Having studied linguistics before my immersion experience I definitely feel confident that I’m really getting the biggest bang for my buck. Syntax, Phonology, and Pragmatics play a vital role in my describing and processing of Arabic and perhaps more notably second language acquisition has equipped me with the knowledge of the proven theories in successful language acquisition. Still now there is an obstacle that most if not all Arabic students can identify with: Dialects.
When someone takes it upon themselves to learn a new language the goal is usually communicative competence at some capacity, even if the motives are different. Learners of Arabic and other languages that have varying dialects that sometimes aren’t mutually intelligible are often frustrated by the idea that what’s taught in the classroom isn’t used in the streets and some people even elect to skip Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and learn the Dialect straight from the chute. Learning a language in an immersive experience is extremely effective but Arabic is a special case.
Arabic media is always written and spoken in MSA. So while a few dialects aren’t mutually intelligible, most if not all of the Middle East will understand MSA. Also it would be easier to go from MSA to a dialect because the dialects are generally more efficient and therefore simpler than Standard Arabic. Everything from sentence structure, to pronunciation, and even verb conjugations would be easy to pick up in a dialect once Standard Arabic is acquired. That said, it would inherently follow that going into MSA from a dialect would complicate the language already acquired. Furthermore, not all dialects are mutually intelligible and some straddle a fine, gray line from being their own language but even this community of speakers will be able to understand standard Arabic. While discussing the topic of Dialects in the classroom with my Arabic Professor, Mahmoud Shafie, he was emphatic that the Dialect should be learned outside the classroom. (He also happens to be a linguist and a leading Arabic Teacher here in Jordan! Lucky me!)
To play the devil’s advocate, I took a conversational class two years ago and it was definitely helpful to formally address some of the idioms and alternations that might occur in real speech. I frequently find myself wishing I had brought the textbook with me. However, it should be noted that the topics discussed in my conversation class were only building on vocabulary and structures that I had already learned in 4 semesters of Standard Arabic.
Language learning helpful hint!! Whenever we learn a new grammar rule, my professor illustrates it with a memorable proverb (usually one where we have a similar meaning in English) and highlights the rule illustrated. Memorizing proverbs is much easier (and much more fun) than memorizing rules!!