So you’ve decided to learn Arabic? Great news! You are about to join an increasing number of people around the world who have recognised the potential and benefits of learning Arabic. The number of students studying Arabic in European and American universities has exploded in the last twenty years, with the need for Arabic speaking linguists increasing year on year. However this number unfortunately is still swamped by those taking up European languages such as French, Spanish and German with Arabic often being shied away from because of its perceived difficulty, often topping the lists of the “hardest languages in the world”.
So what is it that makes Arabic “hard” to learn? The challenges are many when considering the great differences that exist between English and Arabic in script, sound and structure.
One of the first things an Arabic language learner will have to grapple with is the alphabet. The Arabic alphabet has 29 letters, but each letter will change its shape depending on its position in a word, with beginning, medial, final and stand-alone variations. Tip – don’t be overwhelmed by the variations, try to imagine the different forms as the way letters change in English when you join up your writing – it’s more of less the same concept when writing the Arabic letters.
You will also have to get used to writing from right to left (and numbers left to right!), this can be confusing at first, but as they say – practice makes perfect! In fact, people who are left handed may actually find this way of writing more natural once they have mastered the script.
As well as a new alphabet, the learner of Arabic will also have to get used to a different symbols to represent numbers. Don’t worry too much though, there are some similarities with the number system English speakers are used to (which is actually the original Arabic system!). To confuse you further, Arabic numbers are read, in the case of two digit numbers unit-tens rather than the English way tens-unit (e.g two and forty = forty two), and for three digit numbers hundred-unit-tens (three hundred and six and ninety = three hundred and ninety six).
Arabic also has many sounds completely alien to the English speaker, like kh- similar to a Spanish j, gh – like a French r, and more obscure sounds such as ‘ayn – an “a” sound produced by constricting the back of the throat and “Daad”, a heavy “d” sound produced by raising the tongue hard against the palette and constricting the throat, and the “hamzah” that actually is not a sound at all but a glottal stop normally after a vowel.
The best way to learn is to try to imitate native Arabic speakers – listen carefully the way sounds are articulated and have a go! Don’t worry about sounding silly, the chances are the more you give it the better your pronunciation will be and Arab speakers will appreciate your effort all the more. Remember, many Arabic speakers find great difficulty in pronouncing the letter “p” which does not appear in the Arabic alphabet!
The Arabic script is also often a struggle to learn how to read as generally all short vowels are omitted in writing – leaving the reader with just consonants and three long vowels to work out how to pronounce the word. This can be a real challenge in the beginning, but Arabic has a secret weapon to crack the code!
Arabic has a very regular (yet complicated) grammar and morphology, (meaning the way words change their form and are put together) – if you memorise the 10 main word patterns, known as the “Ten Forms”, reading Arabic words will become very easy! Furthermore, the forms will help you to distinguish meaning from vocabulary words you may not have seen before due to the link between roots (3 letter clusters) and generic meanings.
The grammar system can be both the hardest and easiest thing about learning Arabic. Undoubtedly Arabic grammar is complex and difficult, but also very regular and logical too. The difficulty comes in the sheer amount of rules the learner must memorise – something even Arabs themselves regularly face problems with. But, if you can crack the rules and their application, there is nothing to go wrong on.
Arabic grammar is formulaic, in-put the rules and you’ll write correctly. Be encouraged that all your hard work in grammar learning will not go to waste; it is not uncommon for foreigners who have studied Arabic at an advanced level to actually be better in grammar than Arabs!
Arabic nouns and verbs are distinguished by the singular, dual and plural, and further categories by two genders. This gives 12 pronouns and 14 verbal conjugations, in addition to the three cases that Arabic words are governed by. This can be a lot to learn – but the up side is once you know them, Arabic is very particular and non-ambiguous, giving the Arabic speaker more information and clarity.
A further obstacle the Arabic language learner must navigate is the existence of Modern Standard Arabic in addition to Arabic dialects. To be “native speaker” proficient, you will have to learn MSA in addition to a dialect, effectively meaning you have to learn a “language and a half” because of the great difference between the two.
Despite this though, dialects do have a linguistic base on MSA, and therefore it does not amount to learning two different languages. Nevertheless, if you learn the Moroccan dialect, this is going to be of little use when trying to communicate with somebody who is from the Arab Gulf, as the linguistic difference in vocabulary and pronunciation is large. People though who learn a dialect often find it easier to integrate into Arab society and culture and enables the speaker to function in every-day situations naturally and comfortably. A local dialect often fosters a sense of belonging and affinity in the learner, something important in breaking down the cultural and language barriers between different nationalities.
Need some encouragement to start or continue with your Arabic language learning journey? There are countless reasons why you may be learning Arabic, whether it be to access the rich and varied culture of the Arab world, to enhance your job prospects or simply to achieve the personal satisfaction of mastering a complicated and beautiful language.
The key to your success will always be your keeping you motivations and intentions for learning Arabic in sight. When the going gets tough, remind yourself why you started learning Arabic in the first place and it should give you the boost you need to persevere. Arabic is one of the most rewarding languages to learn, the more you put in, the more you get out!
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