Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations and is spoken by more than 400 million people. You might be interested in learning Arabic or at least learning about it, but whenever you want to start, you hear discouraging expressions from other students learning Arabic (or from Arabic speakers themselves).


Here are some points which will help clarify how hard, or easy, is it to learn Arabic and how best to learn it:



1) What’s your first language (L1)?


Just as it is easier for a Portuguese speaker to learn Spanish than it is for a Japanese speaker to learn Spanish, the same is true for Arabic. It will be a lot easier for you if you already speak a related language as your first language (L1).


Arabic comes from a family called the Semitic languages which includes other languages like Hebrew, Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia), Syriac Aramaic, and Maltese (which has vocabulary from Semitic, Sicilian, Italian and English origins). This means these languages are like cousins. So if you already speak one language, then the other is quite similar.


The same is somewhat true for speakers of Turkish, Persian and Urdu (and to a lesser extent Hindustani); although these languages aren’t Semitic, they share a lot of history with Arabic and have influenced each other over the centuries. Today these languages share many words in common.


Some of the languages still use a similar writing system, like Persian and Urdu. The Ottoman Turkish shared many of the words of Arabic origin until 1928, but Modern Turkish dropped them and started using a modified Latin script.



2) Are you currently learning a related language (L2)?


Arabic will make a lot more sense to you if you are currently learning, for example, Hebrew or Maltese, even if you are not yet fluent in them. The same goes for students who are learning, for example, German and decide to take up Dutch; or learners of Spanish, who want to learn Portuguese too.



3) Do you have (regular) access to an Arabic speaker or teacher?


As with learning any language, you can improve your level through self-study, especially when it comes to grammar such as verb conjugation and tenses, or building up your vocabulary.


However, learning Arabic, like learning other new languages makes more sense and becomes less frustrating when you get to practice with a native. By doing so, you can see how he or she uses daily expressions such as greetings or goodbyes, in addition to interjections, idiomatic language and jokes which might be trickier to learn on your own.


Your Arabic teacher will introduce you to the language by: explaining the main differences relative to your L1, show you some of the distinctive characteristics of Arabic (like those scary guttural sounds you’ve all heard about), and show you how Arabic letters are written -- like how it is written from right to left. For basic level Arabic, your teacher will be able to help you cover greetings and everyday phrases, and explain to you the assignments you need to finish after each lesson (next point).


Since you are reading an italki article, why not try to search for a native Arabic teacher after you’ve finished reading this article, so that you can apply immediately the insights you have read here.



4) Can you make time? (Applies to other languages too)


Boy if I had a dollar everytime I heard…‘I’d be fluent already if I had more time’ — ‘If I’d spent more time practicing, you’d see how fluent I’d be’ — ‘If I’d had half as much time as her..’


It is human nature to make excuses, and the more absurd they are, the more naturally they pop up in our heads. By age five, we are probably already experts in making the most imaginative excuses. The relationship between how bad you want something and how much time you have for it, seems to me, the most interesting phenomena.


Professional writers always find time to write, scholars always find time to research, hardcore gamers always find time to play, virtuoso musicians always find time to practice, and bodybuilders always find time to train.


So where do they find all this time? Do these people buy time from a time store on discount from a space-time store that we don’t know about? It has to come from somewhere right?!


I believe that time is the currency of sacrifice we have to pay in order to get certain things done in life while we are still alive.


Learning a language, just as learning any other focused skill, requires this sacrifice from you. So if you really want something, you will have to make time for yourself to learn it and sacrifice that time so that you can learn how to do it right.



So…how can I make time?


This is a question that only you can answer yourself honestly, everyone of us is different. We all have to understand how to get the best results from our daily schedule, sleeping habits, working hours, and mood. So that we can take advantage of the times when our mind is sharp, or mitigate the times when we are sloppy, or feeling less committed, etc.


If all those writers, bodybuilders and musicians made time in order to achieve what they’ve done, then it can be done: If there is a will there is a way. How it is done is another matter which is entirely up to you.


Ok so let’s assume that you made the time to study Arabic, but where do you start?


After concluding a lesson with your teacher, you might be given assignments which can be:


Orthography and identification: since Arabic uses a non-Latin alphabet that is used in the Romance and Germanic languages, you will need to become familiar with the writing system and learn how to write and identify the Arabic letters properly.


Greetings, goodbyes, and common phrases: it would be helpful to learn how to say Hello, how are you? What’s your name? I’m fine thanks, my name is…, Good morning, Good night, etc…


These few expressions could be simply memorized orally, and as your level improves, you will learn how to read them and write them properly.


Grammar: depending on the fluency of your Arabic, your teacher should give you assignments which usually covers tenses, verb conjugation, and word order.


In Arabic it is: subject-verb-object (SVO) or verb-subject-object (VSO), for example:


  • صهيب اكل الطماطم = Suhib ate the tomatoes (SVO)
  • اكل صهيب الطماطم = Ate Suhib the tomatoes (VSO)


It’s crucial that (should you be given homework) you take it very seriously and not skip any of your assignments. The hard work you put in, especially when starting a language, will make for advancing in that language a lot easier later on.


Vocabulary: new words are the building blocks of any language. The more you have in your vocabulary bank, the easier it is to express yourself even when you have problems with grammar. Start with the common everyday words, such as: good, bad, yes, no, man, woman, boy, girl, hot, cold, etc…


It is always useful to learn these words in opposites to help yourself remember them. And this acts as a bonus way of exponentially increasing your vocabulary. Since, whenever you are learning one word, if that word has an exact opposite, you’d automatically gained the advantage of learning the opposite word.



5) Is it true that Arabic has a thousand dialects which are very different from each other?


Well, that is kind of true and kind of false. Fortunately, there aren’t a thousand dialects, but there certainly are many Arabic dialects -- and they do have some differences.


As a learner of Arabic, you should first study Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fus’ha (فصحى). Fus’ha is what Arab children learn in school, and it is the print used for newspapers, magazines and books; and it is also used to broadcast the news and for formal speeches.


Interestingly, MSA isn’t part of daily life for any Arab speakers, meaning you will not hear it used on the streets or at homes. The good news is, you will be understood if you speak it, and people will try to help you when they see that you are learning Arabic. Basically MSA is the cornerstone from which you will be able to learn the more local dialects.


You could roughly divide the Arabic dialects into four groups based on how similar they are between each other:


  1. Egyptian
  2. Levant dialects: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine
  3. Gulf dialects: including all the Gulf States and Iraq.
  4. Maghreb dialects: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania.


Stayed tuned on italki articles to check and see when they are going to post my next article. In the next topic, I’ll talk about dialects in more detail, explaining some of the main differences and what you should do as a learner of Arabic once you have mastered the basics of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fus’ha.


Hero image by averie woodard (CC0 1.0)