Bite-Size Arabic: Learn to Read and Write Arabic Using the Tiniest Bit of Vocabulary and Grammar by Leston Chandler Buell (that is, by me, Dr. Bulbul) is a new textbook designed for both classroom use and independent learners. It teaches the reading and writing system of Standard Arabic, along with a smidgen of vocabulary and grammar, and has a free and open companion website with extensive audio material and a handwriting workbook that can be downloaded free of charge. As the author of this book, I’m going to use this review to discuss its features and philosopy, with the hope that in doing so I can convince you that Bite-Size is an excellent starting point if you want to learn to read and write Arabic.
Words in context. I wrote Bite-Size out of frustrations I experienced using another introductory textbook of the Arabic writing system. The main frustration had to do with the order in which the letters were introduced. In Arabic, there are a handful of letters you absolutely need to write even the simplest of sentences. The book I was using introduced the letters in such an order that you couldn’t read complete sentences until you reached the end of the book. What I needed was a book that had the learner reading simple sentences right from the beginning. This required careful consideration of the order in which the letters were introduced. Once a new letter was introduced, relevant vocabulary and grammar would be introduced using that letter.
A list of desiderata. In addition to this basic approach, the book needed to explain everything completely, but in easy language. It needed to be appropriate for both classroom use and the independent learner. Above all, it should not attempt to accomplish too many things at once: It needed to introduce just enough new vocabulary and grammar to keep up the learner’s momentum. Any learner putting in a reasonable amount of effort should be able to complete the entire book, thus learning the entire Arabic writing system, and not be held back by a backlog of vocabulary to memorize.
A book is born. The result of this wish list was Bite-Size Arabic! Now let’s take a look at some of its features.
Bite-Size Arabic introduces letters and diacritics a few at a time over the course of 12 units, but unlike in Alif Baa the introduction of vocabulary and grammar in Bite-Size is closely linked to the letters that the student can read: words are only introduced at the point where the student can read them in Arabic script. Furthermore, letters are presented in such an order that basic words such as the singular pronouns, the demonstratives, and the definite article can be introduced early on, allowing students to read complete simple sentences right from the first units. The focus throughout the book is on working with complete sentences using a small, carefully selected vocabulary.
Structure. The book is divided into 12 units, each of which introduces a few letters and symbols (except fot the last unit, which introduces the numerals). In addition, new points of grammar are explained. The explanatory text makes extensive use of transliteration alongside Arabic script. The unit is interspersed with a variety of exercises of different sorts, most of which can be listened to on the companion website. It should also be mentioned that the Arabic examples and exercises are in a large, easy-to-read font.
At the end of the book, you will find an Arabic–English glossary, with both Arabic script and transliteration. There is also a handy summary of the entire Arabic writing system, which is also a popular feature on the book’s website.
Informal Standard Arabic. The target language is informal Standard Arabic. That is, the standard written language, common to all Arabic countries, without many of the grammatical endings characteristic of Classical Arabic and formal Standard Arabic. This informal variety of Modern Standard Arabic is the target language of most modern textbooks on the market, such as Alif Baa, Complete Arabic, and Mastering Arabic. This variety of Arabic will allow you to be understood wherever you travel, but without sounding pedantically bookish.
Vocabulary reinforcement. The philosophy behind Bite-Size Arabic entails learning a minimal amount of vocabulary and grammar, but learning it very well. This requires frequently reusing vocabulary items in new contexts, in both the examples and the exercises. This will help you remember the vocabulary you are learning. (Many textbooks aren’t very good at this, often presenting many words only once.)
Companion website. The companion website is rather minimal, but it provides audio for most of the exercises in the book as well as for all of the vocabulary lists. Some other textbooks provide an accompanying CD, but I find that more and more students do not have easy access to a CD player. I wish more textbooks would simply make their audio material available online. The Bite-Size website is open for all; you do not need to set up an account to access any of the material.
Handwriting workbook. Bite-Size has a companion handwriting workbook that you can download for free from the website. It contains lots of models and handwriting exercises, some of which reinforce vocabulary and grammar material introduced in the book.
So, there you have it: Bite-Size Arabic’s philosophy and most important features. I hope I have succeeded in convincing you that Bite-Size is a great starting point if you want to learn to read and write Arabic. Maybe you even want to purchase a copy immediately. Don’t let me stop you!