Learning Arabic as a foreign language: questions, answers and advice
This article was born of the many requests I get for advice about learning Arabic as a non-native speaker. It is definitely not meant as an exhaustive or expert guide to learning this rich, complex and diverse language. It is not a grammar guide (sorry for the disappointment — I know you were all champing at the bit for one). It is not a magic bullet — it won’t replace the frustration or anger you will probably feel at some point when, like me, you fail to grasp a concept, or a phrase, or pronunciation. It is simply some thoughts and observations I’ve arrived at after more than four years as a student of Arabic. Other learners will have different thoughts, methods, and experiences.
As a brief bit of background, I studied French literature and language for my undergraduate degree, and always enjoyed languages at school. Visiting friends studying in Damascus, Syria, in early 2011 made me realise how wonderful and useful learning Arabic would be too. I began evening classes in Modern Standard Arabic (more on this below) at University College London in 2015, and supplemented this with Skype sessions in colloquial dialect on NaTakallam, with a Syrian conversation partner. I quickly realised that a few hours a week wasn’t going to be enough to get me to the level I was aiming for. Wanting to use languages more in my profession as a journalist was one major factor in pushing me to leave my staff newspaper job in London in 2016, and move to Lebanon to freelance. Once in Beirut, I took multiple courses in Modern Standard Arabic and Levantine dialect at Saifi Institute in Gemmayze district: I think that to really progress, you need to commit to a course with several hours of instruction and home study every day. I then started my MA in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut, and took advanced level courses, finally joining a class aimed at native speakers of Arabic. Throughout, I have supplemented this with informal chatting with friends and work contacts mostly from Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The other caveat: I am by no means fluent. I think I’m OK at Arabic, but there are definitely situations where I don’t understand what people are saying, texts I cannot grasp, and sentences that I cannot write without making grammar mistakes. That is OK. I have accepted learning Arabic as something that doesn’t really end.
Q: Should I start with Modern Standard Arabic, or a dialect (eg Levantine amiya)?
A: This depends a lot on how you want to use Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is the “pan-Arab” language used in news broadcasts, official documents, security statements, religious sermons and literature in countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Dialects are the (mostly) spoken word which people use to communicate on a day-to-day basis: shopping, conversing at work, chatting with friends, arguing, dating, etc. You will almost never hear people speaking MSA to each other. Dialects differ from country to country, city to city, even town to town, and vary considerably across the region: people in Lebanon have often told me that they wouldn’t understand Moroccan dialect, for example. People talk a lot about a “Levantine dialect,” covering Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. But within this, there are large variations in word preferences and pronunciation. As an example, even within Lebanon, there are differences in words, phrases and pronunciation used in different towns and cities: people from Beirut and Baalbek will likely pronounce things differently, for instance. In neighbouring Syria, a resident of Deir Ezzor, out east near the Iraqi border, may well share more in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and dialect with Iraqis than with someone from Damascus. So to talk about one dialect covering one region, or even one country, is covered by one dialect is a bit misleading.
What’s more — and this is just my feeling — but I don’t see a definite barrier between MSA and the dialects. Some MSA words are used in dialect, and inhabitants of some regions or countries use more strictly “MSA” words in their day-to-day conversations than others.
Firstly, define what you want to achieve. Is it speaking to people in the street, doing interviews in informal settings, and being able to understand the replies? If that’s the case, the dialect of the community/country/region you’re interested in would probably be best. And how fluent do you realistically want to become? Or do you want to listen to news broadcasts and security briefings? Read the news? Browse poetry and novels? Search archives and academic material? If that’s the case, I would start with MSA. This is a personal opinion, but I think not building a strong base in MSA somewhere near the start of learning will make it very difficult to achieve the depth required to be able to read, write and understand the broad range of formal Arabic texts. Limiting yourself to amiya means you may miss out on learning about the verb forms and grammatical structures that provide the building blocks for Arabic sentences and help you to understand multiple dialects. That said, limiting yourself to MSA isn’t great either: dialects in themselves are rich things, fun to learn and rewarding too, not least because they are what people actually speak. Trying to strike up a conversation in MSA will probably get you funny looks.
