Friday , October 21 2016

9 Facts That’ll Help Dispel Your Fear Of Learning Arabic

People are often intimidated by the Arabic language.

In my experience as a language educator and blogger, I've come across many people who say they want to learn Arabic but it looks so difficult.

Believe me when I say that it really isn't a difficult language compared to many other languages in the world and once you get over its exoticness, you'll realize that you were concerned for nothing 🙂

Since inspiring and encouraging people to learn Arabic and appreciate the Arab world is what I'm most passionate about, here I'll share a few random simple facts that should help dispel your fears about learning Arabic and encourage you to get started.


1. The Arabic alphabet looks intimidating but it's very easy to learn

To most people, Arabic script looks very exotic and intimidating.

Written from right to left, it just looks a mess of squiggles and dots to people who haven't studied the language before.

It's important to know however that Arabic, just like Hebrew and even Latin is derived from ancient Pheonician so some of the letters you know – the ones you're reading right now – bear a resemblance to Arabic letters. The reason why this is not entirely obvious is that Arabic script is all connected (like cursive writing in English).

Arabic Hebrew and English letters

Also for many of the letters the only thing indicating what the letter means is the number of dots above or below the line. For example:

ب ث ت

ض ص

ط ظ

س ش

ي ى

ق ف

ذ د

ز ر

If you take away those dots, the letters are indistinguishable. A big part of learning the Arabic script is remembering dots! 🙂


2. Roots make Arabic vocabulary easier to learn

Pretty much every language has roots or stems (whichever plant metaphor you prefer :)). These stems are what all words are derived from.

This is a defining characteristic of Semitic languages like Arabic.

Almost all vocabulary in Arabic is derived from roots consisting of 3 consonants (sometimes 2 or 4 but mostly 3). So for example, from the root letters K-T-B in Arabic we can derive a bunch of different words relating to writing:

مكتب – maktab – office

كتاب – kitaab – book

كاتب – kaatib – writer

كتب – kataba – he wrote

The great thing about this is that even if you only know the root consonants, you can take a pretty good guess at the meaning of a range of different words. Often it's just a simple vowel change that alters the meaning of the word but it's related to the meaning of the original consonants.

This makes learning vocabulary in Arabic much easier than many other languages.


3. The verb 'to be' is omitted in the present tense

Look at this English sentence:

You are happy.

Are is the verb 'to be' and it can be a real headache in some languages (including English) to learn because it often changes (e.g. we use both are and is).

In the present tense in Arabic this is omitted.

So you are happy in Arabic is simply you happy.

Often, the personal pronoun can even be omitted too if it's clear who the subject is so you could just say happy if whoever you're talking knows who you're referring to.

The verb 'to be' is used in the past and future tenses however but it follows a very easy and logical pattern so you won't have trouble remembering it.


4. There's no neuter

Everything is either male or female in Arabic.

There's no neuter which should come as a huge relief to people who have learned languages like German or Greek.


5. Learning a few basic suffixes can help you understand noun possession and direct objects in Arabic

Learning just a few suffixes is all it takes to fully grasp possession and direct objects in Arabic.

For example, if I learn the suffix -hom (هم) which is the third person plural suffix (they/them), I can attach this to a noun meaning their (e.g. their book = kitab+hom) or I can attach it to a verb which makes it a direct object (e.g. I saw them = ana shuft+hom).

This means that in contrast to a lot of other languages, these aspects of grammar are super easy and quick to learn.


6. Arab people are some of the most willing people to practice with

I've done language immersion in many parts of the world (Egypt, Jordan, Korea, Russia, Ireland, Georgia, Turkey, Italy to name some).

I found my time in Arabic-speaking countries to be the most fruitful because of the hospitality and willingness of people in those places to befriend me and speak Arabic to me.

Arabs are culturally warm and inviting people, and this makes a huge difference to your success in language learning.

Often times simply finding people to practice with is an uphill battle but it isn't something you need to worry about in the Arab world.


7. Learning any spoken dialect will enable you to communicate with Arabs from anywhere else and switching dialects won't be that difficult

This may conflict with some of the things you've heard before (e.g. that in order to communicate with everyone you need to speak MSA).

I've had opportunities to practice Arabic with speakers from pretty much every region in the Arab world over the years during my travels.

Some of them are quite difficult to understand (particularly Moroccan and Algerian speakers) but I've never had an issue where it's impossible to communicate.

The reason for this is that native speakers will often adjust their dialects for a speaker of another dialect.

I've often seen people from other Arabic-speaking countries Egyptianize their speech as a 'bridge' to communicate better with me or even my Egyptian travelling companions.

It's kind of similar to the way in which English speakers can Americanize their speech slightly when they travel to make themselves more easily understood (as an Australian, I've had to do this quite a lot over the years since my accent is a little tough for some people).

Once you do become fluent in one spoken dialect, making adjustments to communicate better with people in other Arab countries isn't difficult to do.


8. Arabic doesn't have to be any more difficult than any other language

Semitic languages like Arabic are grammatically much much simpler than many other languages in the world.

Arabic has been classified as one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn but I've always personally disagreed with this and I think it's based on their assumption that you're learning MSA with a traditional, grammar-heavy learning approach.

If you're learning to speak colloquial Arabic naturally by practicing with native speakers often and listening to natural learning material then it doesn't have to be that difficult at all.

Approach it with the right mindset – if you expect it to be seriously difficult then it will be seriously difficult.


9. Media representation of the Arab world is usually wrong or completely exaggerated

If the opportunity is there to go to the Middle East or North Africa to improve your Arabic, do it.

There have been several times over the past few years where admittedly I've been hesitant to travel to the Arab world because of what I've seen in the media.

I've almost backed out of going over silly fears created by media sensation.

Let me tell you - I'm so glad that in every case I ignored the media and headed there! Every time this has happened I was so happy to be there and the second I left the airport I felt completely safe.

My fears were totally forgotten.

Yes, there are parts of the Middle East that are extremely dangerous at present. There are regions where war and conflict are going on but outside of those places life goes on just as it always has and the locals are as inviting and hospitable as ever.

Travelling to the Arab world to learn Arabic will be the most rewarding language immersion experience you'll ever have.

About Donovan Nagel

I'm a language educator, blogger and translator with years of travel and language learning experience. I have a huge passion for language learning (especially Arabic!) and for helping to raise awareness of endangered minority languages around the world.

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One comment

  1. The arabic alphabet is not really an ongoing difficulty of learning the language. You can get it covered on your first day or two and then you’ve learnt it and can move onto learning phrases and sentences.

    Building on the roots characteristic, another thing that makes the language easier is that similar words follow common patterns. For example, all adjectives follow the pattern -a-ee- (replacing the hyphens with the root letters) and all places follow the pattern ma–a- (replacing the hyphens with the root letters). Knowing the relevant root, you can easily predict what the word is going to be.

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