numbers) given in random order for student to re-sequence.
C. Matching English with Arabic -- English equivalents of some of the
sentences from the sample dialogue to be matched with the Arabic
D. Matching written Arabic -- a selection of sentences from the
dialogue are given in Arabic (transliteration) to be matched with the
responses given (also in Arabic, from the dialogue).
E. Translation into Arabic -- student translates the sentences from A
into Arabic.

6. Working with the language -- points of grammar arising through the
dialogue are explained (using the examples from the dialogue) and
further exemplified. They are then drilled (pronunciation,
understanding of forms given, then student's manipulation of the
grammar to create new forms). Some lessons also contain 'review

7. Working with variants -- practical exercises:
A. Translation into Arabic -- student translates some new sentences
(topical to the subject matter of the lesson) into Arabic.
B. Comprehension of spoken Arabic -- multiple choice: (new)
sentences played from the CD, for student to pick correct English
equivalent of three possibilities for each sentence.

8. Working with the situation -- this section is designed to
aid 'communicative competence', and comprises the "cultural notes on
topics...which are still vital for survival in Arabic society". There is a
brief discussion of various issues raised through the subject matter of
the lesson (e.g. bargaining, Arab hospitality, how to respond to hostile
authorities or emergencies, etc), and suggestions made for questions
to ask the teacher and situations to roleplay.

The CD is to be found inside the back cover of the book. There are 95
tracks, totalling just over 4 and a half hours listening time. For each
lesson of the book there is a track for the following:
* sample dialogue(s)
* slowly read sample dialogue(s)
* vocabulary
[* supplementary vocabulary]
* matching Arabic with English exercise
[* grammar]
*comprehension of spoken Arabic exercise

The book is clearly and intentionally aimed at US Foreign Service
personnel posted to the Arab Middle East. It is noted in the foreword to
this edition that post-9/11, "the acquisition of spoken Arabic has
suddenly been thrust to the forefront of US national security". The
course thus seems to answer some of the needs of "US diplomatic and
government cadre in the field" in terms of basic communication,
although it is my opinion that it does not seem to foster much interest
in either the language, the people or the culture(s) of the Arab world.
To encourage personnel to take up postings with the expectation that
the only interaction required in Arabic is to facilitate American
presence in the region seems indicative of an ethos which does not
harbour respect for, or genuine understanding of, Arab culture or
Arabic language and thus does not aim to foster genuine, harmonious
or equal relations. This course is, in this way, purely functional, aiming
to enable learners to deal with a limited number of situations from the
perspective of a US government official. Thus, while clearly meeting
these stated aims, I believe that the course is not entirely appropriate
for other learners of Arabic. The promotional abstracts state that it
is "easily adaptable for students in Middle East area studies", and that
the "authors targeted the needs of...the Arabic learner population at
large". There are, however, books and courses far more appropriate
for other learners of Arabic, especially those with a genuine interest in
the language and its speakers.

Caveat notwithstanding, the use of Formal Spoken Arabic (FSA) to
maximise communicative potential is also functional ('logistical and
practical'), but seems fairly successful in its aim of teaching "a form of
Arabic lingua franca" as this is the "most efficient, flexible and useful
brand of Arabic". The language used throughout the book is mostly a
mixture of informal MSA and standardised colloquial Arabic, although
where dialects diverge the default is Levantine (Syrian, Lebanese,
Palestinian) Arabic. However, in this there are a few inconsistencies,
although this is perhaps inevitable.

[In the following paragraphs, the following codes are used for certain
phonological symbols: -- Eds.

? = glottal stop
& = voiced pharyngeal fricative (IPA reverse glottal stop)
s' = voiceless alveopalatal fricative (IPA long s)
t' = interdental fricative (IPA theta)]