Some people disagree with me on this, but my real feeling is that you need to do both. MSA for linguistic building blocks that make everything fit together, especially if you want to do serious research or work in Arabic. Amiya because, well, if you don’t want to actually speak to people, then you might need to reconsider why you’re learning at all.
Q: If I decide to learn a dialect, which is the best one, and how can I practice?
A: This is very subjective, because “best” obviously means different things to different people. Where do you want to work — metaphorically, if not physically? Levantine — although it’s not really one entity, as I’ve just explained — is in my experience fairly widely understood: I speak to people in Iraq in my Lebanese accent using words more common to the Levantine dialect, rather than the Iraqi, without too many issues. Making the effort to learn to understand people’s replies when they respond in their dialect, not the one your know, is your responsibility. It’s about being sensitive, picking up new words, and adapting to your interlocutor when you realise people are commonly using a different word for something you are both referring to.
This can help with transitioning from one dialect to another. For example, in Iraq, I kept going round saying: “fee kteer min X” (“There are a lot of X” in the Levantine dialect). People understood this, but would reply by saying, “Ahh, aku haway min X” (Yes, there are a lot of X…” in the Iraqi dialect.) So depending on the situation, I learnt to use that instead, or just shuffled along in Levantine. Speaking in people’s own dialect can help to make them feel comfortable speaking to you. I think it is appreciated.
And how to practice…well. Strike up conversation. Talk to Arabic speaking friends on Facebook in Arabic, if they don’t mind: many friends and colleagues have been very kind, patient, encouraging and accommodating with my sending them very imperfect messages in Arabic. Read social media posts in Arabic — without pressing the auto-translate button. Take opportunities that arise for practice, and be persistent: in Lebanon, I have found that sometimes people laugh at me and ask why, as a native English speaker, I would want to learn Arabic. This can be off-putting, but see it as an opportunity to get really good at developing a fluent response to that question. That said, use your judgement. Trying out your new vocabulary is probably best not done at border posts and in interactions with security officials. Sometimes, it’s better just to shut up and speak English.
Listen to lots of things, even if you don’t understand it all. Podcasts, films, documentaries, YouTube videos. Even if some things pass you by, you will be picking up pronunciation, learning words here and there, grasping the gist. The more you do it, the better you will get.
Find things you like. I like the news (I’m a journalist, after all), documentary films, and poetry. So I watch Arabic TV news, on YouTube channels I’m subscribed to. I went to buy some Arabic poetry anthologies. There’s probably little point trying to make yourself watch an Algerian programme about football if you hate ball sports and want to focus on conversation with Syrians or Iraqis, for example. Nothing against Algerian football. It’s just probably not your best use of time in a world where it is always in short supply.
Be curious. Make the effort to look up in the dictionary words you don’t understand, and write them down in a designated vocabulary book (I bought a small A-Z address book which has become an easy-to-organise vocab book). Look back at it in six months and you may well find that words you once struggled to recall have become part of your vocabulary. Note down sentences you read or hear that you don’t understand, and why you think you don’t understand them. Ask your teacher or a well-informed native speaker about them. Here again comes the importance of generous and patient native speakers; apart from a few Twitter trolls, I have overwhelmingly found people encouraging of my efforts to learn Arabic.
I’ve linked to some resources at the bottom of this article.
Q: Should I start with speaking/listening or reading/writing?
A: I don’t think you can divide it like that. I think you need to do them all: unless you really have no interest in developing one skill set, you need to do them all. Devote time to each and move between them. This is also about knowing yourself, and how you learn: I know, for example, that I retain information through writing it and reading it. If someone tells me a word, it will go in one ear and out the other. I know I have to incorporate writing into learning if I’m to stand a chance of retaining anything. Take the time to realise how you learn best.
Q: Should I learn the script, or is working in transliteration enough?
