We met with Neil Russell, a PG Arabic alumni from Scotland who gained a MSc in Arab World Studies at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, University of Edinburgh.  In an interview with Neil, we asked the following questions:



  • Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

My name is Neil Russell, I’m a third-year PhD student from Scotland, based in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

  • How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

I have been studying Arabic since 2013, when I started the two-year MSc in Arab World Studies at the university. After the completion of the course I was able to read Modern Standard Arabic to an advanced level, and also speak the Egyptian dialect to a high standard as well.

  • What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

My interest in the Middle East began during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, after which I immersed myself in the history and contemporary politics of the region. For a number of years thereafter I thought that I might want to do a PhD at some stage, and felt that if I was to specialise in the Arab world, then learning Arabic would be essential. Whilst doing an MSc in Comparative Government at Oxford University I tried to learn Arabic in my spare-time, but I soon realised that this would be insufficient if I wanted to use Arabic for doctoral research. Subsequently, I was lucky enough to be awarded an ESRC scholarship for intensive Arabic study followed by PhD at Edinburgh.  

  • Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

Having had little interest in languages at school, learning Arabic was my first real experience of learning a second language. One of the most difficult things I found with learning Arabic initially was feeling stupid, even when I was trying my best. Having studied politics at postgraduate level previously, I was quite confident in a tutorial-scenario and felt able to engage in a wide range of discursive topics related to the region. However, placed in a language-learning environment this confidence was completely turned on its head, and it was quite difficult at first feeling inferior to my peers. The way I got around this was to first of all realise that in language attainment, everyone has their own learning curve. Secondly, I tried to observe the techniques that more advanced language learners used, and then incorporated them into my own study schedule.

  • What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

With my Arabic language skills I intend to continue on an academic career path. In my current research I rely mostly on text-based sources, so in the future I would like to pursue research that involves interviews in Arabic.  I think the two most important things to become an excellent student of Arabic are perseverance and dedication. As a very complex and diverse language, there have been times when I have felt dismayed about my progress, and that I will never reach fluency. However, I came to realise that the learning curve in language-attainment can be steeper at different stages, but it is all part of the process of learning. In my experience my biggest learning gains have come from maintaining a dedicated schedule that covers different aspects of language-learning. For example, having a particular method of vocabulary learning that is strictly adhered to on a daily basis. Or arranging weekly meet-ups with native speakers for dialect practice that I stick to, regardless of whether I felt like speaking Arabic on a given day.

  • What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

For anyone interested in learning Arabic I would recommend being open to the diversity of the language, its written forms and various dialects, and viewing this as a source of richness rather than a reason to steer towards a more unified language. For example, in the beginning, I viewed learning Arabic instrumentally, as a way to read newspapers and to speak to people. Since commencing my studies, however, my interests have widened far beyond what was initially a rather narrow politically-minded interest in the language. I have since developed a keen interest in the cinema of different countries and their specific dialects. Or literature, and identifying when writers incorporate colloquialisms into their MSA-writing. Therefore something which was initially terrifying to me – essentially trying to learn two languages concurrently, the written-form and the dialect – has broadened my interests and opened me up to different aspects of Arab culture that I might not previously have considered a great deal.

“My Journey to Arabic” is a blog to capture learners’ stories and their fascinating journeys towards mastering the Arabic language and culture.