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Learn Arabic – How To Start

Congratulations on starting your journey to learn Arabic. Whether you are interested in traveling to the Middle East or want to learn formal Arabic, we are here to help. Your motivation to learn Arabic determines what resources and strategies are best for you. Use this guide to help you follow a clear path to learn Arabic. It contains personal experience and knowledge from experts in learning Arabic.

Goals for Learning Arabic

The first step to learning Arabic is to establish why you want to learn Arabic. Some people simply want to learn Arabic for a quick trip to the Middle East. While others want to learn for religious reasons or to speak with extended family. Naturally, people also learn another language to further their career or just have a desire to be entirely fluent in Arabic.

Modern Standard Arabic, Quran Arabic, and Dialects

The Arabic language consists of three parts: Modern Standard Arabic, Quranic Arabic, and Dialects. These parts all have the same grammatical foundation but are used for different aspects of an Arabic speaker’s life. We break down the differences in the following sections.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is also referred to as Fusha or Formal Arabic. MSA is used for writing, literature, television news, religion, and education. It is predominately found in written form but you will find people speaking it on the news and in religious settings. MSA is considered the common language between all Arabic speaking countries. Arabic speakers do know how to speak MSA but they will definitely be rusty since no one really speaks it. Usually, if you speak MSA to someone, they will slow down and adjust their speech in order to have a conversation with you.

Arabic Dialects

Dialects are the spoken form of Arabic. Dialects are not written down. Everyday spoken situations involve dialect along with TV series and movies. In order to effectively communicate daily with people of Arab speaking countries, you must learn the dialect of the region. Arabic dialects have many words in common with MSA but are still different in words and grammar.

Quranic Arabic

Quranic (or Classical) Arabic is in the Quran and other written literature between the 6th and 9th Century AD. Quranic Arabic is quite similar to Modern Standard Arabic. The sentence structure is the exact same. However, there are some minor differences in grammar. Also, in Quranic Arabic, there are symbols around the words to specify the proper pronunciation of the word. These symbols are used during the recitation of the Quran. Students with a goal of learning the Quran typically start with MSA grammar so they have a solid foundation.

Learn MSA or a Dialect?

To be completely fluent in any language, you must be able to read, write, listen, and speak. For Arabic, this means that you must be fluent in MSA and an Arabic dialect. Your goal for learning Arabic determines the amount of time spent learning MSA or a dialect. Typically, students start with MSA to get a solid foundation of the grammar and then add in dialect. Most Universities follow this same pattern. Special educational institutions focusing on the Quran only teach MSA without ever teaching a dialect. Similarly, there are courses dedicated to Arabic dialects.

Many people have an opinion about the best way to learn Arabic. Some state to start with a dialect while others recommend MSA. The majority of written grammar resources teach MSA. For dialects, the only good books you will find are ones that teach the most common phrases. Educational institutions are excellent for learning both Modern Standard Arabic and dialects. Ultimately, the decision is yours to make, based on your motivation to learn Arabic.

Arabic Alphabet

The first step to learning Arabic is being able to read and write the Alphabet. The Alphabet is the fundamental building block that opens the door to Arabic. At this stage, you must practice reading and writing the alphabet as much as your can. In addition, ensure you always use the proper pronunciation. Most Arabic Alphabet books include audio to help with your pronunciation so please use this when available. Tutors for this stage are also valuable because they ensure the fundamentals are being well developed.

We compiled a list of Arabic Alphabet resources we found useful for beginners.

Arabic is an abjad writing system. This means that Arabic does not typically have the short vowels (or tashkheel) in the writing. As an example, the word “basketball” would be written as “bsktbll“. When the short vowels are present, they are written above or below the letter. As you begin learning your first Arabic words, they are introduced with their short vowels. We highly recommend trying to memorize the words without the short vowels as soon as possible. Surprisingly, reading words with and without their short vowels require their own practice.

Additionally, you will encounter transliterations of the Arabic language when first learning words. A transliteration is defined as transferring the letters of a word from one language to another. It is best to avoid using the transliterations because it is a crutch that will slow your learning.