A: Learn the script, I say. That is partly because I dislike transliteration and reading “Arabish” (Arabic written in Roman script with numbers filling in for sounds that don’t exist in English). Not only will it propel you further into the language, it will improve your pronunciation, because with a good teacher, you will spend time learning what each letter sounds like when said correctly. It will mean you can read useful things, like signs on toilet doors and “Forbidden!” notices.
Q: Should I get a teacher?
A: Yes. It’s difficult to make much progress in any language without, frankly, someone to kick you up the bum and turn in homework, writing exercises, and the like. My Arabic improved most quickly in the semester I took the class for native speakers at the American University of Beirut. It was led by a teacher who set cruel, cruel amounts of homework and marked us on every single piece of it. I was more than slightly anti-social that semester, but my Arabic improved quite a bit.
For conversation practice, I recommend NaTakallam, an online service which pairs refugees with Arabic learners.
Q: Which textbook should I use?
A: If you’re on a course with a set curriculum, you may not have a choice. I’ve used Al-kitāb for MSA which, while not perfect by any means, does provide building blocks to slowly improve your skills, especially when it comes to reading and writing. For Lebanese dialect, I used the textbooks published by the Saifi Institute in Beirut. I found them variable: some units were excellent and really enabled me to make progress in speaking, reading and writing in Lebanese amiya. Saifi also produced a dictionary of Lebanese amiya, which I still find useful, not least because MSA dictionaries just don’t cover the colloquial terms frequently used in Lebanon.
Q: Which dictionary should I use?
A: Again this is subjective. The best and most user-friendly I have found for looking up roots of words is Hans Wehr, which is available online.
Q: Is it best to immerse yourself? If so, where is the best place in the Middle East to live and learn?
A: Yes, to the first question. And yes to the second, although clearly upping sticks and moving isn’t an option for everyone. What is “best” clearly means different things to different people, too. Think about what sort of job you have, and what kind of lifestyle you want and can afford. The decision might be out of your hands for political reasons, too. In a dream world, I would go to Damascus in Syria: it’s one of my favourite cities in the world, has a dialect that I love, would offer lots of chance to practise, and suffers relatively little from the creep of English and French into standard speech in comparison with, for example, Beirut (this can be a serious problem in Beirut and Lebanon more widely, but that’s probably for another article). But clearly, Damascus is not a practical option at the moment. The Gulf might be good jobs-wise, but my understanding is that it is very difficult to speak and practise Arabic there. Egypt is culturally rich but a difficult place to work for journalists, researchers and the like, and the Arabic dialect is substantially different from that used in countries further East. If deciding to move to the MENA region, you’d have many factors other than language suitability to consider.
And if moving isn’t an option, there is no need to throw in the grammar book: as we have all discovered, Zoom and Skype services are wonderful ways of speaking to people wherever they are in the world.
Q: What is the best news website to read for clear, accurate content that doesn’t assume specialist knowledge?
A: I am a big fan of BBC Arabic, for written news content, documentaries, radio broadcasts (listening to BBC Arabic on my phone in the kitchen is the only way I can bear cooking and other kinds of food prep). There is enough new vocabulary and variety of sentence structure to challenge a learner, but not so much that one gives up in frustration. News coverage is not specialised and will often be broad sweep, with lots of coverage of youth and women’s issues, North Africa, and the Gulf. I also read Reuters’ wire stories in Arabic and watch France 24 Arabic and Al Jazeera documentaries. Make “watch” lists and subscribe to channels to keep track of resources, and see below for more online.
I also received a question on resources for 11-year-old learners. In all honestly, I’m not too sure how to answer this one, as I’m unfamiliar with children’s learning resources and programme structures.
I welcome comments or suggestions here.
Practise every day. I find that if I don’t read or listen to Arabic every day, I stutter more, slip up more, and become slower at reading. Devote time to practising specific tasks — looking up vocab, listening to the radio or a spoken text, reading news articles, or learning some new words — every day. One point on listening to music: when I first arrived in Lebanon, lots of people told me to listen to the famous Lebanese singer Fairuz to improve my Arabic. But I personally don’t find listening to songs very helpful. No one speaks as people sing, especially not with Fairuz’s beautiful lilting tones. Maybe more controversial, and not as lovely, but frankly I find political leaders’ sermons more useful in terms of picking up vocabulary and pronunciation (at least for MSA).
