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In spite of the fact that Arabic is the 5th most spoken language in the world, it has gained notoriety amongst English speakers for being nearly impossible to learn. This widely held belief is partly due to its grammatical distance from Romance languages and partly the result of incomprehensible, outmoded teaching methods. This article aims to be a concise but comprehensive guide on how to learn Arabic for the perplexed beginner dispelling some of the myths about the Arabic language.
1. Understand the Difference Between Written and Spoken Arabic
Prior to Islam, Arabian society relied on human memory to preserve its cultural artefacts for posterity. Much like the Greeks at the time of Homer, an oral, poetic tradition was its central cultural and literary force. Pre-Islamic poems like ‘qifā nabki’ or ‘Let Us Stop and Weep’ by Imru’ al-Qais were memorised generation after generation preserving history, culture and literary tradition stretching back some 16 centuries into unknown beginnings in the Arabian Peninsula.
In the 7th century, the Arab world underwent a prodigious research endeavour to record and systematise the syntax and morphology of the Arabic language in order to produce an authoritative version of the Quran: an effort that would result in a written language that has remained remarkably unchanged over the centuries, preserving early features of the Semitic languages that have since disappeared in its sister languages, of which Hebrew and Aramaic remain the only living examples.
In the late 8th century, the ‘House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad served as a major public academy, library and intellectual centre lending momentum to the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement during the Abbasid Era where major works of Hellenistic scholars and classical antiquity were translated and preserved from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. This intellectually prosperous period would later become known as the Islamic Golden Age.
The major Islamic capital cities of Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba became the main intellectual centres in which scholars from various religious and ethnic backgrounds could work together and establish a system of scholarship and transmission for science, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, music and literature. The Golden Age would culminate in what was once the most advanced and open civilisation in human history. It was during that period that Muslim polymaths discovered the principles of flight, defined the theory of vision, originated trigonometry, pioneered quantitative chemistry and made numerous discoveries and contributions in astronomy, agriculture, botany, medicine and surgery thus paving the way to the intellectual recovery of Europe following the end of the Dark Ages.
During the second half of the 19th century, a renewed contact with the Western world inspired a second translation movement, often referred to as the Arab Awakening or Enlightenment. A period that witnessed a vigorous translation endeavour introducing, on the one hand, western literary forms such as the novel, short story and drama to an Arabic readership, and on the other, a renewed interest in the classical heritage of the Arabic language and Islam. It was during this period that Classical or Quranic Arabic would undergo a revision and simplification and become what is referred to today as Modern Standard Arabic.
The rapid spread of Islam to Africa, Europe and Asia soon created a polarity with which literary and spoken Arabic inhabited opposite ends of a linguistic spectrum. At one end was the language of written communication and Islamic scholarship, which regarded the language of the Qurʾān as its inimitable yardstick and resulted in a literary language that has undergone remarkably little change over the centuries. At the other end were the colloquial dialects of the Arabs from Spain and Morocco in the West to the Arabian Gulf and Iraq in the east, which continue to display a broad variety, hardly a surprising linguistic phenomenon in view of the vast distances involved and the wide variety of cultures with which Islam came into contact.
Modern Standard Arabic is still widely taught today in schools and universities, and to some degree, in governmental institutions and news media. Most Arabs understand Modern Standard Arabic as it is still the only literary form of the language. Native speakers, however, have not been using Modern Standard Arabic in everyday speech for over a millennium. In fact, there are some convincing arguments that Standard Arabic was only ever used ceremoniously, for poetry recitations.
Native speakers of Arabic speak in their local dialects, which are collectively referred to as Colloquial Arabic. Although these dialects differ radically from Modern Standard Arabic, Arabs speaking different dialects would often code-switch back and forth between their native dialect and Standard Arabic in order to understand each other. There are over thirty dialects, and they are grouped into Gulf Arabic, Levantine Arabic and North African Arabic. Arabs speak in their native dialect but read and write in Modern Standard Arabic.
