Learning Lebnani in Beirut

Nikolett Puskas (PhD, International Development)

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Beiruti sunset

Sabaho! – Bonjourein! – Kifak? Ca va? – Yalla bye!

Such phrases you will find flying around in Lebanon all the time and if you notice, it is a unique cocktail of Arabic, French and English, particularly characteristic to the one-of-a-kind city that Beirut is.

Thanks to the DTP’s Difficult Language Training initiative, I could study Lebnani – which is a form of the Levantine Arabic – in Beirut for four months and it has truly been a transformative experience.

There are languages, there are dialects, and then there is something else, like Lebnani, which has evolved to something very peculiar in the streets of Beirut. It is true to such extent that, my language teacher explained to us the Fusha grammar (that is Modern Standard Arabic) where relevant, then the Lebanese – and then ever so often deconstructed the Lebanese and told us what will we actually hear on the streets, as opposed to the theoretical sentences and grammatically correct expressions. Therefore, I was really in for the most fascinating language courses of my entire life so far. This is not such a grandiose statement if you look at my research background, but I did venture to languages like Korean and ancient Greek for example.

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Our diverse language class

The language courses I undertook at ALPS in the very popular Hamra neighbourhood provided invaluable knowledge for the fieldwork that I have now commenced for the comparative case studies in my PhD. There really is no way to learn this from books – well, there are no books to begin with. ALPS’s current managing director who is also a creative mind, realized their own course books, which are the fruit of years’ worth of teaching and notes and stories collected, completed with funny illustrations. The dialogues, short stories are all built around very realistic ‘beiruti life’ experiences and scenarios (e.g. taxi ride). The classes I participated in were truly diverse, from grammar to reading, conversations amongst ourselves focusing on topics chosen by us (very often it included Lebanese food and cooking, natural sites around the country and even heavy topics such as politics and environmental issues), reading stories and describing pictures and events. We even watched two short movies and actually learnt to sing two songs by the very talented and famous Fayrouz (‘Ya Ana Ya Ana’ and ‘Katabna w Ma Katabna’), and of course the ‘pop corn song’! (‘Tayr We Frqa Ya Boshar’)

My stay in Beirut has been much more than merely studying the language, I immersed myself in the culture and participated in local life as much as I got the opportunity to, feeling enabled to communicate, shway-shway, then more and more, observing and understanding, then due to the oral practice at ALPS, feeling confident enough to speak. People here are really kind and friendly and there are plenty of opportunities to practise one’s language skills. During my adventures I actually ended up joining the Lebanese national sport – the marathon training! Here I met with lots of nice people, we do activities together besides running four times a week at ungodly hours, inspire each other, and they provide me with endless opportunities to extend and keep polishing my Lebnani skills! Somehow by the end I really gained much more than the language training – soon I will also be a Beirut marathon finisher. In conclusion, I strongly recommend my fellow PhD colleagues to take up on this wonderful opportunity, venture out of your comfort zone and you will find a truly enriching experience, and tons of fun.

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Beirut Marathon 542 Team Rocky