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How to learn Arabic



PEOPLE 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 appropriate learning method.

Whatever your motive, we suggest you try to learn 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 colloquial dialect.

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, etc.

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.

The Arabic script seems 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 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:

alif-ba-ta, ba-ta-tha, 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, thajaha, etc.

Once you can do the whole series from memory, you are ready to start learning the language.

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.

Three 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

Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds (Plus cassette)

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 beyond. 

The traditional textbook-and-cassette 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 exercises correctly.

Many of the textbooks listed at Amazon (see the right-hand panel on this page) 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 the Linguaphone course which, unfortunately, is one of the most expensive.

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 is Modern Written Arabic, developed by the US State Department's Foreign Service Institute. This was originally designed to teach Arabic to diplomats and is orientated towards political vocabulary. It is available in the UK from Audio-Forum.

A wide range of self-tuition courses can be bought over the internet from World Language.

On-line tuition

IF YOU would like to try learning Arabic over the internet, the following courses are available:

BABEL Arabic is an interactive course for beginners with text, sound, transcriptions and translations. It teaches writing and reading in the form of conversations. The first 12 lessons are free of charge.

Modern Standard Arabic is a collection of resources originally used for a harvard University course. There are several vocabulary lists covering thousands of words, and also resources for learning Arabic grammar, including a standard textbook which can be downloaded free of charge. Students who already know some words and a little grammar can develop their reading skills with  interactive Arabic texts which use a "point and click" system to look up the meaning of words. This also has a guide to common expressions in Egyptian colloquial Arabic.

Let's Learn Arabic is a course devised by Roger Allen of  Pennsylvania University. Dialogues are in RealAudio.

The Arabic Tutor is a beginners' course on CD ROM which can be sampled and purchased over the Internet.

Apprendre l'Arabe  
Basic Arabic for French speakers

Language classes

FOR most people, part-time evening classes are perhaps the most accessible option. 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.

There are also a few more serious courses outside the Middle East, such as the part-time degree offered by Westminster University in London, as well as privately-run intensive courses which are aimed at the business market and are, therefore, very expensive.

Numerous universities 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 included.

A frequent criticism of these courses is that they place too little emphasis on achieving fluency in spoken Arabic.

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

WORDS 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 Arab countries.

For Arabic into English, the paperback edition of Hans Wehr's dictionary is compact but 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, though Elias's pocket dictionary - though basic - may suit travellers better. The large Al-Mawrid dictionary (intended mainly for Arabs learning English) may also be useful, if heavy to carry around. 

There are also more specialised dictionaries covering local variants of Arabic as well as particular fields of activity, such as medicine. 



(Mail order from the USA)


Arabic at a Glance Phrase Book & Dictionary for Travellers 
Hilary Wise. Paperback

Arabic English Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic
Hans Wehr, J. Milton Cowan (Editor). Paperback, 1993

Concise Oxford English-Arabic Dictionary of Current Usage
N.S. Doniach (Editor), Safa Khulusi (Photographer). Hardcover, June 1982

Dic Children's Illustrated Arabic Dictionary: English-Arabic, Arabic-English
Hardcover, 1998

Elias Pocket Dictionary: English-Arabic
E. Elias, A. Elias. Paperback, 1960

Hippocrene Standard Dictionary Arabic-English English-Arabic
John Wortabet, Harvey Porter. Paperback, 1995

Learner's English Arabic Dictionary
F. Steingass. Paperback, 1999

al- Mawrid (English-Arabic)
Mounir Baalbaki. Hardcover, 1999

al- Mawrid (Arabic-English)
Rohi Dr. Baalbaki. Hardcover, 1999

al- Mawrid (English-Arabic/ Arabic-English)
Mounir Baalbaki, Rouhi, Dr. Baalbaki. Hardcover, 1998

My First Dictionary: English-Arabic
Hardcover, 1993

Oxford English-Arabic Dictionary of Current Usage
Oxford, et al. Hardcover, 1972

Oxford Picture Dictionary: English/Arabic
Norma Shapiro, Jayme Adelson-Goldstein. Paperback, 2000


Dictionary of Andalusi Arabic
F. Corriente. Hardcover, 1997

Dictionary of Archaeological & Artistic Terms: English-French-Arabic
Helmy Azeez, Mohammed Ghietas. Hardcover, 1995

Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic
D. R. Woodhead (Editor), Wayne Beene (Editor). Paperback, 1991

Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic: English-Arabic
B. E. Clarity (Editor), et al. Paperback, 1991

Dictionary of Moroccan Arabic: Moroccan-English
Richard S. Harrell (Editor), Harvey Sobelman (Editor). Hardcover, 1986

Dictionary of Syrian Arabic: English-Arabic
Karl Stowasser (Editor), Moukhtar Ani (Editor). Paperback, 1964