From a linguistic standpoint, Arabic blurs the line between what is considered a dialect and a language as some of the dialects can be as far apart from one another as Romance languages. Modern Standard Arabic in that regard is a lingua franca akin to Latin in Medieval Europe. A dinner guest with, say, a Moroccan, a Lebanese and a Bahraini, would be treated to a slew of languages including Arabic (in varying forms), English, French, Spanish, and perhaps even, some Berber.
The Middle East is a complex region, shaped by a history of trade, religious and ethnic conflict, colonisation, imperialism and resistance. The idea that Arabs are a monolithic people has only come to life fairly recently with the advent of nation-states, and it is, therefore, a predominantly political idea. From an anthropological point of view, languages do not hold an intrinsic aesthetic value. Historically, there has never been a time were all Arabs spoke a single dialect. Classical Arabic was a dialect specific to the Qureshi tribe of Mecca and may have been exclusively used for poetry rather than everyday speech.
Students of the Arabic language should not be discouraged. Focusing on one dialect is the fastest route to conversational proficiency. Modern Standard Arabic is an important tool for those who want to study the language for purely linguistic reasons, to have access to Arabic literature, classical Islamic scholarly work or to study theology. Most people will understand you if you choose to speak it, but you will have an incredibly difficult time understanding them. Colloquial Arabic is far more relevant for everyday usage. It is much easier to learn since its grammar has been simplified over time, and it tends to have more loan words from English and French. Like most Arabs, you can always make the move to the more complex Standard Arabic later.
Consider the people with whom you are most likely to practise and learn their Arabic, no matter how convoluted it may seem.
2. Set Realistic Goals
Learning a language requires time. There is no magical solution for this. Three months is the bare minimum to achieve a level of proficiency, by which you would be able to carry out a general conversation with a native speaker. If you are considering learning Modern Standard Arabic, you would require anywhere from six months to a year. In fact, the timeline should not matter at all. The process of learning a language in itself, can be enjoyable and fulfilling.
Moreover, the term ‘fluency’ is quite vague and unanchored. Most native English speakers cannot read Shakespeare or the 1616 King James Bible without rapidly oscillating between dictionaries and cliff notes. Fluency is a life-long pursuit. A more useful and pragmatic term would be ‘proficiency’, which is defined by levels and context. Your initial goal must be to become proficient enough to carry out a conversation in Arabic. You are better off assessing your level according to the Common European Framework of Reference of Languages. CEFR is quickly becoming the international standard for language proficiency assessment. It will also help you choose a course that was designed for your level. CEFR has six levels from A1 to C2. B1 students are expected to carry out a general conversation, whilst C2 students are expected to read and understand literature without any difficulty.
Setting clear, achievable goals will help you build a habit and continue to learn Arabic past the point of initial, short-lived enthusiasm.
3. Learn the Arabic Alphabet
At first sight, the Arabic alphabet can seem quite intimidating, especially for English speakers. Its right-to-left, conjoined letters can seem like a recently discovered, manic cave-writings of a perplexed neanderthal. When in truth, the Arabic alphabet is not very different from the English alphabet. They are both phonographic scripts based on the Phoenician alphabet. The Arabic alphabet’s twenty-eight letters have several forms depending on their position in the word, but it is easy to learn much like learning to write in cursive.
Learning the alphabet can be done in a matter of hours and will help you gain a sense of accomplishment. Even if you decide to learn a dialect and have no interest in reading or writing Arabic, learning the Arabic alphabet can help you visualise and remember new vocabulary.
4. Learn Arabic through Graded Courses and Avoid Software-Based Language Apps
Language-learning apps like Duolingo, Memrise and Babbel are becoming increasingly popular. They offer an inexpensive route to learn a new language for anyone, anywhere. In spite of this enticing promise, these apps are as interchangeable as they are unsuccessful.
A reporter from the Atlantic, David H. Freedman wrote an in-depth article about Duolingo, the world’s leading language-learning app. Having been using Duolingo to learn Italian for more than a year, Freedman was initially enthralled by Duolingo’s ease of use and gamified interface. After a year of daily lessons and as Freedman was about to visit Rome, he quickly realised he was not able to construct a simple, meaningful sentence in Italian.
