How to learn Arabic
learn Arabic for a variety of reasons: for work, for travel,
for religious purposes, because of marriage or friendship
with an Arab, or simply as a hobby. The motivation to some
extent determines the most suitable learning method.
Whatever your motive, it's probably best
to try learning a little Arabic at home before
committing yourself to more serious (and possibly expensive)
study of it. At the very least, this will give you an idea
of what’s involved and give you extra confidence during
the early stages of any course you may take later.
The first thing to decide is
whether you want to learn standard/classical Arabic or a
Unless your interest is
confined to one particular country, the safest option is to
learn a version of the classical language known as Modern
Standard Arabic. This is what is used in books, newspapers,
radio and television news programmes, political speeches,
Using standard Arabic in
everyday conversation sounds a bit formal to Arab ears, but
at least you can be sure of being understood by educated
Arabs anywhere in the Middle East. It may be more difficult
to understand what they say to you, unless they make the
effort to speak more formally than usual. Having learnt some
standard Arabic, however, it is relatively easy to adapt to
a local dialect later.
Among the dialects, Egyptian
and Levantine (spoken by Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and
Palestinians) are the most widely understood outside their
specific area. Colloquial Moroccan, on the other hand, is of
little use outside the Maghreb.
If you are planning to learn
Arabic because of an interest in Islam, standard Arabic is
preferable to a colloquial dialect. But standard Arabic, on
its own, is unlikely to meet all your needs. A specific
course in Qur’anic Arabic would be more suitable, perhaps
in conjunction with standard Arabic.
Learning the alphabet
It is well worth learning
the Arabic script, even for a relatively short period of
travel in the Middle East. At the very least, you will be
able to recognise place names, destination signs on buses,
and so on.
daunting at first, and some people try to avoid learning it
by relying on transliterations of Arabic words. This merely
stores up problems for later; it is much better to ignore
transliterations and use the script from the start.
Don’t try to learn the
whole alphabet at once. If you learn three new letters each day
and practise for an hour every evening it will take less
than two weeks.
Practise writing each letter
in all its forms (initial, medial and final), pronouncing it
aloud as you write.
After you have learned a few
letters, practise writing them in groups of three, in the
order they occur in the alphabet. Each time you write a
group, drop the first letter from the beginning and add
another to the end, working through the alphabet:
ta-tha-jim, tha-jim-ha, etc.
Do this once saying the
names of the letters, and once pronouncing them as if they
were a word:
abata, batatha, tathaja,
Once you can do the whole
series from memory, you are ready to start learning the
This drill can be tedious,
but you won’t regret it. Its advantage is that it teaches
you the letters in all their forms, as well as those that
cannot join to the following letter. It also implants in
your brain the alphabetical order of the letters - very
useful later when you want to use an Arabic dictionary.
A couple of books on the Arabic
script that you might try are:
Teach Yourself Beginner's Arabic Script
The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read and Write It
Learning at home
Whether it is best to start
learning Arabic at home or in classes depends on a variety
of factors: motivation, cost, time, availability of suitable
courses, domestic distractions, etc.
If you are able to study at
home, there are self-tuition courses that will see
you through the beginners’ stage, and perhaps even a little
The traditional textbook-and-audio courses vary in quality, as do their teaching methods. You
may find yourself buying two or three before you find one
that suits you.
One problem that all these
courses share is how to cover the essential grammar without
destroying the student’s motivation. Some of them are
utterly tedious. Others claim to teach you quickly and
effortlessly, but rarely live up to their promises.
It is important to check
that any books you buy are designed for self-tuition; if
not, there may be no way of checking that you have done the
Many of the textbooks listed
at Amazon have been
reviewed by other users. By checking the reviews on the
Amazon site should get a good idea of whether they will be
suitable for you.
Having sampled various books
and home study courses, our recommendation for a beginner would be
course which, unfortunately, is one of the
The basic learning method
with Linguaphone is
to follow a written text while listening to a recording of
it, and then to repeat each sentence. The content is
reasonably interesting and the vocabulary is relevant for
anyone planning to visit or live in the Middle East.
This method is
relatively painless because grammar is absorbed along the
way, but it is not effortless. To work through the course
properly, in your spare time, can easily take six months.
Another good course, though perhaps less
learner-friendly, is Modern
Written Arabic, developed in the 1960s by the US State
Department's Foreign Service Institute. This was originally
designed to teach Arabic to diplomats and is orientated
towards political vocabulary. The whole course is now
available online, free of charge.
Learning Arabic in classes
outside the Middle East offer full-time degree courses in
Arabic, starting from scratch. They usually include a year
spent at an Arab university. The emphasis is on classical
Arabic and the finer points of grammar (which in practice
tend to be ignored in everyday speech). Apart from the
language, study of Arabic literature and history is usually
A frequent criticism of
these courses is that they place too little emphasis on
achieving fluency in spoken Arabic.
If full-time study is not an option, the
next best alternative may be part-time
evening classes. They
can provide a leisurely introduction to the language, but
don’t expect to learn very much very rapidly. If there are
no entry requirements and they are not orientated towards a
qualification, regard them as basically recreational.
For anyone who wants to
reach a reasonable standard in spoken Arabic, the best
option is to spend a year on a full-time course in the
Middle East (see list). When choosing a course you should
make sure that the kind of Arabic being taught is actually
what you need – is it modern standard Arabic, one of the
colloquials, or both?
Shorter summer courses are
also available in the Middle East.
How to use an Arabic dictionary
Once you have progressed beyond the most
elementary level you will need to start using an Arabic
dictionary – which is not quite as simple as you might
in Arabic dictionaries are normally listed under their
three-letter roots. So you would look for istiqbaal
("reception") under "q" because the root
letters are q-b-l. Getting used to this takes a little practice
but it is not particularly difficult because additions to the
roots follow set patterns. Something similar happens in English:
"unaccustomed", for example, is actually "un-ac-custom-ed".
Arabic dictionaries are generally
expensive outside the Middle East because there is little demand
for them. Identical books can be bought much more cheaply in the
For Arabic into English, the
paperback edition of Hans Wehr's dictionary is
comprehensive - which makes it popular with students at all levels.
There is also a hardback edition with larger print. The Wehr
dictionary was originally compiled by German academics during the
1940s and is mainly concerned with 20th century usage; it is
relatively weak in the area of Islamic terminology.
For English into Arabic, good dictionaries are hard to find, with
the result that many students end up using several. The Concise
Oxford is probably best for general use. For something more
portable, you might try Al-Mawrid
Al-Qareeb, a pocket Arabic-English and English-Arabic
There are also more specialised
dictionaries covering local variants of Arabic as well as
particular fields of activity, such as medicine.
more makeshift solution, if you don't have a dictionary, is to
use Google Translate
online, but in order to look up Arabic words by this method
you would need to be able to type in Arabic.
Where to learn Arabic