July 09

learning arabic – العربية

I’m currently studying Arabic. I do want to learn more about the culture of the Arab world and I want to understand some of the maybe more controversial ways of life (compared to my own in any case). I read an English version of the Holy Quran a while back and it was fascinating (even though I’m not religious at all, I do find the topic of religion very interesting) and I made the decision to focus on Arabic.

Arabic alphabet
The first problem with Arabic is the Arabic script. The squiggly lines look complicated and, I think, deter many from starting to learn this fascinating language. As a matter of fact the alphabet isn’t that hard to figure out and you can teach yourself in a couple of afternoons. What is maybe more complicated is the fact that most of the vowels (short vowels) are not written except in the Quran or in books for kids. This makes reading much more of a challenge than the foreign script. You have to recognise the word to accurately read and pronounce it.

However this is not as complicated as it may sound. English also has very few pronunciation rules and as such words have to be recognised to be understood. The famous tough, though and thou come to mind. Even though the vowels are there, you don’t know how to pronounce it unless you know the word.

MSA vs dialect
The next problem is the endless debate of MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) vs dialect. Learn Arabic, they say, there are over 250 million native speakers, 4th most spoken language… only it isn’t. It is the official language in 26 countries, but the speaking part is more complicated.
Arabs use a standard form of Arabic for the news and anything that is written or official, but use a regional dialect for everything else. These dialects can be mutually unintelligible. A Moroccan for example would not understand an Omani. Certain Bedouin dialects can be a challenge for urbanites in the same country. And while all educated Arabs learn MSA, they don’t use it to communicate. They should for the most part understand MSA spoken to them, but few will reply in it, which can make conversation very difficult indeed. The above mentioned Moroccan and Omani would more than likely use a mix of their dialects with a bit of MSA sprinkled in.

There is a lot of debate about the best way to mastering Arabic. One needs MSA and at least one dialect. That much is clear, but what should you learn first? Can you learn them at the same time and not be confused?

Most Arabs will suggest you learn MSA as it is the pure form and very closely related to the classical Arabic from the Quran. But what if you would rather be able order food off a menu in Beirut than understand the Al-Jazeera newscaster?
I’ve done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking about it. A lot depends on why you want to learn Arabic.
I want to be able to read and follow the news, so I will study MSA, but my priority is to actually have a conversation with people. In the past I have travelled to Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. Lebanon, as well as Syria were always on my list of places to visit, but for obvious reasons that will have to wait. Out of the others I enjoyed Jordan the most and so the dialect I am studying is the Levantine Arabic, specifically the Syrian variety. Once I can hold a conversation on a tourist level (A2/B1) I will start concentrating on MSA.

It’s so difficult… or is it?
The third problem is the mentality of ‘oh, it’s too difficult’. I don’t really believe in that, nor do I see the point of daily reminders of how hard it is. I’m not pretending to be an expert, but every language has more difficult concepts to grasp. The grade of difficulty depends on your native language, your learning materials/exposure to the language and your dedication/motivation/perseverance more than on anything else. Sure, it’s not a piece of cake and it will take time, but it isn’t impossible either. Arabic is in a different language family, so yes, a lot is very different and it will take longer to grasp some concepts, but it is also a very logical language. Hebrew on the other hand is rarely touted as a super hard language to learn, even though it also belongs to the Semitic language family and has many similarities.

Often times these so-called problems are just excuses. If you want to learn it, you can. You just need to put in the time and stick with it.