Okay… Do you want the good news or the bad news first? I can’t decide either. So let’s just alternate between the two. There. Everyone’s happy!
Arabic is Grammatically Similar to European Languages… Kinda
Arabic does not belong to the European language family, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it might. Now, I’m going to assume you have all studied at least one European language in the past, be it a Romance language, Germanic or Slavic. (And if your first attempt at learning a foreign language is Arabic, may God help you! … Oh wait, I’m supposed to be making the point that Arabic is easy here. Sorry.)
When you study Arabic, you’ll come across a lot of familiar concepts that you’ve seen while studying European languages: gender (masculine and feminine), cases (nominative, accusative, genitive), verb conjugations for various persons (I, you, he, she, etc.), the subjunctive mood, active and passive participles, just to name a few.
The similarities are relative of course, but if you were to compare Arabic to East Asian languages, what with their tones, honorifics, sentence final particles, and reverse word order, you’d gain a new appreciation for how similar and easy Arabic really is.
Some of the similarities are quite remarkable, though still coincidental. Doesn’t the definite article الـ (al- / il-) remind you of the definite article in Romance languages (French le, Spanish el, Italian il)? In Spanish and Italian, the feminine is regularly formed by adding -a, as is the case in Arabic with ـة (-a).
Use your experience from your previous language learning ventures to help you make sense of Arabic grammar. Drawing comparisons can make everything seem more familiar and less daunting.
But without a common ancestry, Arabic and English share virtually no related vocabulary. The exception is words which are between the two languages. English has borrowed a few Arabic words, such as alcohol (from الكحول al-kuHuul) and safari (from سفر safar journey). Both Modern Standard Arabic and regional dialects continue to borrow words from English or other European languages: تليفون teliifoon, إنترنت ʔinternet, شيبسي shibsi (potato chips).
You’ll need to find creative ways to remember new vocabulary items through mnemonics. That said, Arabic does have some built-in devices to help you build up your vocabulary more easily. And they’re radical!
Roots are Radical!
Or radicals. If you’ve studied Arabic for long, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re new to the language, and the concept of roots and radicals baffles you, never fear! I will be doing a full blog post on these sooner than later.
For now, suffice it to say that roots are generally three consonants (‘radicals’) from which Arabic words can be built:ك ت ب (k-t-b) embodies the concept of writing. That is, words built with it have something to do with writing.
- كتب (kataba) – to write
- كتاب (kitaab) – book
- مكتب (maktab) – office
- مكتبة (maktaba) – bookstore, library
It is a brilliant system and can help learners in two ways. Noticing the root in a new word will help you memorize it by making a logical connection to the concept it embodies and other words with the same root you already know. Likewise, this will help you guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word in context.
At least that’s what it looks like in the beginning. Arabic script is certainly beautiful, and Arabic calligraphy is a highly appreciated art. Still, learning a new alphabet is a definite challenge. It is time consuming and takes away time from learning grammar, vocabulary, and building fluency. This all means that it will take a newbie more time to get off the ground in the language. So, it’s important to set small, manageable goals in your language learning in order to keep yourself motivated and on track.
To make matters more complicated, short vowels are normally not written in Arabic. Likewise, double (geminate) consonants are not marked. Having a knowledge of Arabic grammar and word patterns will help readers determine what the “missing” vowels are and which consonants are doubled. A و could represent either w or ww followed by a, i, or u, or even uu or aw. (Did I miss any?) Yikes!It is up for debate whether it’s better to tackle a language with an unfamiliar script by learning the writing system from the beginning, or to put it off while using a system of phonetic transliteration, that is, using a writing system based on the Latin alphabet to show pronunciation. I personally have some strong feelings about this topic, which I will share in a later post.
Arabic is Everywhere
With over 400 million speakers, Arabic is the fifth most common language in the world. It is the official language of 22 countries and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. This all makes Arabic a very useful and important language.
And for you, as a learner, this is a great advantage. Resources to practice Arabic and opportunities to use Arabic are plentiful. There are all kinds of websites dedicated to teaching Arabic and many others meant for native speakers of Arabic but which provide excellent learning materials for intermediate and advanced learners. I’ll be recommending my favorite web resources in future posts.And the same is true of books. As the interest in Arabic grows, so does the number of quality learning materials available. That’s been my inspiration in producing materials for Lingualism: to fill the gap in market for quality learning materials for Arabic learners, especially for intermediate learners and those who are interested in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic and other dialects.
Arabs are everywhere, too. With the 400 million of them, there are likely a few in your community. Don’t be shy. Generally known for their hospitality and warmth, they’ll surely be flattered you’re learning their language and are showing a curiosity for Arab culture. Worst case, you get a couple minutes of practice talking to a native speaker. And who knows, you may make a new friend!
Whenever you set about to learn a new language, you will have to deal with unfamiliar phonemes (sounds) that you’ll have to learn. This might be rolling your R’s in Spanish, or rounding your lips and positioning your tongue just right to produce the German ü.
