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A guide for learning Arabic
Why study Arabic
Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations (the other five being English, Russian, Chinese, French and Spanish) that is spoken by over 400 million people. It is the official language of 28 countries and carries a rich cultural tradition - over the centuries Arabic has been the language of world leading science and unique philosophy, as well as being the language of Islam and Sufi mysticism.
It is worth noting that the Arabic script is read and understood by an even larger number of people - a somewhat modified Arabic alphabet is also used to write Persian, Urdu, Pashto, Kurdish and several other languages. On top of that, many non-Arabs begin reading the Koran in Arabic since childhood as a part of Islamic religious practice without necessarily understanding the language itself. Thus the total number of people who can read the alphabet is likely to be above a billion.
Spread of Arabic
Which Arabic dialect to study
There are three main types of Arabic that are being used today. Classical Arabic is the language of the Koran that has remained unchanged for centuries. It is characterised by complicated grammar structures and intricate polysemy. Classic Arabic is therefore usually studied by people who want to gain a deeper understanding of Islam and are ready to embark on an academic journey that may last many years.
Colloquial Arabic on the other hand is the living language as spoken by the people today. Due to the wide geographic spread there are many local variants that vary in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation. The main dialects are Gulf, Levantine, Sudanese and North African Arabic. However, the usage of particular words and expressions can identify even the region or city the speaker comes from.
Modern Standard Arabic is the version used in writing, official communication, news agencies, such as Al-Jazeera and the means of communication between two speakers of dissimilar dialects. Keep in mind however, that when you address someone in MSA they may understand you but offer an answer in some obscure dialect and be aware that you will probably be perceived as foreign and weird.
The choice of dialect is obviously dictated by the learners personal goals and intentions. Someone who wants to be closer to her/his partner in an interracial relationship might naturally gravitate towards the dialect of the teacher. A devout Muslim might overlook the fact that classic Arabic is archaic and not practical for everyday purposes and instead focus on the "miracle of the Koran". The undecided reader is advised to begin with learning Modern Standard Arabic. Even if it is not always spoken, this dialect is widely understood. If you are studying in a non-Arab country, a substantial portion of your learning will likely be done as reading and writing with a few opportunities to practice the spoken language whenever possible. Most importantly though, MSA has a standardised grammar. If you enjoy a structured approach to learning, it's a great thing to understand how to build complex sentences out of basic building blocks instead of rote memorising colloquial expressions. You can then use your fundamental knowledge of Arabic to expand into any desired direction, be it a regional vocabulary or the depths of the classic language.
Should I learn the Arabic alphabet?
While many people in the Western world may find the prospect of learning any non-Latin alphabet intimidating, it is in fact a rather fun and rewarding process. Being able to confidently decipher an obscure sequence of "hieroglyphs" that would have seemed mysterious a short while ago can bring a childlike joy into one's heart. Also, if learning a language can be compared to a marathon, mastering the alphabet is a sprint - with relatively little effort you can rightfully pat yourself on the shoulder for having obtained a fundamental skill.
More importantly, Arabic has sounds that are not found in European languages. It is therefore much easier to develop proper pronunciation by reading the words as written in the original instead of looking at an approximation spelled out with Latin characters. Understanding the morphology can speed up the vocabulary acquisition process dramatically - many words in Arabic are based on triliteral consonant roots, three consonants that together with additional phonemes create families of words with similar meaning. An evergreen example is KTB: KaTiB (writer), maKTaB (office), yuKTiBu (he dictates) etc. It is much easier to recognise such patterns in their original script.
Naturally, it is impossible to anticipate all possible circumstances and learning goals. If your mind is set on learning some basic expressions from a phrase book, you don't need an advice. If however you are in doubt, take my word for it and start by learning the alphabet.
The abjad alphabet
Arabic learners toolbox
Here is my checklist for someone who wants to begin learning Arabic and succeed:
- define your learning goal
- understand your preferred learning method
- choose the dialect
- learn the alphabet
- find a native speaker to improve pronunciation
- find word-lists and vocabulary resources
- find a material on basic grammar
- practice at a steady pace and NEVER give up
By now it is probably clear why you should define your goal first - the reason why you are learning Arabic will determine your choice of dialect. You should also understand yourself - are you a self-driven individual who loves working at his/her own pace or do you need a group of peers to interact with and encourage each other? Can you afford a course or should you use free materials online? Do you know any native speakers?
There are countless sources for learning the Arabic alphabet online as well as in bookstores and libraries. Here are my personal favourites:
"The Arabic Alphabet how to read and write it" by Nicholas Awde and Putros Samano is a delightful little book - the authors have a lot of patience and empathy towards the student who wants to make the first step into the unknown world of Arabic.
For those who prefer listening rather than reading I recommend the youtube video lectures by Maha.
An interactive way of learning how to read and pronounce the Arabic alphabet can be found on Memrise. This is a short course that begins with mastering the alphabet and then provides 300 basic words and expressions as well as some examples of grammar structures.
Memrise is also a great place to learn vocabulary with many Arabic courses from basic to advanced. The learning system permits adding your own mnemonic images or choosing among those submitted by other users.
At the time of writing the Duolingo Arabic course is out of beta but not released yet. For those who are affluent and impatient, I can suggest Rosetta stone as an alternative.
Another learning tool that I love is Anki - it's a free mobile app and a classical PC software tool. The interface reminds me of Windows 98, but I've found several lovely wordlists with spoken pronunciation. While Memrise and Duolingo feel more modern and sleek, for some reason the grey and ugly Anki helped me a lot. I may feel as if I'm punishing myself while repeating the difficult words over and over again, but in the end I am very happy with the retention rates.
Once a handful of basic linguistic bricks has been obtained it is only fair to attempt building something with these. I will be grateful to anyone who suggests a comprehensive free resource on Arabic grammar, but for now I am using "A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic" by Karin C. Ryding.
Finally, language must be an interaction. Someone needs to correct your mistakes, challenge your comprehension rate with a stream of spoken words, and give you an opportunity to express yourself. Availability of peer learning groups and language classes depends on your location. But if all else fails, don't forget that you can make friends online. It should not be hard to find someone willing to exchange your English for his/her Arabic over Skype for mutual benefit.