During an interview, Freedman later confronted Duolingo’s CEO, Louis von Ahn, about the efficacy of his app. His response was far from reassuring. In fact, he confirmed Freedman’s suspicions: Duolingo’s primary focus, he said, is user retention and since raising the app’s difficulty would result in user dropouts, they chose to sacrifice learning speed and efficacy in favour of a larger user base. Duolingo was never meant for serious learners. By their own admission, they are targeting enthusiasts and competing with apps like Candy Crush for user attention.
A study published in the Eurocall Review analysed fifty of the most popular language-learning apps and concluded that since the apps tend to teach vocabulary in isolated units, they cannot adapt to individual skillsets as they rely on repetition and rarely provide constructive feedback. In essence, these apps use a behaviourist approach to language learning.
Behaviourism was first popularised by Ivan Pavlov in 1927 and later B.F Skinner in 1957. The behaviourist approach is based on a reductionist, myopic view of the nature of higher mental faculties. Behaviourism has been replaced by cognitive psychology, and in education, by cognitive learning theory. In linguistics, the implications of behaviourism have been replaced with Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar. Chomsky’s work during the fifties and the research that followed revolutionised linguistics and our understanding of language acquisition. Its central thesis implies that humans acquire language through innate mechanisms rather than by the influence of external stimuli, as was argued by Skinner. In other words, we all have an innate cognitive mechanism that generates linguistic expressions and the rules that guide them.
A behaviourist approach to education or language learning relies on repetition and feedback alone. A cognitive approach, on the other hand, engages students’ higher mental faculties by constantly comparing abstract concepts with familiar ones and by developing and improving logical thinking and encouraging the imaginative and practical implementation of those concepts. The cognitive approach aims to convert students from passive recipients of information to active learners by engaging their curiosity and facilitating their comprehension of grammar and language.
In order to implement the cognitive approach, the teacher must not only understand both the source and target languages but also have a certain aptitude for personalising her lessons to each individual student and to create an environment that facilitates dialectical learning.
Modern language-teaching methods like the communicative language approach, or CLT, and the lexical approach utilise modern cognitive science to create a simulated environment in which students can learn and practise real-world language in a way that is enjoyable, fulfilling and rewarding.
5. Learn Arabic through Context Rather than Focus on Individual Words
Memorising vocabulary lists is probably the least productive way to learn a language. It simply neglects everything modern science has to say about the nature of language. Language is fundamentally a computational system with the primary function of formulating thoughts. At least, this is one of the dominant views in the philosophy of language today. This system, by nature, does not formulate vocabulary and grammatical rules in isolation.
Without context, you are simply learning concepts about grammar rather than gaining a progressive and practical understanding of how to formulate a sentence in real time and in a way that is appropriate to the given situation. The same applies to vocabulary; without context, and isolated from sentences, words are merely sounds. They bare no real meaning and have no real associations, which makes them difficult to remember.
Contextualisation has a deep and tremendous influence on language learners because it
bridges the ideas and concepts across different learning materials. ‘It is a form of deep
learning which aims to make the learning process profound, objective and meaningful through placing the target language in a vivid and realistic situation’ (Moltz 2010).
We hope you found these tips helpful. You can subscribe to our newsletter, as we frequently update our website with new articles, lessons and courses. We would also appreciate your feedback in the comments section below. Good luck to you on your journey to learn Arabic!
References & Further Reading:
- Belle Lettres and Narrative Prose, Britannica
- A Review of Mobile Language Learning Applications Trends Challenges and Opportunities, ResearchGate
- How to Almost Learn Italian, The Atlantic
- What happened to Behaviourism, Association for Psychological Science
- The Cognitive Approach as a Challenge in Foreign Language Teaching, ResearchGate
- The Effect of Contextualization on the Iranian EFL Learners’ Performance in Reading Tasks