How long does it take to learn Arabic

avatarMille Larsen
11 mins read

So you've decided to learn Arabic. Good for you! Learning Arabic can be extremely rewarding in many ways. It opens doors to not just one, but several foreign cultures and countries, another way of thinking and opportunities in business, travel, making friends and so much more!

Some might say, however, that learning Arabic is an ambitious goal.

I can't say that they're wrong..

To learn any language, you need to be in it for the long run. You need patience, dedication and consistency. For Arabic, this is even more true!

But you came here asking "how long does it take to learn Arabic?"

The time it takes to learn Arabic depends on a lot of factors. First you need to decide what kind of Arabic you'll be aiming for and what level you want to archive. Then you need to have a look at your motivation, your language learning experience, what kind of tools you have available, and only then can we try to give an estimate. But I'll tell you this already: You won't become fluent in three months!

But let's get into it!

What's your motivation for learning Arabic, and how does it influence your progress?

Your motivation for learning Arabic can greatly influence your progress. Obviously, learning out of interest or passion will get you much further than simply wanting to put an impressive feat on your CV.

That doesn't mean that gaining a new skill to improve your professional profile isn't a valid reason. Whichever reason you have for learning Arabic is fine. But if you're not driven by passion you're going to have a hard time improving.

That's why I recommend that you start getting into Arabic culture. Look up on Arabic cuisine, music, literature or travel destinations, and you'll notice that the Arabic language has a lot of great things to offer.

Try to make friends with people who speak Arabic too. Discuss your ambitions with them, and you'll be sure to become more existed about learning Arabic.

Being truly motivated about the Arabic language and not just what it represents on a piece of paper can make all the difference. If you're even moderately interested in some aspects of Arabic, you're already on your way to learning the language.

Being 100% into the language, the culture, the people, however, will make you learn it much faster. If you're in love with Arabic, you'll get there two, three or ten times as fast than someone who's just checking off boxes.

And once you're passionately motivated about Arabic, you need to maintain it! Here's an article I wrote with some tips on how to stay motivated when learning a foreign language.

What kind of Arabic are you learning?

This is one of the more complicated aspects of learning Arabic.

Arabic is in fact not a language. It's several languages.

People from the Gulf countries, the Levant, Egypt and North Africa all speak vastly different dialects of Arabic. Some, especially the North African dialects are so different that they should be considered separate languages.

This means that in order to converse with Arabs, you need to settle on a dialect. The dialects of Egypt and the Levant are popular choices. The Egyptian one is widely understood in the Arab world because of the prominent Egyptian movie industry. The Levantine dialects of Syria, Libanon, Palestine and Jordan are closer to formal Arabic and have a nice melody to them.

Chances are, however, that whichever dialect you pick, you'll need to get accustomed to the others in order to really understand the majority of Arabic speakers.

And as for the Berber people of North Africa? Even most Arabs don't understand their language, so if you want to communicate with North Africans, you've better learn their local language!

"OK, fine", you might say. "I'll pick a dialect and focus on that one, and perhaps I might branch out to the others later".

I wish it were that simple.

To properly be functional in Arabic you need to learn a dialect, but you also need to learn Literary Arabic, also known as "Modern Standard Arabic" or MSA.

MSA is the language used all over the Middle East and North Africa for reading, writing, news, education, academics and literature. And it's quite different from the dialects!

This means that unless you want to only communicate with people by conversing and you don't care about literature and news, you absolutely need to learn MSA along with a dialect!

So to sum things up, learning Arabic really means learning one language for speaking and a separate language for writing.

This complicates things! Learning two languages in the same time will definitely add to the time it takes to learn Arabic.

But depending on your goals and reasons for learning the language, sticking to one of the two could possibly do it as well.

In my opinion, learning MSA is the biggest hurdle - learning a dialect along with it doesn't mean that it'll take twice as long. Learning the two side by side can also be helpful, because the two languages are used in quite different contexts and are complimentary that way.

If you pick just a dialect, you could learn it a little faster, but you'll have trouble finding appropriate learning materials and you'll eliminate reading as a valuable approach to language learning.

Picking just MSA is an option - that was how I originally set out learning Arabic. Yet it can sometimes seem very complicated and you'll feel that you spend a long time on the language without advancing much. (And you can't really use it to speak with people, which is sort of a bummer!)

Studying the two at the same time does take a little longer, but you'll get to speak the language and gain some quick confidence boosts once you start using it with native Arabs.

The availability of learning materials plays a big part in the time it takes to learn Arabic

When you study Arabic, especially the dialects, you'll face the challenge of finding useful study materials. The problem is, that there aren't a lot of good resources out there, and this can seriously slow down your learning process.

