JEDDAH: “Learning Arabic is so difficult!” It is an oft-repeated phrase heard from expats who are trying to master the language.
What is even more daunting, however, is the fact that there are myriad dialects of the language. So just when you think you have learned Arabic in Saudi Arabia, you will discover that the Emirati, Bahraini or Syrian variations are substantially different.
If you resort to learning classical Arabic — the lingua franca of choice in most language schools — you will stand out as a foreigner in no time.
In fact, dialects are key in creating a sense of comfort and intimacy in conversations. Using the dialect of the person with whom you are speaking eases the flow of conversation and builds trust.
That is precisely why 29-year-old American Shannon Elizabeth has garnered a massive fan following on YouTube — her Hijazi Arabic, or Western Saudi Arabian Arabic, is almost flawless.
Entirely self-taught, she surprises her Arab acquaintances, many of whom do not expect an American to speak with such a spot-on accent.
Known regionally as “Al-A’ameeya Al-Amrekeeya ma’a Shannon,” the Internet sensation teaches native Arabic speakers some English, with a particular focus on idioms and slang.
As is perhaps expected for a rising YouTube celebrity, it is marriage proposals galore for Elizabeth.
“I get a fair number of ‘how much is your dowry’ and ‘where does your father live so I can ask for your hand in marriage’ type of questions,” Elizabethtold Arab News.
The rising star grew up in Virginia, in the US, and did her bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been based in Los Angeles and she was working for Saudi media company MBC back in 2014 based in Dubai.
Learning Arabic was a goal of Elizabith's since she moved to the Middle East but it was an unexpected stint in acting that kicked off her love affair with the language.
At MBC, she sought to score a role in a Ramadan comedy show called “WiFi” which tackles issues in Gulf society. The director told her she would need to speak Khaleeji or Hijazi Arabic in order to fit in with the rest of the cast. Elizabeth's soon mastered the language and embellished her spoken Arabic with a littering of Hijazi words and phrases.
“At the time, I had no idea what Hijazi was, but I quickly found out and started searching for an instructor,” she said.
“When my teacher moved away in 2013, my lessons came to a halt but I practiced Arabic with my friends and on social media. I’m lucky to have great people around me.”
To the native ear, Elizabeth’s Arabic is not perfect but, to be fair, it is not her mother tongue.
Difficulty arises when it comes to the pronunciation of certain words but then again, who uses the phrase “tayer men alfar ha’a’” (I am flying with happiness) — from a Saudi song — to express happiness? Only a Hijazi.
Fans flock to her YouTube channel to hear her opinions and learn English slang.
“My YouTube channel started out of my love for education and entertainment,” she said. “I wanted to make a YouTube show that was fun, interesting and educational. The show ‘American Slang’ was born out of my desire to act more and also practice editing and translation.”
She also found time to publish her first book, “Al-A’ameeya Al-Amrekeeya” (American slang) which was published by the Dubai-based Madarek Publishing House, and maintains her Arabic blog, Lahjaty.
“I had been getting a lot of questions about the same phrases over and over so I realized that it would be useful to create a sort of database of information that people could not get anywhere else,” she said.
Elizabeth also created an educational app, Al-A’ameeya Al-Amrekeeya, that is primarily in Arabic and provides more than 1,000 English expressions translated into Arabic.
“We are so humbled and grateful for the response to our app,” she said. “It was ranked second in the top paid apps for Saudi Arabia during its release week and with the update coming out, we hope it will continue to do even better.”
She also revealed plans for future digital ventures.
“We are working on a framework that will allow English learners to test their slang and get answers to their questions more quickly than by booking lessons with me on our website, which is currently the default route for people who need more personalized help,” she said.
“Honestly, when I came to Dubai seven years ago, I knew nothing about the Gulf or Arabic language, culture and traditions,” she said. “I will say that I am grateful to know amazing people from many different countries.”