Are you an eavesdropper?
Of course not! Your parents raised you right.
But now that you’re an Arabic language student, your manners are being tested.
When you overhear someone speaking Arabic on the bus, maybe you take out your headphones and pause your Arabic playlist for a second.
You’re not trying to get into their business, you just want a little listening practice.
And you have good reason to seek out listening opportunities in spontaneous conversation. If you feel like your study materials teach Arabic that’s too “stuffy,” conversational parlance is the antidote.
But there’s a better, more consistent source of dialogue, and unlike with other people’s private conversations, you’re invited! Make sure everyone always finds you to be polite, and check out these four sources of free video for genuine Arabic conversations.
What Kind of Arabic Am I Going to Learn?
The element of spontaneity, as well as idiomatic statements and responses, makes the conversations you’ll hear in these videos more unpredictable than the neatly laid out dialogues you may be accustomed to. Here’s what to expect.
Conversations contain the best language learning lessons. You may already be familiar with some great sources of listening material: news podcasts from the BBC and SBS, audiobooks of classic and contemporary literature and music from around the Arab world. If your learning goals are focused on politics, history or culture, those options are a great fit for you.
But if you got into Arabic for دردشة (chatting), nothing beats conversational exchanges in local dialects. That’s where you’ll find colorful idioms, simplified grammar and lots of personality. The best way to get this is of course to be a participant in real conversations and talk with a native speaker! However, for consistent study materials (like when you’re awake, but all your study buddies are sleeping), you can access Arabic-language shows available online.
Dialects vary, but you can handle it. A lot of people begin their Arabic studies in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), and are shocked to discover that “no one” speaks that! In fact, the daily speech of native Arabic speakers differs in grammar, vocab and pronunciation from MSA—and varies from country to country, sometimes city to city. But MSA is very valuable to know! As you continue in your studies, you’ll discover that it has many useful applications—such as acting as a bridge for Arabic speakers who can’t understand each other’s dialects.
Your Arabic studies are going to progress through several stages. If you pace yourself, you’ll be able to deal with more complexity over time. So if you’re just focusing on MSA for now, that’s a great place to start. When you’re ready to advance, it’s recommended to pick one dialect and study that. Then you won’t get confused between different particularities.
As you study your chosen dialect, you’ll develop instincts and a feel for what “sounds right.” You’ll start to notice when content is in different dialects. You may take a next step in wanting to learn a second dialect—to travel, to understand a new friend, to watch a new TV show or just to explore the differences! If you start with a solid foundation in one dialect, you can build from there.
If you’re worried the dialect you want to learn isn’t available to listen to on the internet, don’t be! It doesn’t matter what Arab country you’re interested in—rich or poor, there are TV stations and creative producers everywhere.
Broad genres and topics mean you’ll find something you like. What’s on Arab TV may surprise you. While you may have guessed there’d be news, music videos and soap operas, there are also producers of satire, game shows and shows addressing societal issues.
If you were concerned that your Arabic video options were limited to disastrous current events and scholarly Quranic studies, your options are about to open way up!
Learn Arabic from Videos by Watching This Cool Arabic Dialects Showcase
All of the videos below are on official YouTube channels, each with dozens or even hundreds of episodes for you to work your way through. You won’t have to go searching for new material for a long time, and by then you may have your own ideas about what topics to look for next.
“لاباس” (Not Bad)
This is a popular Tunisian variety show with interviews, music, skits and games.
This is a show that’s sure to expose you to both high culture and pop culture, with people making jokes as well as debating points. It’s almost entirely in Arabic, but you can catch a hint of Tunisian trilingualism, mixing in French and English.
This episode above opens with an off-color skit of the news set to a fresh beat, and proceeds to an interview with author Taoufik Ben Brik. Be sure to explore the rest of the channel for more exposure to Arabic language and culture.
“معكم منى الشاذلى” (Mona el-Shazly with You)
Mona el-Shazly is “with y’all” on her show, and audiences indeed lap it up. She interviews celebrities and other public figures about their new projects and their lives. You’ll hear them open up to her and tell personal stories, and the lively Egyptian sense of humor is always on display on her show.
You’ll also hear the way the Egyptian accent turns the letter “ق” into “أ” and the letter “ج” from a /ʒ/ (zh) to a hard /g/, and it sprinkles the doubling power of “ّ” liberally, because who doesn’t need more emphasis?!
Here she interviews brothers and creative duo Ahmed and Karim Fahmy, who can’t help themselves from divulging to Mona some funny stories from their life growing up together as kids and producing movies together as adults.
“رجائي كائن فضائي” (Rajaee Is an Extraterrestrial)
From the title of this sitcom-style cartoon, “Rajaee Is an Extraterrestrial,” we can tell that the main character finds himself to be “far out,” in the sense of the absurdity of everyday life. It’s a comedy of daily scenarios gone wrong, and the writers poke fun at the norms of Jordanian culture.
If you’ve studied Egyptian, Palestinian and Gulf Arabic, you’ll hear the influence of all three on the Jordanian dialect, which is spoken in the show. Plus, the cartoons do a great job of representing the hand gestures you’ll see in the Middle East (e.g. waving over your shoulder to indicate the past, touching your fingertips together like an Italian chef to tell someone to be patient).
In this episode, the main character tries diplomacy to mediate a disagreement among stubborn neighbors, while his wife works on figuring out how to get spending money for her parents.
“ليش هيب هوب؟” (Why Hip Hop?)
Saudi radio host Big Hass interviews Arabic-speaking rappers on this program “Why Hip Hop?”
This show is certainly unique in the Middle East context. The hip hop scene has never been large enough to be mainstream, but it has grown now from private youth gatherings into public album sales.
As you might expect, English terms from hip hop culture are mixed in (“old skool,” “b-boying”), but overall conversations are in Arabic. This show provides insight into this subculture, but for Arabic students it’s especially useful, because Big Hass goes through a full litany of pleasantries to greet his guests and welcome them to the show.
In the episode above, you can hear rappers Shiboba and Joker JR tell Big Hass about their musical influences and how the Saudi rap scene differs from rest of the world.
The Saudi dialect is a nice one to study if you’ve had classes in Modern Standard Arabic because it’s closer in grammar, vocab and pronunciation than some of the other dialects.
Go Ahead, Keep Learning Arabic with Video!
The hours of interviews and comedy sketches these four shows represent can really augment your study time. When seeking dialogues in your dialect of choice, it’s a great advantage to listen to material that originates from that country or region.
This gives you a taste of their sense of humor along with their accent and vocabulary. You’ll come to appreciate their favorite topics of conversation as you’re picking up their verb conjugations. You’ll learn their pop culture references at the same time you learn their turns of phrase.
In this way, language and culture are as intertwined for you as they are for the native Arabic-speaking TV personalities you’ll come to idolize.
Laura loves hearing about people’s life stories and day-to-day lives in both English and Arabic. She maintains a research blog on the creative efforts by Americans to turn the tide against Islamophobia.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Arabic with real-world videos.