Lughat ash-shabab: Fear and loathing at AUC

I’m adding my belated two cents to the discussion here, here, and here on Arabic language instruction that was triggered by this uber-whiney Joel Pollak op-ed. I’ve been taking private Arabic lessons at AUC for around a year now, and recently got a glimpse into the intrigues and fierce debates of its Arabic faculty.

A few months back I attended an in-house conference where several teachers were presenting research papers on the methodology of Arabic teaching to English speakers.

The first few presentations were on orthodox topics of Modern Standard Arabic grammar. The only example I can remember was a paper that statistically analyzed students’ use of masdar forms vs. verbal forms, e.g. why do non-native speakers tend to write the first example below, rather than the second, when both are grammatically correct:

انا اريد ان احصل على …

انا اريد الحصول على …

Most of these papers were dry but interesting. I had never paid attention to the masdar thing, but see how it would be a good way to make my Arabic writing (on the rare occasions when I need to compose something) a bit better.

Then came, as my teacher would say, el-qunbilla, “the bombshell.” It was a presentation calling for AUC to supplement its Arabic curriculum with lughat ash-shabab, “youth language,” which she defined as a set of slang words and expressions used by young Egyptians. It started with a poll of the audience – mostly other Arabic teachers – on a handful of these expressions, which they failed miserably on all but one or two.

From there, the argument developed that learning these expressions would help foreign students relate to and befriend Egyptians their own age, and are also useful for understanding film and television.

From the audience reaction, you would have thought the presenter suggested that teachers strip down to their undies to teach verb conjugation.

A vicious Q&A followed. One questioner spent several minutes ridiculously accusing the presenter of claiming lughat ash-shabab was a distinct language from Arabic. (Just as in English, the Arabic word lugha can mean “language” as in “Spanish language,” or it can refer to syntax and word choice as in “foul language” or “technical language,” which is how it was used in the presentation) Another questioner gave a long diatribe, conflating throughout lughat ash-shabab with “profanity.”

AUC, I believe, has a well-deserved reputation for outstanding Arabic teaching, but it comes with a certain high-brow attitude. Books have been written exploring all the twists and turns of high-brow low-brow, class divides, “vulgarity,” and cultural ideologies in Egyptian society, but suffice it to say that lughat ash-shabab is a flaming turd as far as many of AUC’s Arabic language faculty are concerned.

Here’s how this fits into the debate on al-Kitaab, and teaching Arabic in general. One of the reasons Arabic is so tough is its hugeness.You have religious discourse, Quranic Arabic, classical poetry and prose, literary MSA, media MSA with all its ridiculous expressions translated from English – not to mention the regional colloquial dialects, each with its own high-low spectrum.

Why are you learning Arabic? Are you an anthropologist studying Syrian youth?Elijah’s proverbial MEMRI translator?Are you a Texan convert to Islam?Do you dream of the day when the Charlie Rose Show calls your think tank to book you as a guest?If so, you will require an individualized path of study over the 5-10 years it will likely take to master the language.

Chances are, if you study at an English speaking university you will use Al-Kitaab at some point. But the time you spend with the book will probably be small in comparison to getting the specialized training on the Arabic you need to get you to where you want to go.

3 thoughts on “Lughat ash-shabab: Fear and loathing at AUC”

  1. Good post. Doesnt surprise me at all.

    “A vicious Q&A followed. One questioner spent several minutes ridiculously accusing the presenter of claiming lughat ash-shabab was a distinct language from Arabic.”

    Arabic teachers want to make things as complicated as possible. It doesnt surprise me at all they would opposse any attempt to simplify things. Why? Because any simplication of things makes them less important. The more complicated things are, the more reliant students are on them for their “expertise.” The people at AUC have a major interest in exaggarating the difficulty of the language. This explains the big outcry that occurs whenever anyone makes an attempt to make things easier for students.

  2. Well, not all Arabic teachers want to make things complicated. I try to make things as easy as I can and as fun, and I do insert lughat ash-shabb into my teaching, after all, I am teaching ash shabb. Ask anyone of my students; ask al-Haraka.

    But, we are overlooking something key here, and that is native speakers’ attitudes toward their language. To many Arabic teachers, they are conveying a long (more than a thousand years) tradition, and they have definite views about what constitutes proper language and proper language teaching. They are, as it were, upholding the canon, and in opposing the influx of youth speak, they are defending the canon. Many of these old-fashioned Arabic teachers would just as vigorously oppose teaching a vernacular – without its slang. These might say about teaching their native dialect that there is nothing there to teach (I actually heard a Palestinian teacher at one of my universities say that in class. His teaching consisted mostly of conversing with me in class, which was very embarrassing to me, and I had to spend a lot of time with my fellow students explaining what he said, and why it was said that way – and this guy’s specialty was teaching language I don’t want to name names but his name was precious: it translated into Bird Brain!). All of this posturing is stuff and nonsense when it comes to teaching non-native speakers. Those NEED to learn a vernacular. And vernaculars are every bit as grammatical as MSA (and every bit as complicated and every bit as expressive and eloquent, and meodious, and capable of expressing politesse and formality). The fact is you cannot speak a language without grammar. And if one of those Dar 3ilmy types (they inspire in me fear and loathing and a certain odd affection) tries to tell you otherwise, say something to him in ungrammatical vernacular and ask him if it is right, and if not, why not.

    I wonder, was the presenter a non-native speaker of Arabic (perhaps a young woman with the initials JP? Now living in Imbaba?)

  3. Hello, thanks for the comments.

    Actually the presenter was Egyptian, so is a party (although seemingly on the minority side at AUC) to these debates among native speakers about the relative values of various registers of Arabic. Egyptian ameyya is widely taught at AUC and I don’t know of any teachers who oppose this. I’s say this is more a question of what to include in the cannon of Egyptian ameyya rather than the old fusha vs. ameyya debate.

    The other thread is the prescriptive vs. descriptive debate, which is common across many languages. What sets the rules of correct language use? Is it academic authorities, linguists, lexicographers who say what’s right? Or is it just a matter of going out and recording how people actually use the language? I’d tend towards the latter, but I imagine many in this talk would have disagreed.

    I see from your blog you were involved with TBS Journal. If you’re interested to get back in touch with AMS I hope you’ll give a holler.


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