Firstly, it is not noted that /q/ in many Levantine varieties (particularly
important urban centres such as Damascus and Beirut) is realised
as /?/ -- a fairly fundamental point in learning Levantine Arabic, and
one that may cause misunderstanding. Secondly, some forms are
used that will rarely be heard in some areas of the Levant. For
example, the particles of negation taught are 'ma' and 'mish', although
the negator 'mu', which is always heard in much of Syria (and Iraq,
which one would expect to be highly relevant to the target audience),
and the more formal verbal negator 'la' are not taught, although I feel
they should at least be given as alternatives. Lastly, there are
inconsistencies relating to register-switching, where colloquial forms
such as 'aHibb', 'biddi' and 'ashuuf' are taught alongside 'a&rif'
and 'aqdar' rather than 'baarif' and 'ba?dar'. These latter could at least
have been noted as alternants, as well as the verbal prefix 'b-', as
these are so commonly heard in the Levant. Also the use throughout
of the verb 'talfan' for 'he telephoned' (which I have to say I've never
actually heard said conversationally by Levantine speakers) rather
than the more usual 'ittaSal (bi-talifoon)'. Yet we find the very
colloquial 'bass' for 'only, just', and not the formal 'faqaT'. I think these
issues highlight difficult choices to be made in teaching Arabic as a
medium of communication due to the situation of diglossia, yet it seems
that the resolution in this book is not entirely consistent. To be fair,
there may well have been reasons behind the particular choices
highlighted which (for obvious reasons) have not been laid down in the
book itself.

Nevertheless, overall I applaud the use of FSA as extremely practical,
and providing a good foundation for learning either/both any colloquial
variety of Levantine Arabic and/or more formal MSA. The use of
transliteration also strikes me as practical *for the target audience*
(although for most other learners I think it not entirely appropriate). It is
of course limiting, but, as already noted, the book is consciously so
anyway. The sample dialogues are presented in Arabic script, so the
onus is on the teacher to choose whether or not to familiarise learners
with the script, and to make use of other resources to do so. However,
I do think the book would have benefited from at least some formal
familiarisation, at least in terms of enabling the learner to decipher
signs and, especially, numbers, as it is quite a handicap not to be able
to do so.

The transliteration scheme itself, although consistent (except for typos
as discussed presently), has the small problem of not allowing
distinction between certain phonemes and consonant clusters, a
fundamental problem for the beginner. For example, using 'sh' to
transliterate [s'] means that the learner cannot differentiate this
phoneme from the cluster [sh], as in 'ishaal' [sh] vs. 'ishaara' [s']. The
same problem is found for 'th' (which represents both [th] and [t']).
Thus, the learner cannot differentiate 'th' in 'uxtha' [th] from 'th'
in 'akthar' [t'].The same problems exist with the
transliterations 'dh', 'DH' and 'gh'. Aside from this, the transliteration is
user-friendly for non-linguists, although in the absence of stress and
intonation being notated, it may have been helpful to have a note on
stress placement, or to see a section practising this.

In terms of the layout of each lesson, the book is certainly designed as
the primary resource for a course rather than as a traditional grammar.
Each lesson is designed around a situation that may be encountered.
The situation is introduced through a sample dialogue (both spoken
and transliterated), which means that vocabulary and grammar are
encountered in context. The vocabulary and grammar are then
highlighted and fully drilled (pronunciation, understanding, usage and
creation of new forms), with lots of practical exercises. This, the core
of the course, is highly effective, thorough and learner-centred.
Moreover, the layout of the grammar sections and the inclusion of two
glossaries mean that the book may be used for reference after
finishing the course (although it would have been helpful to have an
index of grammar topics covered, as I found myself spending time
leafing through the book several times to find topics again). The only
criticism I have of the teaching method relates to presentation. I think
any teacher using this book would need to do an awful lot of

The presentation of the dialogues, vocabulary and exercises was
rather dry, with no variation, no pictures, and nothing to really engage
the learner. Although there are lots of effective exercises to drill and
practise, they are all exactly the same in each lesson. Moreover,
bearing in mind that this is intended to be used in a classroom, there
was nothing to encourage the students to interact with each other,
only with the teacher. It would have been highly useful to have
developed a resource pack to accompany the book, containing group
activities such as roleplays and games, a more diverse range of
exercises, etc. Although the course is aimed at FS personnel, who of
course don't want to be treated like primary-school kids, any teacher
knows that the first rule of the classroom is to engage the students, to
get them to interact with each other, and to get them to learn by being
able to enjoy the subject (dare I say it, by having fun). I have to say
that had I begun learning Arabic through such a book, I think I would
have been rather turned off by the presentation. Even though the
target learners need to acquire a basic command of Arabic for fairly
specific survival needs, surely it would help to do so by fostering an
interest in the language and the culture and presenting it in an
enjoyable and less dispassionate way.

