Advice on learning the Arabic language

Pyramids and Sphinx in Giza, Egypt

Arabic, as it is perceived in the Arab world, is split between the various colloquial (*aamia*) and the standard form (*fusha*). However, in the English-speaking world a further distinction is made with the standard form, i.e. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and classical Arabic. The focus of this website is MSA, which is the written language of the Arab world, and to some extent the Classical, which is not used except in older texts. Colloquial will only be mentioned briefly. General study tips shall be given, but the advice is more relevant for the year abroad.1

Arabic is the majority language of most of the countries in the Middle East (ME), from Syria (in the north) to furthest south in Yemen and from Iraq (to the East) to furthest west in Morocco. There are also minority Arab populations in the surrounding countries such as Turkey and Iran who speak Arabic.

At the street and family level the spoken language, more often than not, is colloquial and each country of the ME has its own distinctive unofficial colloquial.2
Furthermore, most Arabic films are in colloquial and since the Egyptian film industry is significantly popular throughout the ME the Egyptian colloquial is also commonly understood between the Arab peoples. For this reason, if the objective is to speak (and not read and write) then Egyptian colloquial (ECA) is the most practical choice.
Some Arab people claim that ECA is very far from the MSA, however, from a foreigners point of view (to the begin with) all the colloquials seem pretty far from MSA and many of them actually have a lot of overlap between them (e.g. ECA, Jordanian, Palestinian). 3 Ultimately, the colloquial you choose should be the one that is spoken by those friends you see most of all.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the language of formal written communication and media in the Arab world. Its grammar is based on classical Arabic and its vocabulary is derived from it. It is said that what enables each country to understand the other is MSA.

MSA is used by the news corporation Al-Jazeera and BBC Arabic and countries (including Russia and China) whose governments have an interest in the ME also broadcast a news channel to the Arab world using MSA.

The extent of MSA's use varies from country to country. It is used during conferences and at work; however, quite often colloquial Arabic will also be used (especially at work). It can be the official language in education, but again, in practice colloquial and foreign languages such as English or French are quite often used. In Syria, I'm told, it is strictly adhered to in the universities whereas in Jordan it is suppose to be used, but quite often this guideline is ignored and colloquial and English have become more prominent.

There is an opinion that if one wishes to learn Arabic then MSA is a good place to start.4 Classical Arabic is a more powerful version of Arabic, whereas MSA is slightly simpler and more used in everyday life, which makes it more accessible.

With learning colloquial some say MSA would provide the essential foundation/skeleton.
Personally, I think if one learns in an Arabic environment for a long period of time (six months or more) then best to start with colloquial and stick with that if that is one's objective.
However, if MSA is the objective then after a few of weeks of studying (one year maximum) and trying to practice speaking colloquial, switch to MSA and forget speaking the colloquial (once you start speaking colloquial - it becomes a habit difficult to drop. You have been warned).
The point here is to learn colloquial through practice (outside the class) until one can understand the people (and then reply in MSA).

On the other hand, if one starts learning Arabic outside an Arabic environment (e.g. UK) then MSA can be a good place to start. Mostly because you probably wont have anybody to practice your colloquial with (on a regular basis).

While you are abroad you will not forget the colloquial, as you will hear it all the time in the streets. So once you have the basis of colloquial you can (independently of classes) start to develop an understanding of the language on the street, but always reply in MSA.

Also keep in mind that even though some form of Egyptian colloquial does exist in written form (including in literature) and Arabeze has been used for TXTing, the colloquials are not really seen as written languages. So if you want to continue writing colloquial, then using the Latin alphabet may be the way to go, so as to avoid confusion with MSA.

Before setting out to an Arab country it would be very useful to learn some basic grammar for MSA (as there is no formal grammar for colloquial). Having said that, books for learning colloquial would probably include some grammar.

The key with studying Arabic abroad is to realise that time is tight (even if you have a year ahead of you) and to never speak English. However, the Arabic people (almost everywhere) generally speak their own colloquial and will not or find it difficult to speak purely MSA when they come across a foreigner. Rather, they may use the meeting as an opportunity to practice their English (something they learnt for years at school). This is not a problem as long as you try to reply in Arabic (in countries like Jordan people will generally help you, whereas in some other countries people might laugh). Try using common words and phrases and slowly (step-by-step) turn all the words in your speech into Arabic.

It helps if you are able to find people committed to listening to you speak Arabic and correcting your mistakes. If you can get this going at least once a week then you are on your way to fluency - one day. In return you can listen to them speak to you in English. Back in your home country such people may not be so easily available - so use them while you can.

Another tip is to think in Arabic and if that is not possible then try to speak to oneself in Arabic (remember, speaking to oneself is not madness, it is when you hear a voice replying to you - that is madness).

You have to force your brain to think in Arabic until your head hurts!

Classical Arabic has existed for perhaps 2000 years. About 1500 years ago the Arabs developed poetry to a very high standard. A good example of classical Arabic is the Quran:

انآ أنزلناه قرآنا عربيا لعلكم تعقلون 5

Much of the grammar and vocabulary in CA is still used in MSA.