When it comes to Arabic, we’re mostly off the hook for vowels. There aren’t many different vowel sounds in Arabic, and they’re mostly very similar to those we have in English.
But the consonants. Oh my God, the consonants. Okay, most of them are easy enough, virtually identical to sounds used in English. But there is a series of more challenging sounds that require some fancy work toward the back of your mouth and throat and/or with tongue positioning. The culprits are:
ح خ ص ض ط ظ ع غ ق
The first time I ever sat down to learn Arabic, I actually got a sore throat. A Libyan friend was trying to help me practice making ق correctly. Maybe I pulled my “glottis muscle”–is that a thing?– Anyhow, I actually physically hurt myself… a little. I remember thinking, “This is ridiculous. This language is impossible.” And I didn’t have the courage to approach Arabic for another several years. Don’t let my anecdote scare you off though, newbies. Whatever seems impossible now, I assure you, is not. With patience and practice, whatever you’re studying will become second nature and seem easy in retrospect.
Do keep in mind that pronunciation is important, but unfortunately often undervalued by learners. Being lazy and thinking, “Well, ق q just sounds enough like ك k to me. I’ll just say k.” is a mistake. These are two separate phonemes and Arabic, which means they sound like two completely different sounds to native speakers’ ears. You’ll be misunderstood. Also, the longer you do something wrong, the more fossilized (harder to change later) it becomes. Take the time to get it right.
Arabic is Affordable
I don’t know if all languages were created equal, but they certainly aren’t all equally priced when it comes to instruction from native speakers.
Of course, this has to do with the local cost of living and, correspondingly, local wages. Obviously, spending a year studying in, say, Germany or Japan is going to cost you more than a year (or even two!) in Egypt or Morocco.And you can still take advantage of this affordability without leaving home, thanks to Skype tutoring. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it. You can get in your much-needed speaking and listening practice by practicing with a native speaker, and without even having to leave the house. The convenience factor makes it easier to find the time and stick with it long term.
Rates will vary depending on a teacher’s qualifications and experience, but tend to be around $10 an hour. You can sometimes find even cheaper hourly rates by buying long-term packages or subscriptions. You can either ask that your teacher guide you in your learning, planning lessons and providing materials for study. Or you can specify that you are studying on your own and just need speaking practice.
I have personally used three websites for Skype lessons in the past, which I would happily recommend:
I hate to end this post with more bad news… and this one’s a kicker. But here it goes: There is not one Arabic language. There are many. The reason we tend to think of all the varieties of Arabic as one language are rooted in politics, religion, and cultural identity. From a linguistic standpoint, some dialects of Arabic should be considered separate languages, as they are mutually unintelligible, and differ from each other as much as French and Spanish do from each other.
Belgians like to see themselves as culturally distinct from the Dutch, so in Belgium they speak Flemish, and not Dutch. (They’re actually the same language, no more different than British English is from American English.) For that matter, (and forgive me, my Dutch friends), Dutch is no more different from Hochdeutsch (standard German) than some dialects of German are. On the other hand, Cantonese is considered a dialect of Chinese. But if southeastern China were a separate country, surely Cantonese would be considered a separate language. After all, no one from Beijing could understand a word of it.Now, in China the standard language, used on TV and in writing, is Mandarin, the dialect spoken in the capital. Chinese children all over China, whatever their mother “dialect” may be, learn Mandarin at school.
The difference between Mandarin (standard Chinese) and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is that Mandarin is the native dialect of hundreds of millions of people. MSA is the mother language of no one. That’s right. Every Arab speaks his or her native dialect first and foremost, and learns MSA at school. MSA differs from spoken dialects, as it is based on the variety of Arabic used in the Quran, 1600 years ago. I’m going to draw a comparison, which might be a bit controversial, but I believe it’s spot-on and helps in understanding the linguistic situation in the Arab world:
Imagine that the people of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Romania had a weaker sense of national identity and preferred to think of themselves first and foremost as Latins, descendants of the Roman empire. Imagine they viewed Portuguese, Spanish, and so on, as dialects of Latin, rather individual languages. These dialects are corruptions of the real and pure language, Latin, and are therefore unworthy of being written or used for anything important. Latin is taught at schools. All newspapers, all books, all writing is done in Latin. Now, imagine studying Latin and then going to Spain and trying to communicate with the locals in Latin.
That is, more or less, the situation in the Arab world today. The point I’m trying to make is that the variety that exists in Arabic is often downplayed. Modern Standard Arabic has long been what learners of Arabic focus on, mainly because that’s what schools and universities have been teaching. Attitudes are slowly changing, and students are learning the value of studying the spoken language, the dialects. It really depends on your goals and reasons for studying Arabic. If you want to read the Quran, focus on Classical Arabic. If you are mainly interested in reading literature and news, focus on Modern Standard Arabic. If you want to talk to people, learn the language they actually use.