In the five years that I have spent learning Arabic, I have had plenty of opportunities to practice the language abroad: as a reporter in South Sudan and Iraq and as a student in Oman and Morocco. Four years with an exceptional professor at Boston College had helped me lay the groundwork for my studies, but I found the benefits of having conversations with a variety of native speakers hard to replace. My Arabic improved more in my four months in Rabat than at any other point in my battle with a language that only Chinese, Japanese, and Korean rival in complexity.

I had been planning to stay in Morocco for at least 15 months as a participant in the Fulbright Program, an exchange between the United States and a number of other countries. The spread of the coronavirus, however, forced me to cut my trip short. Back in my hometown and thousands of miles away from my Arabic-speaking friends, I launched my search for a way to replicate the kind of language immersion that ordering the notorious off-brand tacos in Rabat had offered.

My concerning obsession with my cellphone revealed that I still had access to the friends who had made speaking Arabic outside the classroom so enjoyable.

My concerning obsession with my cellphone revealed that, the Atlantic Ocean notwithstanding, I still had access to all the Moroccan friends who had made speaking Arabic outside the classroom so enjoyable. Over the course of a half year in Meknes and Rabat, I had amassed several hundred Moroccan contacts on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and even Tinder. Themselves stuck at home, these new friends proved as eager to engage in a language swap as I did. We began trading articles, jokes, memes, and updates on our lives in a disorienting mix of Arabic and English.

In some ways, I have struggled to replace the advantages of living in the Arab world. Having to rely on Arabic to ask for directions, buy necessities, pay rent, and take public transport required me to develop a vocabulary that I rarely need for talking with my Moroccan acquaintances about the news. My Fulbright grant complemented this experience with a generous budget for private classes, and my tutor in Rabat taught me many of the words that I use in my conversations.

Despite the challenges of online learning, I find myself practicing Arabic more now than I did in college or even Morocco, where I most often chatted with my American roommate or Moroccans who knew English better than I did. The pandemic has also scuttled student-exchange programs such as the Boren Awards, the Critical Language Scholarship, and the Peace Corps. And the overseers of the Fulbright exchange have left the future of the initiative in doubt. In light of this challenge, online pen pals in Morocco and elsewhere have become a more viable option for students.

Arabic programs based overseas are adapting to the demands of the post-coronavirus world.

Arabic programs based overseas are adapting to the demands of the post-coronavirus world. In Jordan, the Qasid Arabic Institute has started offering online classes in Classical, Levantine, and Modern Standard Arabic. The Moroccan Center for Arabic Studies, meanwhile, emailed me the other day to inform me that it too was providing online courses in response to “the decision of the Moroccan government to suspend in-person classes in all public and private schools to curb the spread of COVID-19.” The coronavirus has reshaped language centers’ business models.

Studying Arabic always presented unique difficulties. Just as Western students of Persian often choose Tajikistan over Afghanistan and Iran to practice the language, political violence has left past favorites of Arabic students—namely Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen—far too dangerous to visit. Jordan, Morocco, and Oman evolved into the new premier destinations for Arabic studies, but the pandemic has jeopardized those once-steadfast alternatives for language immersion as well.

When I worked as a journalist, the expense and risk of flying to some corners of the Middle East meant that I had to conduct many of my interviews online. All my interviews with Syrian rebels and Yemeni militants, which served as a chance not only to earn a paycheck but also to practice Arabic in a new context, took place on Facebook, WhatsApp, and even Snapchat.

As traveling to North Africa and West Asia has grown more difficult, these regions’ populations have made learning their languages that much easier. Since the development of text messaging, residents of countries from Lebanon to Morocco have adapted their Arabic dialects to cooperate with Western keyboards. On occasion, my Moroccan friends will write Darija, their dialect, in the Arabic script. Otherwise, though, they employ a specialized version of the Latin alphabet to incorporate English and French slang into their conversations with me and one another.

Residents of countries from Lebanon to Morocco have adapted their Arabic dialects to cooperate with Western keyboards.

I sometimes find myself switching between Arabic and Latin characters during the same chat on WhatsApp. While few linguists whom I know would consider Arabic a user-friendly language, a combination of a familiar alphabet and an expanding number of Arabs eager to learn English by doing language swaps will mitigate the damage of classrooms’ closure for the time being.

To combat boredom while capitalizing on lockdowns, technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Skype, and Zoom have made video conferencing with foreign friends easier than ever. Instagram and WhatsApp, both of which Facebook owns, include a similar feature.

A language exchange facilitated by the American nonprofit Amideast meets over WhatsApp and Zoom, enabling me to stay in touch with acquaintances in Rabat as we teach one another Darija and English phrases. I also participate in an Arabic group coordinated by Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and my writing has kept me engaged with plenty of Arabic material.

The coronavirus has upended every traditional idea about education, and language education in particular, but lockdowns across the Arab and Western worlds have given students of Arabic an opportunity to redefine language immersion. As the pandemic ends in the coming months, online learning can augment the teaching of Arabic instructors across Europe and North America. In the Information Age, students who lack the means or time to go to Jordan, Morocco, and Oman can always organize a language swap with the ease of downloading a mobile application.



Writing and Messaging the Dialect: Arabic in the Online Era