Due to the strength of the Classical, it is advisable to start with MSA and then switch to Classical, but some students prefer to start with Classical. Really depends on your interests and end objectives. Classical is very specific whereas MSA is more general and blends in with both classical and colloquial. And you will sound cleverer if you can speak colloquial with some MSA.

So how long does it take? Of-course this depends on size of class, quality of teaching and how much time you put in on a daily basis. Assuming full-time study, I would say that fluency in a colloquial takes one year, MSA three years and Classical five years.

However, most people are not able to commit to more than six months of full-time study. The compromise then is to learn the grammar in your home country and plan to spend six months in an Arabic environment. It is important that, during the six months, there are no breaks from the Arabic environment lest you forget half of what you have learnt and return to square one. The six months are a momentum build so that at the end of it some level of fluency (in speaking) can be attained.

When you return to your home country it is important to continue studying part-time or practicing (perhaps via Skype) and, in this way, you can continue to progress in the language.

Another option worth considering is getting a work-placement abroad. Or if your company can re-locate you to a ME office.
A graduate joined a law firm that gave him the option to do his six-month training in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

If you can not go abroad for studies, then closer to home is the School of Oriental and African Studies. The Certificate in Arabic course gives a strong foundation in grammar, but the course is very intense and not for the faint hearted. Prior knowledge of basic grammar will help (see books section), but more importantly, attendence to all the course lectures and seminars, as well as a commitment to all the homeworks and studying six hours a day. This course is the first year of the BA degree programme at SOAS, which includes a year abroad.

The SOAS language centre provides evening courses (and weekend) for colloquial. MSA is also available, but not the same quality as the Certificate in Arabic. Masters/PHD students of various disciplines (including other than Arabic) teach these courses and they do a better job with colloquial than with teaching MSA.
This is different from the Certificate in Arabic course, which is taught by experienced teachers of Arabic.

Furthermore, if you can not manage full-time study at all, then you might be looking at ten years of part-time study, with the addition of shorter periods of immersion in an Arabic-speaking environment. Similar results might also be achieved by classes that use Arabic as the medium of instruction (in your home country).

Regardless of whether you decide on part-time or full-time study, to learn the Arabic language one really needs to plan for the long term, in terms of time and finance. It is therefore important to be clear on what one hopes to achieve (i.e. be able to do with Arabic skills) and then find out how much study time is required, for that level, and calculate how much it will cost.



Arabic Practical Dictionary: Arabic-English/English-Arabic (Hippocrene Practical Dictionary) [Paperback]
Nicholas Awde

Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic: Arabic-English [Paperback]
Hans Wehr, J. Milton Cowan

Al-Mawrid Dictionary
M. Ba'albaki (Author), Rohi Ba'albaki (Author)
Widely available in Middle East and cheap. Short edition (fine for beginners, up to level 2 in UJ) and large edition (almost everything you need) available in the bookshops around UJ.
Instead of buying the large edition, consider an electronic dictionary at Amman mall (for about 230 JDs) or the University Bookshop in Sharja, UAE.

Any Arabic-Arabic dictionary should have all the words with all their plurals.

Arabic Verbs & Essentials of Grammar, 2E (Verbs and Essentials of Grammar Series) [Paperback] [kindle]
Jane Wightwick

501 Arabic Verbs (501 Verbs): Conjugated in All Forms [Paperback] [kindle]
Raymond P. Scheindlin

201 Arabic Verbs (201 verbs series) [Paperback]
Raymond P. Scheindlin

Specialised Arabic equivalents also exist, such as A Dictionary of Arabic Verb Conjugation by Dr George M. Abdul-Massih (El-Dahdah Encyclopedia of Arabic Grammar).
Available in Egypt, Morocco and probably Lebanon.
However, you probably wont find it in any bookshop around the University of Jordan. See what you like in the library and then take a trip to Abdali. At least one of the shops (such as al-fursaan near to the Jet office) there should have something close to what you are looking for.

As for travel advice, the lonely planet guidebook series are recommended and specifically for Jordan the title 'Jordan Jubilee'.

Cartoons in MSA.
Jordanian radio in MSA.
News in MSA.
Arabic transliteration keyboard

Hope this helps.

Written by Malek, UK.

© Last edited: 02-DEC-2015

1. 'year abroad' - phrase used to mean the second or third year of a language degree that is spent abroad.   I am using the term more loosely here.
Follow this
link for an article on living abroad.

2. Thoughts on Arabic Diglossia from the Growing Participator Perspective

3. The website My Easy Arabic has more details on this point...

4. J. Wightwick, M. Gaafar, Mastering Arabic, (Palgrave, 1990), p.xiii.     O. Wright in Modern Standard Arabic Course: Part 1, (SOAS, 2007), p.191 suggests an over-lap in morphology and syntax between modern standard and classical Arabic.

5. Translation: We revealed an Arabic Quran so that you understand (Quran: 12:2).

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