Materials for MSA are generally available, especially for beginners. I mention a few in my article that goes a little more into depth on how to learn Arabic. With MSA, you can benefit from beginner's materials and then move on to reading native content.

With the dialects, these things are not really available.

In my Arabic learning adventure, I've had to rely a lot of my MSA as a step-stone to the dialects. I usually like working with one or two beginner's textbooks when starting out and then continue on to reading newspapers, articles and novels. None of that exists in dialect.

This means that you're forced to work with whatever few resources you're able to find online, or you'll have to hire a tutor or rely on a discussion partner to improve your Arabic dialect.

One resource I've recently become a great fan of, however, is Glossika. Glossika is a great language learning program that offers MSA, Moroccan and Egyptian Arabic. And more dialects are to be added. To learn more, go read my article about Glossika. Or you can go directly to the Glossika website.

Your background greatly influences the time it takes to learn Arabic

The more languages you already know, the easier it will be to learn Arabic. If these languages have something in common with Arabic it's even better.

A Hebrew speaker will find Arabic quite easy, because the two languages are closely related. They have a lot in common in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.

But even if you speak Spanish or French alongside English, you'll have an advantage. The reason is, that the more languages you speak, the better you'll intuitively understand how foreign languages can work. To people who speak only one language, all other languages will seem extremely bizarre, but if you have just two languages to compare, the kind of differences that you might see between English and Arabic might be much less of a chock.

This isn't to say that monolingual Americans can't learn Arabic. But it'll take longer to get the language under your skin.

The time you dedicate to learn Arabic is (obviously) a key factor

It might seem obvious. The more time you put into your Arabic studies, the faster you will get there.

But there's more to it than that.

It's one thing to look at how much time you put in, but how about when you study?

Studying Arabic on your own for 7 hours a week sounds good, but if these hours are all spent in one or two several hour-long study sessions in the weekend, it won't be as effective as spreading your study time out throughout the week.

Why? Well, for one thing, you'll be running the risk of burning out completely. Studying several hours in one go might be possible with all the enthusiasm and ambition you have when first starting out, but you'll quickly find that it'll be difficult to keep up with that kind of schedule on the long run.

Another point is, that even though you go through a lot of material once a week, you won't be surrounded by the Arabic language in your everyday life. Arabic will just be something you do once a week and it won't become part of your routine.

This means that you'll forget new words and grammar points before you get the chance to get reminded of them again.

There's also something to be said about keeping your brain submerged in Arabic. If you come back to your Arabic studies once a day, or even better, several times a day, your brain will quickly realize that this language has become part of your life. It'll become easier to adjust to the language this way. Studying once a week seems much more like an obstacle or a task that you just want to get rid off.

I recommend that you study Arabic in short bursts, several times per day. To read more about this, go have a look at my article called "How to learn languages on a busy schedule" where you'll find a lot of tips to how you can benefit from dead time throughout your day to study Arabic.

How long does it take to learn Arabic according to linguists?

The Foreign Service Institute is the American government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to American diplomats before going overseas. They've got a lot of experience in language education, and have developed estimations as to how many classroom hours their students need in order to become "professionally proficient" in various languages.

They put Arabic at the high end of the scale. Along with languages like Chinese and Korean, FSI estimates that Arabic needs around 2200 classroom hours for the average American.

Now what does this mean?

It means that if you follow FSI's program and your goal is "professional working proficiency" you'll need to put in 2200 hours in order to learn Arabic. (That's 6 years if you study one hour every day).

As I've already made clear in the above, however, the time it takes to learn Arabic is dependent on a lot of factors. So even if you took the FSI program, 2200 hours just might not be the right number for you.

Similarly, FSI's definition of "professional working proficiency" might not be the same as your personal goal. Speaking like a native and being conversational in a language are two very different things after all.

How long does it take for a self-student to become conversational in Arabic?

As you've probably gathered by now, there's no easy way to estimate how long you'll need to learn Arabic.

You came here for a number, however, so I'm going to give you my best bet.

For an average English speaker who is serious, consistent and diligent, and who has planned out his study approach from the start, It'll take something like 3 years of daily, 1-hour study time to reach the upper-intermediate level in Arabic.

If you put in more work and you're an experienced language learner you might get there faster. For me, however, that wasn't the case!

One thing is certain, however: You won't progress in your Arabic if you don't keep at it. The single most important aspect of learning Arabic is consistency. It's more important than your study method, how much time you put in, your motivation, your intellect and everything else.

If you put in an hour a day, preferably divided up in 2-3 separate study sessions, you'll eventually get there.

If you've found this article helpful, or if you have any questions or comments, please write me a comment below!