Arabic is one of the more difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn. The US military considers it a class IV language, along with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, and requires that servicemembers score at least a 100 on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) to qualify for training. In comparison, a score of 85 is required from military linguists who want to study Romance languages, such as French or Spanish.
Arabic courses in universities and language schools move much slower than programs in commonly taught languages. A student in a university program based on the popular Al-Kitaab series will not be able to read a newspaper headline after a year of study. My first Arabic course, at the British Council in Cairo, did not introduce verbs until after a month of intensive study. If you want to develop a proficiency in Arabic, be prepared for the long haul.
Why is Arabic so hard?
First, students must master a new alphabet. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters . Each written letter has up to three positions: initial, medial, and final. There is no difference between printed and cursive script, as in English or Russian; however there are many styles of Arabic calligraphy. Upper and lower case are not used in Arabic, and the script is written right to left. Also, vowels are not printed in most Arabic writing, making context important for translation.
I feel that it’s easier for me to remember words in other languages if they’re written in Roman characters (like Spanish). Even Cyrillic is “close”–with characters like B, P, and C. None of the Arabic letters overlap with Roman letters. Many of the letters represent sounds that are not present in English, like ghayn, ayn, and Daad.
Second, written Arabic is different from spoken Arabic, and the spoken dialects are different from each other. If you want to talk to people on the street and read a newspaper, you must study two languages: Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and a colloquial dialect. This is like saying a student of Spanish Literature needs to master both Spanish and Latin. Colloquial Arabic is usually not written, except in cartoons, newspaper quotations, and novel dialogue. Religious studies are based on Qu’ranic Arabic, an older and more formal variant.
Third, I feel that the materials and courses available to Western students are few and of varying quality. Many audio courses are geared for tourists; there are few intermediate or advanced materials for the colloquial dialects; some introductory books fail to mention that different dialects exist at all. While a student of Spanish can turn on Univision (well, I can in Southern California) or get books from the public library, someone interested in Arabic would have to purchase a satellite dish in order to see Al-Jazeera or other Arabic-language programming. As is the case with most lesser-taught languages, quality Arabic learning materials are hard-to-find and expensive. While the U.S. government decries a lack of trained linguists in Arabic, Uzbek, Persian, Pashto, Turkmen, etc. it has done little to make study materials available, even those that the military and State Department must possess.
What’s the best way to study Arabic?
The only way to answer this is to answer another question: what do you want to do with Arabic? Is your goal to read a newspaper? Scholarly journals? The Qu’ran? Do you want to chat with people in the Arab world? If so, in which country?
If you are interested in the printed word, you should study Modern Standard Arabic. If you are interested in reading the Qu’ran, you should study Qu’ranic Arabic; many mosques, both in the U.S. and abroad, can give you advice. If you want to talk to people about everyday subjects such as their lives, their jobs, or their opinions, you will need to study Colloquial Arabic. Despite what people may tell you, it is possible to study both MSA and colloquial Arabic at the same time .
No matter what flavor of Arabic you decide to study, lay out your goals for the short and long term. This will help you chart your progress. Don’t worry about the curriculum of a school or a university. If you are reaching your own goals, then you’re making concrete progress in Arabic. Those goals may change as you learn more about the language and Arabic culture.
What’s the best colloquial dialect?
Wherever you travel in the Arabic-speaking world, the people will tell you that their dialect is the purest and closest to Classical Arabic. All of the dialects have evolved beyond Classical Arabic, and these differences are heard most often in everyday speech.
Television and movies have made the Egyptian dialect the most widely understood throughout the Arab world, followed by Lebanese. If you speak colloquial Egyptian, you will probably be understood by many Arabic speakers–but this does not mean that you’ll understand them. As someone wrote, an Egyptian might be able to go to Iraq and talk about politics or literature, but he might have problems if he went to a store and asked for a loaf of bread. There seems to be some major groups of colloquial Arabic:
– Egyptian (possibly including the Sudan)
– Maghrebi, used in the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria
– Levantine, used in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine
– Gulf Arabic, used in the Emirates, Kuwait, possibly Saudi Arabia (?)
Here’s how you’d say “how are you?” to a man on the street:
– Egyptian: izzayak?
– Levantine: keefak?
– Iraqi: shloonak?
I have no idea about the dialects spoken in Yemen, but I hear (of course) it’s close to Classical Arabic. I did have some Somali neighbors, but I couldn’t recognize or understand their dialect.
Learning materials for Levantine colloquial Arabic are the easiest to find. Although Egypt is the most populous Arab country, there are few books and tapes available for this dialect. Most of the books for the other dialects are either scholarly, tourist-centered (ala Lonely Planet) or were written for soldiers during World War II.
Here are a few of books I recommend:
The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read & Write It by Putros and Samano. This is an introduction to the Arabic script, including tutorials on how to write each letter in all of the three positions. It includes ligatures, which are combinations of Arabic letters (like laam-alif, for “no”).
Standard Arabic: An Elementary-Intermediate Course by Schulz, Krahl, and Reuschel. Covers most of the important structures of MSA early, and introduces political vocabulary by the eighth chapter. This book is fully voweled, an important advantage for the beginning student. I also recommend the audio tapes.
Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. “The Green Book” is THE dictionary for learning Arabic. 1300 pages in the compact version, this book includes verb forms, some colloquialisms, and a lot of shades of meaning for any Arabic root. The Wehr dictionary is arranged by roots, like k-t-b (something to do with writing) or q-t-l (something to do with killing). You will need to know how to read Arabic letters and recognize Arabic word roots to get around this book; it has no English index.
Media Arabic by Julia Ashtiany. A fair introduction to the vocabulary and structure of newspaper and television Arabic, for the MSA student, businessperson, or journalist. The exercises are repetitive and boring.
Modern Iraqi Arabic: A Textbook by Yassin Alkalesi. One of the few books commercially available for the Iraqi dialect. Comes with 6 CDs, enough to acquaint you with the sounds of Iraqi. This book has excellent sections on local idioms. Unfortunately most of the dialogues are about visiting the airport, checking into the Rashid Hotel, and other impossible activities–BIAP is a military base, and the Rashid has been taken over by the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Iraqi Arabic Phrasebook by Yassin Alkalesi. The BEST pocket-sized phrasebook for anyone going to Iraq. I’ve given it as a gift to both journalists and soldiers.
Levantine Arabic for Non-Natives by Lufti Hussein. This intermediate-level text is one of the few colloquial Arabic books that I’ve found that focuses on narrative speech, like describing a trip or a medical complaint. Useful for someone with a basic / survival proficiency in one of the dialects. Note: the tapes that accompany the book match a classroom program, and there is no typescript for the first seven of the ten cassettes. This book is only used with the last three.
Let’s Read the Arabic Newspapers by Howard Roland. Contains 100 short newspaper items, vocabulary notes, and questions (in Arabic) on what you’ve read. Each clipping is designed to introduce new vocabulary. There are also complete English translations of each item in the back of the book. Highly recommended for the MSA student.
International Book Center – http://www.ibcbooks.com also has a lot of Arabic materials, including Arabic novels by Naguib Mahfouz. Good if you can’t find the stuff anywhere else, and you’re not planning a trip to the region anytime soon.
I don’t recommend any books or tapes for Egyptian Arabic, including Pimsleur. Save up and go to Egypt instead, because the commercial materials suck.
The best way to study Arabic is through some sort of immersion program. Nothing beats actually being in an Arabic-speaking country, trying to talk to your neighbors and friends in the local dialect. You won’t get it right, and you won’t understand everything, but you will learn a lot. I hope to write more articles in the future about what kind of study program might be good for a journalist or interested traveler. Good luck, or in Arabic, Hazz saiid!
1: Counting alif and the glottal stop hamza as one letter, alif hamza.
2: Note that the US Military skips these distinctions at its premier language school, the Defense Language Institute (DLI). Students take a 63-week course in Modern Standard Arabic which appears to be based on recognizing interesting keywords, like “tank” and “explosion.” The goal is to develop a limited working proficiency in written and spoken MSA (2/2 on the ILR scale).
Devin Murphy studied Arabic and worked as a freelance journalist in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.