Studying Arabic at Damascus University in the Arabic Language Center
February 10, 2006 Update:
The Language Institute at Damascus University is up. Check my links. Go to
Some of the teachers from Damascus University are being trained outside of Syria by some of the best Arabic teachers in the world. I can only imagine that Damascus University will eventually become a consistently great place to learn Arabic. This will happen gradually to be sure, but hopefully before long.
I frequently get emails asking for information concerning studying Arabic in Damascus - particularly at Damascus University (DU). Although I am in a private program (AFIC) at DU, my classroom is on the same floor as all the classrooms in which students come from all over the world to learn Arabic. I know almost all of the Syrian teachers who work at DU. I have seen many of them teach. I am somewhat familiar with the curriculum. I have many a friend studying in the normal programs for learning Arabic at DU. Here is what I would say about learning Arabic at Damascus University.
Damascus University has a large pool of graduate students who teach Arabic. In fact, the entire teaching staff in the Arabic for foreigners program is made up of MA and PhD students who are usually studying Arabic literature. Don’t let the fact that they are students keep you from coming – many of them are great. More important is that there is a strong communal desire to improve upon teaching techniques and methodology amongst this group.
The second annual (and international) conference for teachers of Arabic was recently held at DU. My fellow students and I presented a skit-video on DVD we made. It was well received. The Syrian Minister of Higher Education and the President of DU were in attendance. Professors from all over the world came to the conference – though mostly from Europe and the Middle East. The big names in American Arabic pedagogy have not yet joined in. They may soon. Mahmoud Al-Batal, also known as Mr. Arabic Pedagogy, recently commented to me that the teachers at DU seem very hungry for training and practice. I agree. Whenever Arabic pedagogical specialists come to DU, the administration tries to accommodate them and give them an opportunity to share their know-how with the staff.
Arabic is the language of all instruction and interaction. Such the case must be with students from all over the world. Each level, or class, has about 15 – 20 students in it.
This is one of the more unfortunate aspects of DU - the curriculum is heavy on grammar. An extensive amount of class time is spent discussing grammar and diagramming sentences. This is old-school pedagogy. Many of the teachers (and especially students!) are frustrated with this approach. Even the administration is aware of this problem. Unfortunately, no one seems to know what to do about it. Making major changes is something that just doesn’t happen around here. If you want to learn and practice Fusha (MSA) grammar, this may be the place for you. Most students, however, probably want a more functional curriculum. This is a work in progress at DU, but not yet in full bloom. I have heard from some students that the situation has considerably improved since early 2000 at the Arabic Language Center. Fortunately, there is now some listening and reading in the curriculum. There are some great teachers, two of whom will be going to a training seminar in the US this year. What an excellent opportunity for them. They will hopefully return able to train and share what they learned with the administration and other teachers.
The textbook is all in Arabic and it is grammar-oriented. It does not follow any type of communicative approach. It is in Arabic because there are students from all over the world using it. The text could be better, but there aren’t many good quality Arabic-only texts out there to begin with. Bring Al-Kitaab 1, 2, or 3 with you – depending on your level – for extra practice.
The Syrian Dialect
Ammiya is not a part of the normal curriculum in the Arabic language center at DU. This is only offered in the private programs. A few of the teachers, however, teach the dialect outside of DU and do a good job at it. You can pay them for private tutoring for anywhere from 10 – 20 dollars per hour. A cheaper option would be to arrange language exchanges with Syrian students studying English. This can be extremely helpful in learning the dialect and about the culture in general. A previous post in my blog lists options for learning the dialect in Damascus.
Things to consider about the Arabic Language Center at DU
1) Do you mind studying Arabic with people from all over the world? Their learning styles may be quite different from your own – though this may be helpful to some.
2) Do you mind the heavy emphasis on grammar?
3) If you are looking for the best-trained teachers abroad – go to CASA in Egypt…but your Arabic has to be pretty darn good to get in. I prefer Syria for many reasons.
4) Are you a good learner who will be able to make use of the textbook and class time, or do you need to be prodded?
5) Are you prepared to endure the possibility that you might not get all the best teachers?
Again, I wouldn’t recommend coming here to learn Arabic from scratch. I would suggest a good 2 years in your country at a reputable Arabic teaching establishment before coming here in order to get the most out of your time. The learning curve is much better for people who have had some past exposure. Learn the alphabet and basics at home. Come here to learn to communicate, read and live Arabic.