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 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 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.
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 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:
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.
Several books on reading and writing the Arabic script are listed below.
Learning at home
Whether it is better 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.
You can make a start without spending any money. There are plenty of videos on YouTube giving free lessons, though the quality varies and you may have to hunt around until you find something that suits your needs. At the very least, this will give you an idea of what learning Arabic entails – and at no cost. As one example, here is a series of videos by Hiba Najem teaching Lebanese Arabic (she also gives one-on-one lessons via Skype).
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 offer "quick and easy" teaching methods, but learning a language is never quick and it does require some effort.
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 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.
Free courses on the internet
Several high-quality courses are available free online. Modern Written Arabic is an excellent course developed by the American Foreign Service Institute. It has three levels: beginners, intermediate and advanced.
This was originally intended for training diplomats, so the language is formal and a lot of the vocabulary relates to international politics. The course was written a long time ago (which is probably why you can get it free now) and a lot of the content is dated – it talks about President Nixon and the Soviet Union, for example.
Learning Arabic in classes
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.
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 take 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?
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 imagine.
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. It is available as a paperback and in a hardback edition with larger print. It can also be accessed in various digital formats (free of charge) for downloading or use online.
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 dictionary.
There are also more specialised dictionaries covering local variants of Arabic as well as particular fields of activity, such as medicine.
A more makeshift solution, if you don't have a dictionary, is to check individual words on Google Translate
Books for beginners
These are fairly simple books for complete beginners, suitable if you are planning to visit Arab countries. Note: al-bab receives commission from Amazon for book purchases made using links on this site.
Books for more serious learners
Although some of these books are suitable for beginners they mostly have a more academic "textbook" approach. Some of them are used for teaching Arabic at universities.