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How to Learn Arabic

About the Arabic Language
Arabic is the native language of over 280 million people and is an official language in 25 countries from Iraq in the Middle East to Morocco in Africa. It is a Semitic language along with Hebrew and Aramaic.

Arabic is classified by the Foreign Service Institute as one of the five most difficult languages for native English speakers along with Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. But YOU will prove them wrong.

Arabic Alphabet
The first thing you should start working on is learning the Arabic Alphabet.

Check out our free Arabic Alphabet Textbook.

Read the Arabic Alphabet Textbook for details, but in brief some of the important characteristics of the Arabic Script are:
  1. Written from right to left
  2. Not all letters connect to the left
  3. Short vowels are generally not written (Except in the Qur'an and children's books)
  4. No upper/lowercase letters. However, the way a letter is written changes if it is connected to the left, right or both sides, or if it is written alone (so 4 possible shapes).

Future lessons will assume you have already worked through the Arabic Alphabet Textbook

Spectrum of dialects
The Arabic language is comprised of several different "Arabics".
  • Classical Arabic - This is the language used in the Qur'an which was compiled shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632.

  • Modern Standard Arabic - Modern Standard Arabic, often abbreviated as MSA and sometimes referred to as "Literary Arabic" or Fusha, is the Arabic currently taught in schools and used in newspapers and official broadcasts. Its grammar is slightly simplified compared with Classical Arabic and the vocabulary used is somewhat different.

  • Colloquial Arabic - Colloquial or "spoken" Arabic is the set of dialects that native Arabic speakers actually use to communicate with each other locally. The vocabulary and exact pronunciation will differ from MSA and in general the grammar will be simpler.

Differences between dialects - What are the differences between the various Arabics? The main three are grammar, pronunciation and word choice.
  • 1)Grammar - Classical Arabic has the most complex grammar, MSA is a little simpler and the local dialects are often completely missing some of the more complex elements of Classical Arabic. Of course each local dialect is different in how this is done.

  • 2) Pronunciation - Some letters are pronounced differently in different dialects. One example is the letter Jiim ج which is usually pronounced as a soft "j" but is pronounced as a hard "G" in Egyptian Arabic.

    Another example is the letter qaaf ق which is pronounced completely differently in many dialects. In Fusha/MSA it is pronounced like a "q" coming from the back of the throat. In Gulf countries it is pronounced as a "G". In Levantine Arabic it is pronounced as a glottal stop (which some beginners may find difficult to pick out).

    In addition, sometimes the short vowels used in a word are changed (an 'a' is ofter replaced with an 'i' in Egyptian and Levantine Arabic).

  • 3) Word Choice - Some commonly used words like "yesterday" or "tomorrow" might be different between MSA and the local dialect. If you use the MSA word, people will probably understand what you mean although it may not be the word that they would use. This is similar to how an American would say "truck" but an English person would say "lorry".
There are also more subtle differences such as the rhythm of speech. Think of the difference in the rhythm of French versus Italian even though they are both Romance languages.

Spectrum of Formality - An important thing to keep in mind is that the different dialects form a spectrum. A man may speak the local dialect in the morning to his family and a cab driver, go to work and speak MSA and then go to the mosque where he will recite Classical Arabic. Additionally a region between two major dialects (Say Egyptian and Levantine) is likely to speak a dialect that shares elements of those two. The phenomenon of different Arabics coexisting side-by-side but being used in different contexts is know as diglossia.
  • Classical Arabic - The language used in the Qur'an and classical poetry. Speaking this would be similar to speaking like a Shakespearean actor in English.

  • Fusha/MSA - This is considered "good" Arabic. It is spoken in professional settings and on television. If you want to hear good Fusha, listen to BBC Arabic or Al-Jazeera.

  • Regional Dialects - These are the dialects that would be spoken within a family or between friends. It is also what you would use to talk to people on the street (unless you want to appear more professional). Native speakers without much education, or those who have been educated in another language, such as English for French, may only know their own regional dialect (or several regional dialects) and may not feel comfortable with MSA.
Regional Dialects - As one would expect, dialects next to each other tend to be more similar than dialects thousands of miles away. That said, a single country often has multiple dialects. Since the dialects form a spectrum, dividing them is somewhat arbitrary but a common division is:
  • Egyptian Arabic - Egypt is a major producer of TV shows and movies, which means that other Arabic speaking countries have grown up listing to this dialect and therefore can understand it. This has made the Egyptian dialect something of a "standard" dialect to learn. This dialect is mainly spoken along the Nile river, which includes the densely populated city of Cairo. Therefore, while population-wise most Egyptians speaks this dialect, geographically-speaking, many parts of the country do not .

