Mastering Arabic

by Jane Wightwick & Mahmoud Gaafarimgres-1
Hippocrene, 1990 & 2004
370 pages & 2 CDs, paperback
ISBN 978-0781810425

The Wightwick & Gaafar universe encompasses at least three decades, several publishers, and many editions (and some other languages). Note that this was first published in 1990, and the symbols in the book connecting text with audio tracks are actually little cassettes, and while on the CD the word ‘recording’ is used, in the book the word ‘tape’ is. Gaafar does the English narration and some of the Arabic. There are a number of voices; when plural nouns are being demonstrated, a chorus of voices recites them, a nice detail that may help the words stick in the memory.

I am guessing that the recordings have been updated for the newer editions but I do not know for sure.

The book is lots of fun: cartoons, various fonts, crosswords, etc.

Mastering Arabic has been updated since 1990 & 2004. There is now

Mastering Arabic 1 , with 2CDs, Hippocrene, 2008, ISBN 978-0781812382
Mastering Arabic 2, with 2 CDs, Hippocrene, 2010, ISBN 978-0781812542
and the book only ( covering 1 & 2? I don’t know) with a different cover and ISBN:
Mastering Arabic, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, ISBN 0333490371
plus another one with an earlier date and another ISBN:
Mastering Arabic, Palgrave MacMillan, 1990, 978-0333490372
and the workbook Mastering Arabic 1: Practice for Beginners, Hippocrene, 2011, ISBN 978-0781812696

Which gives me a headache. I’d like to know more about what is what.


Get Talking Arabic

by Jane Wightwick & Mahmoud Gaafar51+lS-Um6JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
Hodder Education, 2012
$25, CD & booklet
Rating: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

This is a ten day course for folks going on a short Middle East jaunt.  You can download a free coursebook at which is useful and nicely expands on the material in the booklet which comes with the CD. It’s a Teach Yourself product, which puts it in direct competition with another Teach Yourself offering, by Jack Smart and Frances Altorfer, who produced Complete Arabic. Which I did not particularly like.

So here, one interesting thing is that the listener is asked not just to parrot back words and phrases, but to actually think a bit and therefore do a tiny bit of analysis. This is going to help info stick. Another is that in places, two choices for a bit of vocabulary are given, in order to make the course useful no matter where in the Arabic speaking world you are going.

I am a fan of Jane Wightwick, as briefly expounded on in the review of the Michel Thomas method. The English here is spoken by a woman, and the hand of Wightwick in the script is obvious: it’s her conversational style. I actually have a conspiracy theory: I think that the voice belongs to Wightwick even though it is higher and a little more sing-song than Wightwick’s voice on Michel Thomas. And Imma look into that because that’s the kind of thing I like to do.

Based on original conversations from Teach Yourself Arabic Conversation and Speak Arabic with Confidence.


Edited by Bassam Frangieh
Recorded by Hayat Alkhateeb, Evan Haning & Firas Raad
Educational Services, 1994, Revised and expanded edition41BHS5EPQML._SY300_
Booklet & 2CDs
ISBN 978-0910542708
Rating: ✭ ✭ ✭

For the tourist: General Expressions, Numbers, Personal Needs, Communications, Transportation… Somewhat outdated since you will not need Arabic in the airport, etc but we get a number of airport phrases; maybe in 1994 but not now. The booklet lets you follow along with the CDs in Arabic (unvowelled), English, and transliterated Arabic.

On the CDs the voices are pleasant, both Hayat Alkhateeb and Evan Haning being professional broadcasters. Some of the phrases are needlessly long: “Let me introduce Mr Wahid Ash-Shami to you” when maybe “This is Wahid” might be a little less intimidating. I think this is out of print. It doesn’t come up on a search at the MacMillan Education page (parent company of ES) and amazon has only the French/Arabic version on cassettes.

I wouldn’t want this as main tool on a trip, but I don’t mind playing it in the background while I do something else, just in case I soak up something by osmosis.

bfBassam Frangieh  بسام فرنجيه is a scholar of contemporary Arabic literature and culture.  He is department chair of Modern Languages and Literatures at Claremont McKenna College in California.

In-Flight Arabic

author unknown41IB6dTBYAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
Living Language, 2001
CD & booklet, $13.95
ISBN 978-0609810644
Rating: ✭ ✭

Uh… no. A 60 minute CD which goes over too much and some of it useless for its intended audience (khawajias on their way to the Middle East for the first time). “Where are international departures?” Please believe me when I tell you that if you are in an airport big enough to have international departures there are  going to be a) lots of signs with the symbol for departures and b) lots of customs and check-in people who speak english. The booklet that comes with the CD (Boarding pass with the edition I looked at; “eticket” with an updated one) is also available online.

Embed from Getty Images

Arabic Guaranteed

by Ghazi Abuhakema61SfpQltvXL._SY300_
Berlitz, 2007
4 CDs, $19.95
ISBN 978-9812681836
Rating: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

Surprise! A very good audio course. Sane instruction on how to pronounce the non-english sounds which mention what your tongue should be doing, or supply easily understood similes: “sounds like gargling”.  Cultural notes. The female English voice is a smooth professional one—as if she were Betty Crocker’s younger sister.

There are free downloads of audioscripts for each CD at  This is an excerpt from the script for CD 1, Lesson 1:

“To pronounce this sound, you need to constrict your throat muscles, just like for the sound ح h But the difference between the two is that the ع aa is voiced, which means you make a deep throaty sound. If you put your hand on your throat while saying this sound, you should feel your muscles contracting. Listen first: ع ع aa aa  Now, listen and repeat: ع ع ع aa aa aa  Now, let’s practice this sound in some words: ﻋﺮﺑﻲ aarabi  “Ali” (a male’s name) Repeat: ﻋﻠﻲ aali ﻋﻠﻲ aali ﻣﻊ maa “with” Repeat: ﻣﻊ maa ﻣﻊ  maa The next sound is غ…”

Abuhakema is working on an MSA textbook to be published in 2014; the really nice thought put into this project makes me want to see whatever else he does. Really nice work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGhazi Abuhakema earned his Ph.D in applied linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2014 he is teaching at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Conversational Arabic

by Pimsleur51V89YPGG6L._SY300_
Pimsleur, 2003
8 CDs, $49.95
ISBN 9780743550482
OCLC 64039795
Rating: ✭ ✭ 

If you aren’t starting from zero you’ll go mad with boredom. Sixteen lessons with too much English imperative, that is to say, some baritone telling you what to do or what to say next. Rumour has it the accents and lingo are Syrian.

Complete Arabic

by Jack Smart & Frances Altorfercropped
McGraw Hill, 2001
460 pages, 2 CDs, $17.95, paperback
ISBN 978-0071627757
Rating: ✭ ✭ ✭ 

Teach Yourself is a force of nature in the language self-study world, having been around since 1938. The book covers used to be yellow and blue. There are a bewildering number of different editions, for Arabic, some with different covers (the cover with the blue ibreekold ty relates to Gulf Arabic). A structured approach which starts with greetings, where folks are from, etc., yet does seem to jump around later. Attention given to the feminine versions of verbs and pronouns and adjectives. The book has no vowel markings, which is a short coming. Learners starting from zero need the vowels marked so as to take a stab at pronunciation. There’s transliteration all the way through, which should have be omitted in at least the second half of the book where the learner better be reading what they are learning. The typeface used for the Arabic is nice and clear. On the CDs, British accents. Musical interludes separate units and I don’t like that. Time wasting. The oral vocabulary lists seem backwards to me: the English comes second but is emphasized by its speaker as if it’s first, with the result that the Arabic word which sounds as if it’s paired with the English is actually not. For me, the book is more valuable than the CDs.

Frances Altorfer was born in England and raised in Kenya. Swahili is her second language. She lived for a while in Oman.

Jack Smart was born in Scotland in 1939. He has lectured in several places, including with the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge.

Michel Thomas speaks Arabic (Advanced)

by Jane Wightwick & Mahmoud Gaafarmichel-thomas-method-speak-arabic-advanced
McGraw Hill, 2008
5 CDs, $13.00
ISBN 9780071604352
OCLC 262972195
Rating: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 

I once went along with a friend who was taking her puppy to obedience class. The only time I’ve ever been to such a lesson. There were scads of unruly puppies galumphing all over the place, plus their masters. When the woman conducting the class started to do her thing, everybody, on four legs or two, sat up and took notice. She became the alpha dog of the pack and all assembled.

I get a bit of that same feeling about Jane Wightwick. For me, she is an alpha. The Michel Thomas method is purely conversational. Nothing whatsoever to read or memorize. Just five CDs of Wightwick and Gafaar leading two real students through simple sentences and conversations, and the topics of the conversations are stuff you can use. You get to hear the mistakes the students make. Wightwick has a carefully thought out progression the lessons go through, but within that are unscripted moments when she corrects a student or goes off on a little tangent. It is extremely satisfying when she chuckles. You can pay attention and chit-chat along with them or let them all ramble on in the background while you do something else. (I always hope I’m going to pick up something by osmosis.) There’s lots of attention given to the female version of verbs and pronouns, something sometimes lacking in other programs where women don’t seem to exist.

I jumped in with the advanced level. Beginner and intermediate versions are also available. If you want to overachieve you can always pause the CD, look up an interesting word on Google Translate or whatever and write it down in Arabic.

There are newer, expanded versions available, Total replaces the Foundation course and Perfect replaces the Advanced course. They include “visual tuition for PC or Mac”, and seem to have more CDs. I hope it’s still Jane Wightwick holding the leash.

The new editions must be the reason this is so inexpensive. Much bang for your buck.