Arabic is a language family that is getting more and more important in the last few decades. Culturally and historically, it’s a language that has a great significance for the fields of literature, religion, history, philosophy and science history.
The language in itself is a beautiful and strange creation and for all of these reasons, many people want to study it. In this article, I’m going to describe how I learn Arabic, and what my recommendations would be to a new learner!
Choosing a dialect to study (or two?)
It’s been a while since I first set out learning Arabic. But even though I consider myself an effective learner, it has proven a difficult task!
The Arabic language is not just a single language. It’s a collection of dialects which are all very different from one another. Then there is classical Arabic and there is MSA, “Modern Standard Arabic“, also known as “fusha”.
MSA is an international language used in all professional and educational contexts in the Arabic speaking world. It is the only form of Arabic that has a significant amount of literature and written text.
Since it’s a language widely understood across the Middle East and North Africa, it might be an obvious choice for many. I originally took up MSA for the same reasons.
If I were to start over today, however, I’d study MSA along with a dialect from the very beginning.
Why? To put it simply: Dialects are used for communicating, but not writing and reading. MSA is used in texts and official announcements, but never for communication! So if you want to use Arabic like you would use English, you’d need both a dialect and MSA.
Studying two languages at the same time
It might seem complicated to study two related dialects at the same time. How do you avoid mixing up the two? In reality, it’s not as difficult as you might think. It’s true that you have a tendency to confuse the two dialects in the beginning phases of learning, but you’ll quickly get used to it.
Personally, I’ve adapted the way I learn Arabic to focusing on multiple fronts at the same time. This can even be helpful. Think about it this way: In English the words “car”, “wagon” and “vehicle” roughly mean the same thing. But you use them in different situations. In the same way, it would seem naturally wrong to use a MSA word while speaking dialect. Or vice-versa. It gets easier as you get used to it.
Beginning MSA and learning the alphabet
When I started out learning MSA, the first thing I did was pick up a volume of Assimil’s Arabic with Ease (link to amazon). (go see my review of Assimil Arabic.) Assimil is a great beginner’s course that I’ve had some success with in the past, studying French. There are some conflicting opinions about the quality of the Arabic course, but in my opinion, it’s a good approach in the beginning.
As you work your way through Assimil, you’ll learn the Arabic alphabet and how to read it. You’ll also learn some vocabulary, some grammar and the sentences structures.
If you’re consistent with studying and you revise daily while working your way through the book, you’re doing it right. You’ll surely feel that you’re not advancing, but I assure you that you are. As for the things you don’t understand: Don’t worry! You’ll get it later.
If you want to read more about learning the Arabic alphabet, go read the article I wrote about that subject!
Continuing MSA and starting out on the dialect
As you work your way into Assimil, you should start branching out using other tools for MSA, as well as begin studying a dialect.
One tool, I’ve recently become quite fond of is Glossika. If I were to start over, Glossika would be an important part of how I learn Arabic. Even from the beginning stages.
Glossika currently offers three types of Arabic: MSA, Egyptian and Moroccan Arabic, but more dialects will be added.
What’s great about Glossika, it that it offers an immense amount of material. The idea is that you intuitively learn grammar, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary through sentences. And a lot of repetition!
I recommend that you study both MSA and a dialect through Glossika. Add 2-4 new sentences per day and do all scheduled revisions, preferably two times a day. This will greatly help you advance in both languages.
If you’re looking to study a dialect other than those offered by Glossika, I’ve heard good things about the site “Talk In Arabic” which is a site specialized in Arabic dialects. I haven’t used this program yet – so I cannot personally vouch for its quality. I will try it out in the future, though.
I’ve already written a review of Glossika, that might be a helpful read.
Expanding your vocabulary
At this point, Assimil is probably behind you, and you’re well into Glossika.
This is where I’d start expanding my vocabulary in MSA by reading.
One of the biggest obstacles in learning Arabic (or any language for that matter) is progressing from the beginner state to something that is actually practically useful. I didn’t know about Glossika when I started out, which meant that I spent a lot of time with native texts that were quite difficult for my level. This meant that I was progressing quite slowly.
One way of making texts that are too difficult a little easier is “cheating”. Ideally, how I learn Arabic is through figuring things out through context. When 25% of the context is gibberish to you, however, you’re set up for a rough ride.
By “cheating“, you’re making those 25% transparent by using various techniques. Traditionally, you’d look unknown words up in a dictionary. This is very time-consuming, though, and you’ll get extremely frustrated very quickly and forget what you were reading about before understanding a complete sentence!
I recommend that you use reading tools like a popup-dictionary, reading the English translation in parallel, or something similar. Check out my article about different reading strategies.
The one reading tool that I enjoy the most is LingQ. LingQ is a tool that allows you to import texts into a reader that keeps track of your known words count as well as the words you’re learning. Go have a look at my LingQ review.
Once you’ve reached a level in which you understand most of a text without “crutches” it’s time to start reading books in Arabic. You can find a great deal of Arabic books online for free. Or try going to your local library – most actually have a small Arabic language section.
As for the dialect? You’ve better start speaking! I’ve had a great experience with doing volunteer work in a refugee center. I made Iraqi and Syrian friends while helping them acclimate into another country.
If this is not an option for you, then there are literally millions of people eager to speak to you on the internet. I’ve met Algerians and Moroccans through Twitter and Facebook groups about language learning. You’ve got a lot to gain from these kind of friendships. Not only linguistically, but personally and culturally as well.