  • Levantine Arabic - Spoken in Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon. This dialect has been gaining ground recently due to Lebanese/Syrian TV shows as well as popular Turkish sitcoms which are being dubbed into the Levantine dialect and watched all over the Arabic speaking world.

  • Peninsular Arabic - Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar make up this group. These countries form the homeland of Classical Arabic but the dialects found here are as different as those found elsewhere.

  • North African - Countries West of Egypt and along the Mediterranean (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) fall into this group. There can be substantial differences between the countries. This group of dialects is often considered the most different and therefore the most difficult to understand by speakers of other dialects due to the influence of other languages, such as French, Spanish and Berber, in this region.
Word Root System
One of the most interesting aspects of Arabic is the Word Root System that it shares with other Semitic languages. We will cover this concept in detail in later lessons but here is a quick overview. Don't worry if it doesn't quite make sense yet.
Arabic words have roots of 3 or 4 letters. A given root has a general meaning like "food" or "education". There are also "patterns" that can be applied to the root letters to create actual words. For example, the 3 root letters "d r s" have the general meaning of "education" and two of the words with that root are "madrasa (school) and "mudarris" (teacher). As you can see, they have the same root letters in the same order but there can be different letters in between the root letters. Another example is the root "k t b" which has the general meaning of "writing". Two words with this root are "kitaab" (book) and "maktaba" (bookstore, library). Once again notice that the 3 root letters appear in the same order but with different letters in between.

Let's take another look at the words for school and library:
* madrasa (root is d, r, s)
* maktaba (root is k, t, b)

If we take these two words and replace the root letters with an underscore we realize that they have the same pattern "ma__a_a". This is a pattern that is used for a place. Using this knowledge, if you came across a word you didn't know that started with "ma" and had the same root as a word you already knew like "food" you could maybe guess that it is the word for restaurant.

Note: There are a tiny number of words that have either no root or a 5-letter root.

How to learn Arabic
This advice is targeted at the motivated self-learner but it also applies to those studying in a more formal academic environment.

Learn Fusha/MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) and one dialect - You need to learn Fusha for several reasons:
  1. Universal Dialect - Some dialects are very hard to understand for people who haven't had exposure or explicit training. Fusha will be understood by most educated native Arabic speakers no matter what the country.
  2. Reading and Writing - The local dialects are mostly a spoken phenomenon. When people write (especially newspapers, novels and official government communications) it will be in Fusha and not in a local dialect.
  3. Esteem - Many native speakers do not consider the local dialects to be real Arabic, and may even look down on the dialect that they speak.
But you should also learn a dialect so that you can go abroad and talk with native speakers. Which dialect to learn is really a personal choice. Learn about the different countries and pick one you would most like to visit or study abroad in. Then find some resources (books, audio lessons, conversation with native speakers) to pick up at least the basics of the dialect. If you only know Fusha, people will probably understand what you want to say but you will not be able to understand what people around you are saying to each other in the local dialect.

Study abroad as soon as possible - This is good advice for learning any language. But for Arabic, since what is usually taught (Fusha/MSA) is not what is actually spoken is the streets, you should study in a county whose dialect you want to pick up.

Find a conversation partner or study group - Having a regularly scheduled meeting is a good way to stay motivated. CraigsList.com is a good way to find conversation partners and Meetup.com is a good way to find a study group.

Look for patterns - As mentioned above, Arabic makes heavy use of root letters and patterns. Get used to looking at a new word and checking if it has the same root letters or pattern as other words you know. This can help you make connections and makes it easier to learn new words. For example knowing that both Green and Vegetable have the same root letters will help you remember both words. And knowing that words for occupations often start with "mu" will make it easier to remember those words as well.

Explore different resources - Different people learn best with different approaches. And what might be motivating for you when you start learning Arabic might not be the best once you've picked up the basics. If you feel bored or frustrated with whatever material you're using, try something different.

Don't give up!!! - Arabic is not an easy language so don't get frustrated if you sometime feel lost or stuck. Take a couple days off and try something different when you start again.