Accept the fact that you are going to have to devote time to Arabic. That could well mean making other sacrifices: your Fleabag addiction, a work project, etc. In the end, you have to choose.
Recognise your weaknesses. Take time to recognise the aspects of Arabic that you find tough and accept them. Then work on improving them. I’m not good at understanding shouted speech in fuzzy video clips on social media, for example. I know I need to sit down with a Twitter feed full of fuzzy and scratchy videos and make myself attempt to translate and summarise the content. Setting oneself mini tasks specifically focusing on points of weakness will help.
Don’t let embarrassment or shyness prevent practice. I think one major reason that more non-native speakers don’t progress further in Arabic is that they are scared or embarrassed about making mistakes and looking stupid. You have to accept the fact that yes, you will make mistakes. Yes, you might look stupid. Get over it. It probably isn’t the end of the world. Making mistakes and receiving corrections — which, when you ask for them, are often forthcoming — are great ways to improve.
Persevere. Learning Arabic will make you feel variously wonderful, crap, intelligent, sh*t-for-brains, despondent and really quite pleased with yourself. You just have to keep going.
Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the Comments section.
Dictionaries and grammar
Hans Wehr — as above — a physically and metaphorically heavy Arabic dictionary.
Al-Maany Arabic to English online dictionary — quicker to use than Hans Wehr, with synonyms and short vowels marked.
Lughatuna — dictionaries in Classical Arabic, plus Levantine, North African and Egyptian dialects.
Reverso Context — useful for finding phrases and idioms, though not 100 percent foolproof.
Desert Sky — useful reminders on key grammar points in MSA and Egyptian Arabic
Wiktionary verb pages. I wouldn’t normally recommend Wikipedia as a resource, but let me explain. If you are looking for a particularly tricky verb conjugation, the site’s verb pages are very useful. Type a verb root into Google with the word “conjugation”, for example: “شرب conjugation”:
The Wiktionary page looks like this:
Scroll down to “Conjugation” and you will find a full verb table.
Cooljugator also works similarly, though has fewer conjugated forms than Wiktionary.
Some of these are online resources, others are in print form.
Essential Middle Eastern Vocabularies book series by Elisabeth Kendall et al — includes a useful little book on the most common MSA words used in the media in Arabic, separated into sections such as politics, the economy, and the military.
Desert Sky online lists for MSA and Egyptian Arabic, although the lack of short vowel markers can complicate things.
Arabic Words Twitter account. For phrases, sayings, idioms, etc.
Barron’s 501 Arabic Verbs (Simon & Schuster) — hefty but good.
Iraqi Phrasebook: The Complete Language Guide for Contemporary Iraq (McGraw-Hill Contemporary)— some distinctly non-PC phrases in this book published in 2004, after the US invasion of Iraq. But also some useful insights into Iraqi dialect.
Reading and news sites
BBC Arabic — for region-wide news reporting, documentaries and radio broadcasts.
Al Jazeera Arabic for news reports and news coverage, although it’s sometimes controversial.
France 24 Arabic — ditto.
Raseef22 — for feature articles, quirky takes on cultures in the region.
Not in Arabic, but my friend Jacob Halpin, a British diplomat, has just published a book on his journey learning Arabic. “Thirteen Ways to Make a Plural: Preparing to Learn Arabic” by Jacob Halpin (Bloomsbury)
Sowt — the best-quality, in-depth podcast producer and network in the region, covering everything from “taboo” topics like undocumented persons and childless relationships to music, to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Kerning Cultures Arabic podcasts — beautifully-produced documentary-style podcasts on topics like the body and the various meanings of love.
DeirEzzor 24 podcasts — learn more about eastern Syria with these short-ish snippets, including the al-Jawla al-Furatia on culture, heritage and news from the region around the Euphrates river.