Arabic Grammar

After mastering the Arabic alphabet, the next step is to start learning Arabic grammar. Learning Arabic grammar is the foundation for Modern Standard Arabic and Dialects. Both follow similar grammatical patterns and rules. There are many excellent Arabic grammar resources available today. As you proceed through each grammar lesson, it is helpful to add the new vocabulary and grammar rules to flashcards. Once a day you should be reviewing the flashcards to get the most benefit. Flashcards can be regular notecards or software like Anki or Memrise. Using Google, you can find vocabulary lists for your grammar book. As you advance, be sure to learn the vocabulary in their appropriate contexts. You can do this by either adding pictures or full sentences to flashcards.

To learn any language you must practice all skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Most Arabic Grammar books focus solely on reading and writing. To supplement your learning, there are Arabic videos to help practice listening skills. Also, applying what you have learned through presentations is extremely useful. Once you become more advanced, try picking up an Arabic reading book.

Arabic Dictionary

Most Arabic grammar books have a section dedicated on how to use Arabic dictionaries. Arabic words are formed on patterns of the root letters for a word. Typically, the root is three letters. Adding letters before, after, and in-between changes the meaning of words. In order to find the word in the dictionary, you must look it up using the root letters.

Speaking Arabic Dialect

Arabic dialects are purely spoken and differ per region. There are a total of 9 different spoken dialect regions. Even within these regions there are variations. However, these variations are small enough that people can still understand each other within the same region.

We recommend learning basic Arabic grammar structures as a foundation for your dialect of choice. Ideally, it is best to learn Modern Standard Arabic in conjunction with a dialect.

Once you are ready, you should pick one Arabic dialect and stick with it. Try to speak as much as possible. Remember, practice makes perfect! There are not a lot of written resources for self-study so we recommend finding a tutor. Make sure that your tutor is from the same region as the dialect you want to learn. Formulating a systematic plan to acquire the dialect will make the most use of your time. Your plan can involve role-playing situations like travel and ordering food. Learning any spoken language takes time. Ensure that you reinforce what you have learned while you expand your knowledge.

Quran

Learning the Quran is a rewarding challenge in itself. Most Arabic grammar books are very useful as a starting point for understanding Quranic grammar. We created a list of resources that specialize in helping you learn the Quran. Your local masjid is typically the best place to enroll in Quran classes. There is a lot of knowledge surrounding learning the Quran that just cannot be fully encapsulated in a book.

Tajweed is the rules governing the recitation of the Quran. Tajweed allows you to learn the Arabic alphabet, practice reading, and improve your recitation of the Quran in parallel. After learning tajweed, you will be ready for Arabic grammar. In this video you can hear how the reciter properly applies the rules of tajweed.

Educational Institutions

Learning Arabic taught in Universities and Institutions are excellent ways to learn the language. It puts you in an environment where you practice all the skills necessary to truly be fluent in Arabic. There are also online-only, accredited University courses also available. These online-only courses require students to participate in weekly Skype sessions. These Skype sessions are there to answer questions and allows the students to practice speaking.

When Universities and Institutions are not an option, we highly recommend utilizing a tutor. The tutor will also be able to guide you through any issues you may be having.

Evaluating Your Arabic

Language learners have a system of evaluating fluency. It is called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL). CEFRL consists of 6 levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. You can take an exam to evaluate your place but people usually just compare themselves to the description of the levels. The levels are just a nice way to see how you are progressing.

Learning Strategies

Learning Arabic requires being able to successfully develop your skills. Here is a useful article about the different levels of learning: article. Be sure to apply these principles to your Arabic.

Learning any language requires you to practice all skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Here are some ideas on how you can practice all of these skills:

  • Reading: Novels, newspapers, websites, journals, magazines, children reading books
  • Writing: Creative writing prompts, daily journal, summarize a book
  • Listening: Youtube channels, cartoons, news, movies, podcasts
  • Speaking: Presentations, conversation prompts, speak to yourself in a mirror, language exchange app

Constantly studying vocabulary and grammar rules daily will help solidify your understanding. Simply revising your work for fifteen minutes a day goes a long way. Spaced repetition for memorizing words and vocabulary is a good technique to follow.

Another strategy that is really useful is using children books when you first start reading. Children books are designed to be easy to read which is perfect for beginners. Likewise, children videos are also useful because they are spoken slowly.

You will make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when speaking to other people.

Lastly, remember that learning a language is a never-ending journey. Enjoy the ride along the way!