Nancy Coffin

Senior Lecturer
Director of the Arabic Language Program
Office Phone
101B Jones Hall


  • Arabic-language teaching
  • Colloquial Arabic
  • Modern Arabic literature

I first became interested in the Arabic language as a high school exchange student living with a Muslim host family in Indonesia. Fascinated by the elegance of Arabic calligraphy, I was convinced that if I could only learn to read those sinuous, flowing lines, I would then understand the reasons for the differences between my host family and myself. After a year in Indonesia, I returned to the United States and enrolled in Harvard-Radcliffe College. My undergraduate concentration in Arabic language and in classical Arabic and Islamic history was augmented by a junior year abroad at the American University in Cairo, which served to whet my appetite for the study of the peoples and cultures of the modern Arab world.

I continued on to graduate school at Columbia University, where earning a Ph.D. in Arabic literature enabled me to continue studying the Arabic language in the most enjoyable way imaginable. As a graduate student, I was anxious to take advantage of every possible opportunity for travel abroad: I have been fortunate to be able to live and study in Egypt and Jordan, as well as having visited Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Israel and the Occupied Territories. Graduate studies at Columbia also served to arouse my interest in contemporary literary theory and criticism. My doctoral dissertation examined Palestinian novels and resistance narratives written in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and provided me a forum in which to enter into a dialogue with recent writings in postcolonial theory. At the same time, the dissertation proposed fresh readings of a number of canonical Palestinian texts in light of influential postcolonial, feminist and Marxist theorists including, among others, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Georg Lukács, and Ghālib Halasā.

Here at Princeton, I teach Elementary and Intermediate Arabic, as well as Colloquial Levantine Arabic. I believe that learning Arabic can and should be fun: while we all know that studying a language inevitably requires a certain amount of hard work and memorization, it ought to be possible to make the whole process as pleasant as possible. Hence, I welcome any suggestions about how to make the experience of learning Arabic more enjoyable.

Elementary and Intermediate Arabic courses at Princeton use the al-Kitaab textbooks, which offer a communicative, proficiency-oriented approach to teaching Modern Standard Arabic. The al-Kitaab textbooks seek to integrate the various language skills of reading, listening, speaking, writing and culture; these books are also the most widely-used Arabic teaching materials in the United States, which makes it easier for students to supplement their Princeton language studies during the summer at other institutions.

In the Colloquial Levantine Arabic course, students who have already completed at least one year of Modern Standard Arabic master strategies for adapting the classical written language to the needs of everyday vernacular speech. At the same time, the course uses their Arabic language skills as a means of studying popular culture. Since spoken dialects differ widely throughout the Arab world, this course concentrates on the vernacular commonly used throughout the Greater Syrian region (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan).