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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

So You Want to Learn Arabic?


Sooner or later, many people who become involved with Middle Eastern music, dance, or culture become interested in learning a bit about the Arabic language. Some aspire to speak it fluently, while others just want to know a few pleasantries for greeting Arab musicans and audience members.

Before investing money in a course or a product, it's best to take a moment to think about why you want to learn Arabic, then consider what kind of tools would fit best with your budget and your schedule. Whatever your reasons may be, this article is designed to help you choose a path that suits your personal situation.




Clarify "Why"

There might be a number of benefits you hope to achieve from learning Arabic. A good place to start is to prioritize these, and begin your studies using an approach that matches your particular goals. Some possibilities:

Those Requiring Very Little Language Skill

  • Be able to exchange simple pleasantries such as "Good evening," with Arab restaurant owners, musicians, and audience members.
  • Be able to read song titles on audio CD labels.
  • Be able to identify common words in song lyrics so you can lip sync or gesture while dancing.

Those Requiring A Bit More Language Skill

  • Be able to conduct tourist interactions such as buying items in stores, dealing with taxicab drivers, or asking directions when visiting Arabic-speaking countries.
  • Pick up a couple of nuances of movie dialogue beyond the information offered by the subtitles.
  • Understand bits and pieces of songs sung in Arabic.
  • Impress an Arab friend or that person's family members with your efforts to understand their culture a bit better.

Those Requiring A Significant Level of Language Skill

  • Be able to carry on conversations with Arabic speakers who don't speak your language.
  • Be able to read books, newspapers, or other items written in Arabic.
  • Be able to study the Koran in the original Arabic language.
  • Be able to understand movie dialogue without subtitles.
  • Understand the lyrics of entire songs



Set Realistic Goals

Goals are helpful because they can keep you motivated. However, unrealistic goals can make you feel discouraged when you feel you're not making much progress toward reaching them.

Suppose your primary goal appears in the "Significant Level of Language Skill" section above. It's worth aiming for that, but you may want to choose something less ambitious as your first milestone. For example, the following might be attainable "starter goals":

  • Learn to count to 10 in Arabic. When you finish that, count to 100.
  • Learn to write the Arabic alphabet.
  • Learn to recite the Arabic alphabet aloud and identify the spoken sound that goes with each letter.
  • Learn the Arabic alphabet well enough to pronounce a word written in it, even if you don't know what the word means.
  • Complete studying with a DVD or audio CD set that teaches introductory Arabic language skill.
  • Choose one of the benefits identified in the "Very Little Language Skill" category in the "Clarify Why" section above and set that as a goal.
  • Learn how to sing along with a favorite Arabic pop song that has simple, repetitive lyrics, and understand what those lyrics mean.
  • Complete a one-semester adult education course in conversational Arabic.

After achieving one "starter goal", you'll feel a sense of accomplishment, and you'll also have a foundation upon which you can build to learn more. You can then set another goal that feels feasible for your current level and work toward it. Over time, you can continue setting new milestones for yourself.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




Choose a Dialect of Arabic for Your First Steps

There are many different dialects of Arabic. You will feel more satisfaction from your effort if you start with a dialect of Arabic that fits with your goals.

For example, if you are dating a Lebanese person and wanting to have conversations in Arabic with his family, you might not find it very helpful to take lessons through your local adult education program taught in the Moroccan dialect. If you want to understand bits and pieces of the dialogue in movies starring Samia Gamal (which are in Egyptian dialect), you may find that a university course in Modern Standard Arabic doesn't fit your needs very well.

Most Arabic instructional books, audio programs, videos, and courses focus on a specific dialect. I recommend choosing the dialect you want to learn first, then seeking educational opportunities that teach that dialect.

Here is a brief overview of the more widely-used Arabic dialects, so you can begin your education with the one that fits your needs the best:


Classical Arabic

For people who want to learn to read the Koran and other classical writings. This would be analogous to learning Latin or classical Greek.


Modern Standard Arabic

This is also known as fus-ha, which may be spelled as fusHa. People who would benefit most from it would be those interested in understanding television news broadcasts, reading newspapers, or reading modern-day academic and literary works. There is no country where this dialect is used in day-to-day conversation. If you were to try using it in conversation, people would think you sound silly or stilted.

Many people like to begin their Arabic studies with Modern Standard Arabic as a foundation. All other forms of Arabic derive from it, just as French, Italian, Spanish, and Romanian all derive from Latin. It is the variant of Arabic most likely to be taught in university courses because of its use in academic literature.


Egyptian Arabic

This is the most widely-understood dialect of the Arabic language. The Egyptian motion picture industry dominates the Arabic-speaking market, just as Hollywood dominates the English-speaking market. Therefore, this dialect is understood throughout the Arab world.

You could use Egyptian Arabic for tourist-related communications in not only Egypt, but also nearly any other Arabic-speaking country due to the fact that people in other countries are accustomed to hearing it in the media.

Nearly all classic movies containing dance scenes starring famous dancers were produced in Egypt, so if you're hoping to learn how to pick up bits of movie dialogue, Egyptian dialect is the one you'll use the most.

Most classical songs were produced by Egypt's entertainment industry and recorded in the Egyptian dialect, including those recorded by artists such as Abdel Halim Hafez, Oum Kalthoum, and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Pop artists who record primarily in the Egyptian dialect include Amr Diab, Ahmed Adawiyya, and Hakim. Some pop artists from other Arabic-speaking countries may record some songs in Egyptian dialect and other songs in their native dialects.

This is the dialect I have chosen to start with.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.



Lebanese Arabic

Although not as ubiquitous in the mass media as Egyptian dialect, the Lebanese dialect has been used by many singers from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. The most important of these has been Fairuz, the legendary recording artist who is much beloved by the Lebanese people. Other Lebanese singers, such as Nancy Ajram and Nawal al-Zoughbi, record mostly in the Egyptian dialect because that's the largest Arab population and therefore the largest opportunity to make money selling music, but they have recorded some songs in Lebanese dialect and even Gulf.

Lebanon's motion picture industry started later than Egypt's, but received a boost in the 1960's when Nasser-era Egypt evicted many foreigners from the country and nationalized its movie industry. Many producers, technicians, and actors / actresses moved to Lebanon and triggered growth in the industry there. Although still not as important as Egypt's film industry, Lebanon's has a firm foothold in the Arab world. There are some Lebanese-produced movies featuring dancers, notably Nadia Jamal.

Speaking for myself personally, if I were to learn another Arabic dialect after I reach the point I want to reach with Egyptian Arabic, I'd probably choose Lebanese next.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.



Gulf Arabic (Khaleejy)

This is the dialect of Arabic spoken on the Arabian peninsula - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. This dialect is considered difficult to understand even by native speakers of Arabic from other regions. For example, after I asked my Syrian friend Tahseen Alkoudsi to translate the Khaleejy song "Aba'ad" for me, he complained a great deal about the difficulty of doing so and told me he would never do another Khaleejy song for me ever again.

Well-known singers who recorded in Gulf Arabic include Mohammed Abdu, Ahlam, and Rashid el-Majed. Some singers from other countries may record some of their songs in Gulf dialect even if they record mostly in a different dialect.

Gulf dialect would be less versatile than others, because it's not widely used in music and movies. It would be fine to learn if you have regular contact with Gulf Arabs, if you plan to spend time in the Persian Gulf, or if you have a passion for Khaleejy music.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.



Maghrebi Arabic

The Maghreb is the part of North Africa along the Mediterranean coast west of Egypt. The Maghrebi dialect of Arabic is spoken in Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Due to the French colonial era of the past, a number of French words appear in this dialect.

This dialect would, of course, be useful if you travel to the region or associate regularly with people from the Maghreb. It also could be useful if you have a passion for rai music.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




Decide What Learning Method Would Work Best for You

If you're serious about becoming fluent in Arabic, then a college-level course along with total immersion is truly your best option.

But what if that's not an option for you at this time? You can still start with something that fits your situation today, and learn more in the future as opportunity allows.

Do you have the motivation and discipline to study things on your own? If so, then you may be a good candidate for learning through books, videos, computer software, and audio media. The problem with this approach is that you don't receive any feedback. You won't have anyone to observe your mistakes and correct you.

If you prefer to learn in a classroom environment, then you may want to look for Arabic classes taught at local mosques, universities, adult education programs, or belly dance studios. The valuable thing about classes is that you'll have someone there to correct your mistakes. Most formal instruction in academic environments such as universities is in Modern Standard Arabic.

Studies have demonstrated that different people learn in different ways. Some find it easiest to learn through what they hear (auditory learners), others through what they see (visual learners), and still others through what they touch (tactile learners). You will learn more quickly if you choose materials that suit your personal style. A visual learner may learn most quickly from a book or video. An auditory learner may respond best to audio CD's. A tactile learner may find that it helps to start with learning to write the Arabic alphabet. Computer software can touch all three learning styles.

Your reasons for learning Arabic should be an important factor when you decide which tool is best for you. For example, if your focus is on learning to read Arabic, a book is the obvious choice. If you want to speak Arabic or understand spoken Arabic, then you'll need audio CD, MP3 file, or video to help you with pronunciation. For body language and gestures, a video is best.

When and where will you be studying? This may determine which products work best for you.

While driving a car. Audio CD's or MP3 files designed to be used without looking at a book. For example, Pimsleur's series.
On airplanes, buses, trains, or elsewhere that electronic devices might be problematic A book.
While gathering with friends or troupe members, with access to television equipment. A video. For example, Leyla Lanty's Habibi You Are My WHAT? Or maybe a movie with subtitles such as Afrita Hanem.
Access to a computer. Software, such as Rosetta Stone, or audio CD designed for use without looking at a book, or DVD.



Give Yourself Permission to Feel Like a Beginner

It's okay to feel like a beginner, because you are one. When you find that something in your lessons is difficult, just remind yourself of the following:

  • You're doing this because you want to.
  • Everything you learn today is more than you knew yesterday. Even if you only learn one thing today, that's still more than you knew yesterday.
  • If you persist in your studies, a year from now you'll know much more than you do today!
  • If you're working on your own at home, with self-study materials:
    • It's okay to make mistakes. Nobody is grading you.
    • Take as much time as you like to master each lesson. You're not in a race.
    • Don't be afraid to repeat a lesson 3-4 times (or more!) before moving on to the next.
  • Don't compare yourself against anybody else who may be in your classes or doing their own independent studies. It doesn't matter how fast they're learning or whether they know more than you.
  • What matters is that you feel satisfaction from each accomplishment, no matter how small.
  • Give yourself permission to proceed slowly, feel frustrated, and feel like a beginner. Just smile, admit that you're normal, and keep trying.



Some Resources for Learning Arabic

These resources are not a substitute for taking a formal course taught by someone who is experienced at teaching languages. They won't make you fluent. The only way to become fluent is to visit a country where Arabic is the primary language and force yourself to speak it at every opportunity. But if your lifestyle doesn't currently allow you time to take a formal course, and if it's not practical for you to spend time in an Arabic-speaking country right now, using these materials is better than learning nothing at all. If you're fortunate to have access to a local class or native speaker, these resources can augment what you're learning there.

Free Resources



The Fastest Way to Learn

The fastest way to learn is to immerse yourself in speaking Arabic. I know that's not an option for everybody, but I feel it's important to mention it.

Many years ago, after two years of studying French in college, I visited France as a tourist. My French skills improved dramatically simply by being in France, hearing French spoken on the subway systems, reading restaurant menus in French, purchasing items in stores whose employees spoke no English, and trying to read French newspapers. It was immensely valuable to me, and I urge you to consider traveling to an Arabic-speaking country if your situation allows.

However, it's not enough to go to such a country. You should prepare for the trip by doing some self-study to learn a little before you go. And, once you get there, you need to proactively try using what you learned in your pre-study. Don't feel self-conscious or foolish, just try, give yourself permission to mistakes, and embrace the opportunity to correct your mistakes.



Closing Thoughts

Don't be afraid to start learning Arabic, but at the same time try to be realistic about the fact that it's not something you can learn overnight. Just take it at a pace that works with your schedule and lifestyle. Set realistic goals, and allow yourself to take pleasure in reaching them.

Some closing thoughts:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Question: How do you eat an elephant?
Answer: One bite at a time!



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