Eastern Arabic-English, English-Eastern Arabic Dictionary & Phrasebook
Frank A. Rice, et al. Paperback, 1998

English-Arabic Arabic-English Concise Romanized Dictionary: For the Spoken Arabic of Egypt and Syria
Richard Jasch, Richard Jaschke. Paperback, 1999

Hitti's New Medical Dictionary: English-Arabic
Yusuf K. Hitti, Ahmad Al-Khatib. Hardcover, 1982

Modern Military Dictionary: English-Arabic/Arabic-English
Maher S. Kayyali. Paperback, 1994

My First Dictionary of the Zoo in Arabic & English
Librairie Du Liban Staff. Paperback, 1981

New Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms English Arabic
A. S. Al-Khatib. Paperback

NTC Yemeni Arabic English Dictionary
Hamdi A. Qafisheh. Hardcover, 1999

NTC Gulf Arabic-English Dictionary
Hamdi A. Qafisheh. Paperback, 1999. Also hardcover edition.

Rough Guide to Egyptian Arabic (a dictionary phrasebook)
Paperback, 1998




(Mail order from the UK)


Arabic-English Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic
Hans Wehr. Paperback, 1994. Also in hardback edition.

Arabic-English, English-Arabic Concise Dictionary: Romanised, Egyptian and Syrian
Jaschke. Hardcover, 1999

Arabic-English Learner's Dictionary
Hippocrene Books. Paperback, 1993

Concise Oxford English-Arabic Dictionary of Current Usage
N. S. Doniach, et al. Hardcover, 1983

Elias Illustrated Junior Dictionary: English - Arabic
Karen Glasgow (Editor), et al. Hardcover, 1999

Elias Modern Dictionary: Arabic-English
Elias A. Elias (Editor), Edward A. Elias (Editor). Hardcover, 1991

Elias Modern Dictionary : English-Arabic   
E. A. Elias. Hardcover, 1988

Elias Pocket Dictionary: Arabic-English
Elias A. Elias (Editor), Edward E. Elias (Editor). Paperback, 1994

Elias Pocket Dictionary: English-Arabic
Elias E Elias (Editor), Edward E. Elias (Editor). Paperback, 1996

Elias Pocket Dictionary: English-Arabic and Arabic-English
Elias A. Elias (Editor). Paperback, 1994

Elias School Dictionary: English-Arabic/Arabic-English
Elias A. Elias (Editor), Edward E. Elias (Editor). Hardcover, 1996

Hippocrene Standard Arabic-English English-Arabic Dictionary
John Wortabet, Harvey Porter. Paperback, 1995

Hippocrene Children's Illustrated Arabic Dictionary: English-Arabic/Arabic-English
Paperback, 2001

King's Dictionary
Peter B. Golden (Editor), et al. Hardcover, 2000

Learner's Arabic-English Dictionary
F. Steingass. Paperback, 1987

al-Manar: English-Arabic Dictionary
Hasan S. Al-Karmi. Hardcover, 1971

Mawrid al- Waseet: Concise Arabic-English Dictionary
Rohi Baalbaki (Editor). Hardcover, 1992

Milet Bilingual Visual Dictionary
Hardcover, 2001

al-Mughni al-Akbar: English-Arabic Dictionary
Hasan Said Al-Karmi. Hardcover, 1987

Oxford English-Arabic Dictionary of Current Usage
N. S. Doniach (Editor). Hardcover, 1972

Oxford Picture Dictionary: English-Arabic Edition
Norma Shapiro, Jayme Adelson-Goldstein. Paperback, 1999


Arabic-English Law Dictionary
S H Amin. Hardcover, 1993

Dictionary of Data Processing and Computer Terms
E.W. Haddad. Hardcover, 1987

Dictionary of Economics & Commerce (Arabic-English)
Hardcover, 1986

Dictionary of Muslim Names
Salahuddin Ahmed. Paperback, 1999. Also hardcover edition.

Dictionary of Insurance Terms: English/Arabic
Tayseer Treky. Hardcover, 1985

Dictionary of Petroleum and the Oil Industry (English-Arabic)
A.S. Khatib. Hardcover, 1975

Dictionary of Syrian Arabic
Karl Stowasser (Editor), Moukhtar Ani (Editor). Hardcover, 1964

Learner's Dictionary of Arabic and Persian Quotations
C. Field. Hardcover

NTC Gulf Arabic-English Dictionary
Hamdi A. Qafisheh. Paperback, 1999. Also hardcover edition.

NTC Yemeni Arabic-English Dictionary
H. Qafisheh. Hardcover, 2000

Rough Guide to Egyptian Arabic (a dictionary phrasebook)
Paperback, 1998


In the Arabic language section


Is Arabic difficult? 

How to learn Arabic

Where to learn Arabic 

Arabic words in English 

Arabic words and the Roman alphabet 

Computer translation

Arabic proverbs 

Related pages: 

Arabic literature



These books are from amazon.com. To check books from amazon.co.uk click here. For a list of dictionaries click here


201 Arabic Verbs: Fully Conjugated in All the Forms
Raymond P. Scheindlin. Paperback, 1978

A Grammar of the Arabic Language
W. Wright. Hardcover, 1983

A New Arabic Grammar of the Written Language
John A. Haywood, H. M. Nahmad. Paperback, 2000

Ahlan wa Sahlan: An Introduction to Modern Standard Arabic
Mahdi Alosh. Hardcover, 2000

Al-Kitaab: A Textbook for Beginning Arabic
Kristen Brustad, et al. Audio Cassette, 1995

An Introduction to Koranic and Classical Arabic
Wheeler M. Thackston. Paperback, 1994

Arabic (Teach Yourself)
James Robert Smart. Paperback, 1992

Arabic at a Glance: Phrase Book & Dictionary for Travellers
Hilary Wise. Paperback

Arabic for Beginners (Hippocrene Language Studies)
Syed Ali. Paperback, 2001

Arabic Grammar of the Written Language
G. W. Thatcher. Paperback, 1993

Arabic Grammar: A Revision Guide
John MacE. Paperback

Arabic Grammar
G. M. Wickens. Paperback, 1980

Arabic Through the Qur'an (Islamic Texts Society)
Alan Jones. Hardcover, 2001

Arabic Verbs and Essentials of Grammar
Jane Wightwick, et al. Paperback, 1997

Arabic Verbs and Essential Grammar (Teach Yourself)
John MacE. Paperback, 1999

Arabic With Ease (Assimil)
Stephen Geist (Translator), J. J. Schmidt. Paperback, 1997

Arabic: A Complete Course for Beginners (Teach Yourself)
J. R. Smart. Audio Cassette, 1994

Barron's Travelwise Arabic
Holger Von Rauch, M. Sadek Trad. Paperback, 1998. Plus cassette

BBC Arabic Phrase Book
Nagi El-Bay, Victoria Floyer-Acland. Paperback, 1995

Elementary Arabic: An Integrated Approach
Munther A. Younes. Paperback, 1995. Also hardcover edition

Elementary Modern Standard arabic (Vol 1)
Peter F. Abboud, et al. Paperback, 1988. Also Vol 2

English-Arabic / Arabic-English Translation: A Practical Guide
Basil Hatim. Paperback, 2000

Eyewitness Travel Phrase Book: Arabic
Mohammad Asfour (Editor), Lexus. Paperback, 1999

Formal Spoken Arabic: Basic Course
Karin C. Ryding. Paperback, 1990

Hugo Language Course: Arabic In Three Months
Mohammad Asfour. Paperback with cassettes, 1999

In-Flight Arabic
Living Language (Editor), Suzanne E. McGrew (Editor). Audio CD, 2001

Intermediate Arabic: An Integrated Approach
Munther A. Younes. Hardcover, 1999

Introduction to Modern Literary Arabic
David Cowan. Paperback, 1958

Just Listen 'N Learn arabic
Rachael Harris (Editor), et al. Audio Cassette, 1993

Let's Read the Arabic Newspapers
Howard D. Rowland. Paperback, 1997

Mastering Arabic (Hippocrene Master Series)
Jane Wightwick, Mahmoud Gaafar. Paperback, 1991

Media Arabic (Islamic Surveys)
Julia Ashtiany. Paperback

Modern Written Arabic: Basic Course, Volume 1
David Abdo, et al. Paperback, 2000

Now You're Talking Arabic in No Time
Audio Cassette, 2001

Standard Arabic: An Advanced Course
Janet C. E. Watson, James Dickins. Paperback, 1999. Plus cassette and teacher's handbook

Standard Arabic: An Elementary-Intermediate Course
Eckehard Schulz, et al. Paperback, 2000. Also hardcover edition and cassette

The Connectors in Modern Standard Arabic
Nariman Naili Al-Warraki, Ahmed Taher Hassanein. Paperback, 1995

Vest Pocket Arabic
Dilaver Berberi. Paperback, 1990

Vocabulearn Learn Arabic: Level 1
Audio Cassette, 2000. Also Level 2

Written Arabic: An Approach to the Basic Structures
Alfred F. L. Beeston. Paperback, 1968

Your First 100 Words in Arabic
Jane Wightwick, Mahmoud Gaafar (Illustrator). Paperback, 1999

A wide range of Arabic self-tuition courses can be bought over the internet from 
World Language


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Last revised on 04 August, 2015