Why Learning Arabic Is Easy (Despite What You've Heard)
Arabic is one language that native English speakers are often intimidated by.
It looks difficult. It sounds difficult. It must be difficult.
The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) even places Arabic in one of its most challenging categories.
Everyone just seems to assume that it’s incredibly challenging and only gifted language learners are able to succeed at becoming fluent in it.
Well I’m here to tell you that they’re all wrong.
Arabic has the ‘appearance’ of difficulty because of its squiggly lines, harsh-sounding pronunciation and foreign cultures but when you really get started, you quickly discover many reasons why it is - in fact - easier than most major languages to learn.
So let’s get started.
What are you learning Arabic for exactly?
Obviously, the title of this article really depends first and foremost on your own motivation for learning.
We receive emails every single day here from people all around the world who want to learn Arabic.
Some of the more specific reasons we hear are:
- “My husband/wife is a native speaker”
- “My extended family are native speakers but I never learned it growing up”
- “I want to work with Syrian or Iraqi refugees”
- “I’m in the military”
- “I want to work or do business in Dubai”
- “It’s important to me for religious reasons”
Then there are vague responses like these:
- “I love languages and Arabic is interesting”
- “I want to travel to the Middle East”
Believe it or not but you can accurately gauge whether or not a person is likely to succeed at learning Arabic based on their answer to the question: Why?
Things are naturally easier when you’re passionate about the outcome.
And even when it’s not easy, you’ll find a way to push through.
Let’s clear up the confusion on Arabic dialects
Adding to the previous point, your purpose will determine which Arabic you learn.
We also get a lot of questions about dialects here on this site:
Which dialect should I learn?
The answer is simple but only you can answer that as it depends on the people you intend to communicate with, the part of the world you intend to travel to and the functional use that you need Arabic for.
In the military and being deployed to Iraq?
Have Jordanian extended relatives?
Learn Jordanian (Levantine).
Want to be able to read newspapers but have no need to speak with people?
Planning to move to Morocco?
It’s all common sense really.
But you’d be surprised how many people contact us asking things like, “I love Lebanon and Lebanese culture but I heard that Egyptian is a better dialect for me to learn.”
Why is it better if you have no interest in Egypt?
The only time we’d suggest learning a different dialect to the one you’re actually passionate about learning is if there are no resources for that specific dialect but there are for a similar dialect.
An example might be learning Egyptian or Tunisian if you can’t find Libyan resources.
Other than that, stick with what you care about.
Just one important note: Don’t learn MSA as a spoken dialect. As we say often here - nobody anywhere speaks it as a native language.
Only learn Modern Standard Arabic if literacy is your primary goal.
The Arabic alphabet / script is very straightforward
One of the most common concerns for people wanting to learn Arabic is that the script or alphabet looks insanely difficult.
Squiggles and dots! 🙂
It’s intimidating for the uninitiated, no doubt about it.
But let us assure you that the Arabic alphabet is surprisingly easy and straightforward.
It really just takes a day or two to get your head around the fact that it’s written right-to-left and the letters are connected (like cursive writing in English).
Remember too: Arabic letters share the same ancient origin as our own alphabet - Phoenician.
That’s why letters like lam (ل) and sin (س) bear close resemblance to their English counterparts. Others are simply a matter of remembering dot placement.
The only somewhat challenging aspect that can’t be argued is the absence of vowels:
Arabic is what’s known as an abjad (a - b - j - d are the first letters of the Arabic alphabet).
An abjad is a writing system where each letter is a consonant but the vowel markings are left out, leaving you the reader, to assume where they belong.
This means that a word like kalb (dog) is written: k - l - b.
It’s up to you to know where the vowel belongs.
Although there is no shortcut here, over time you start to recognize patterns in writing and can make accurate guesses on most words.
It’s also worth noting that even in English, many words such as through and receipt are not pronounced as they’re written either.
You only know their pronunciation through exposure and practice.
Same goes with Arabic.
Roots make learning Arabic vocabulary much easier
One of the defining aspects of languages like Arabic (and other Semitic languages) is that most of its vocab can be derived from 3-letter roots/stems.
There are some 2 and 4 letter stems too but most have 3.
This makes learning Arabic vocabulary a cinch! 🙂
So let’s give you an example.
Take the stem K(ك)-T(ت)-B(ب).
This 3-letter stem makes up Arabic words related somehow to writing and from it, you can derive all sorts of related vocab.
kataba – he wrote
maktab – office
kaatib – writer
kitaab – book
All those words are semantically related and contain the same stem.
Just in a different configuration.
By comparison, if you look at the English words of the same meaning, they don’t use the same root letters and bear no resemblance.
This means that over time as you get better at Arabic, you’ll be able to take accurate guesses at meaning of various words if you know its stem.
Another good example is the stem: F-T-H (فتح) means “to open”.
By putting the letter mim (M) at the beginning of the word and including a long vowel on its last syllable, it becomes instrumental.
And we know that a key is instrumental for opening things.
This is why Arabic roots make learning vocabulary so fun and much simpler than other languages.
Arabic grammar is simple compared to other languages
Arabic grammar is incredibly simple.
Especially when you compare it to languages like Russian and German.
Admittedly, your learning style and choice of dialect make a big difference here (e.g. learning MSA with a traditional grammar-translation approach vs. learning a spoken dialect through a communicative method) but either way, the grammar is remarkably simple.
Here’s a brief list of some of the most important examples (in no particular order):
- Unlike German and Greek, there’s no neuter gender.
- The verb ‘to be‘ is omitted in the present tense (so “she is beautiful” is simply “she beautiful”).
- In the North African dialects (Maghrebi, Egyptian), negation is similar to the way it’s done in French with a prefix and suffix (ne --- pas – e.g. je ne viens pas) using ma --- sh. To say something like ‘he spoke’ (kalim) negated would be ‘He didn’t speak’ – ma-kalim-sh).
- Noun possession and direct objects are super easy. You just have to learn a few suffixes. (-ak = you (m.) so kitab-ak (your book) and ba7eb-ak (I love you).
- Arabic verb forms follow a very consistent and easy-to-learn pattern. You can either memorize these individually or just learn them in context through exposure (recommended). For example, if you look at the stem 3-L-M – (اعلم) it means ‘to teach’ while (اتعلم) means ‘to learn’). See the note on stems above.
- The definite article (ال) is indeclinable. This means that it can be applied to masculine or feminine nouns and doesn’t change for different cases.
As you can see, compared to many other languages, Arabic is grammatically simple and straightforward.
You already have a head start learning Arabic!
Finally, you’ll find that colloquial Arabic dialects borrow a LOT of foreign vocabulary and expressions.
Especially English and French.
French is particularly influential in the Maghrib (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia).
In other dialects like Egyptian and Levantine, you’ll find that native speakers frequently codeswitch and use English expressions (this is becoming more and more prevalent due to social media).
Some terms are borrowed and still considered “foreign” while others have now become part of the local language.
You can find a list of loanwords here.
Arabic is without doubt one of the easiest languages to find conversation partners
Arabic is one of the easiest languages on earth in our opinion to find opportunities to practice.
Arabs aren’t shy! 🙂
You’ll never have trouble finding willing conversation partners with Arabic as Arabic-speaking people are - generally speaking - very warm and welcoming.
Compare this to many other cultures around the world where shyness and/or reservedness tend to make it harder to approach strangers to practice.
Can’t travel just yet?
We recommend italki for Arabic practice (many of our own teachers and contributors also offer conversation lessons there).
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