Moreover, even though the content is presented in a rather dry
manner, presumably to avoid causing the learners to feel patronised,
there were several comments which actually were patronising to the
learner, and there was too much metalanguage. For example, the
exercises were accompanied by instructions on where to write the
answers on the page, e.g. p. 11: "Listen to the Arabic sentences on
the cassette and determine which of the following English sentences
corresponds in meaning to one of the recorded Arabic sentences.
Write the identification for the Arabic to the left of the English
equivalent below." I would also feel rather patronised if I were
confronted on a language course with assertions like "Speaking on the
phone in a foreign language is a special but necessary skill for anyone
in a foreign country" (p. 39), or "Americans sometimes find
commonplace actions by nationals of other countries puzzling" (p.
105), or "When buying fresh food in the Arab world, you may have to
deal with merchants who do not speak English" (p. 69).

The cultural notes included at the end of each lesson mostly highlight
an issue from the dialogue, and refer the learner to the teacher with
suggestions of questions to ask and issues to roleplay with the
teacher. This is useful, although not for homestudy. There are also
useful strategical notes for communication with limited competence in
the language.

The audio materials are invaluable for any language learner and are
used consistently throughout the book. There are some errors which
should have been ironed out in the editorial process, however.
Notably, throughout the book the text refers to "the cassette" (e.g. p.
13: "Listen carefully to Cassette 1 (side 2)"). It would be useful for
each dialogue or listening exercise to refer to the relevant CD track.
There are also occasions where a word spoken is not the same as
that written in the book (e.g. p. 143 'yaqDiru' on the CD, 'yaSrifu' in the
book; p. 143 'aw' on the CD, 'wa' in the book, etc.). I think that in a
reprinted edition, errors such as these should have been edited out,
particularly as these could potentially confuse the beginner.

Unfortunately, there are also other typos and editorial inconsistencies
present, and although one may expect a few errors to have crept in in
a book using transliteration in conjunction with audio materials and
some Arabic script, one would expect that an updated edition would
also have updated any such problems, particularly as they could be
problematic for the target audience: the learner of Arabic with little or
no previous knowledge of it. For instance, on p. 158, the Arabic script
has 'al-madina' where the CD and transliteration have 'al-manTiqa';
the title of the dialogue on p. 132 in Arabic script has 'il-muwaDHDHaf
il-mas'uul', where both the CD and the transliteration have 'il-
muwaDHDHaf il-munaawib'. There are also some remaining typos in
the transliteration, such as p. 157 'taqaar' instead of 'taqdar'; p. 123 '-t-
tanaajir wa -s-sawaani' should be '-T-Tanaajir wa -S-Sawaani'; p.
134 'qunsul' should read 'qunSul'; p. 52 'fiit' 'here is, there are' should
read 'fii' 'there is, there are', among others.

Moreover, the Arabic script also needs a little editing, as it is not
consistent in the use of dots under the 'yaa' or 'hamzat al-qaT&' over
the 'alif', which may be confusing for learners who do choose to learn
Arabic script, and therefore defeats the purpose of including it.

In summary, then, the book is deliberately of limited scope. It is useful
as a teaching resource for US Foreign Service personnel being posted
to eastern Mediterranean Arab countries, although to be really
effective, I think the teacher would need to supplement with other
material. Thus it could be considered as the backbone of a course.
For any other learners of Arabic, I think there are several courses
around which are far more appropriate. However, the actual teaching
of vocabulary and grammar is done entirely through context and
employs ample effective drilling, which is much the best way of
enabling students to communicate, and shows awareness and
application of proven teaching methodology. The situations chosen for
the sample dialogues seem appropriate for US employees on postings
who need some limited communicative competence in Arabic.
However, it does mean that this book does not really succeed in being
easily adaptable for Arabic-language learners of any other
background or those intending to travel to Arab countries for other
reasons (as it claims to be). As a non-American I felt somewhat
alienated by the book, which does not really embrace a non-American


Alex Bellem is a PhD candidate and tutor in the Department of
Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London). The
PhD thesis she's working on focuses on the phonology of the
emphatic 'family' (Semitic emphatics and non-Semitic
pharyngealisation). Her research interests include: phonological
theory (particularly Government Phonology, mental representations,
the phonetics-phonology interface); phonology of Semitic languages
(especially Arabic -- Eastern dialects); Arabic linguistics. She has also
taught both ESOL and Arabic and worked as an editor on academic
texts in the fields of Middle Eastern Studies and Linguistics.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1589011066
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 248
Prices: U.S. $ 39.95