beginning, general interest

I want to learn Arabic. How should I start?

As a teacher of Arabic, I am sometimes asked what the best way is to start learning the language. In this article I’ll give some tips and things to consider.

What kind of Arabic? The language normally used in newspapers, books, and scripted material is usually known as Modern Standard Arabic, abbreviated as MSA. MSA is essentially based on Classical Arabic (of the 7th to 9th centuries), somewhat simplified and updated with vocabulary and expressions needed for modern life and thought. What people speak in their homes, with their friends, and in everyday transactions is not MSA, but the modern spoken dialect of where they are from or where they live.

It is generally recommended that beginners start by learning Modern Standard Arabic rather than a modern dialect. There are several reasons for this. For starters, you have a much greater selection of learning and reference materials to choose from. There is a lot more to read, since not much is written in any of the spoken dialects. It is universal, so you can speak it with any literate person from an Arabic-speaking country. It is also much easier to learn to read starting from MSA. Once you have gained a bit of reading facility in MSA, you can always switch tracks to a spoken dialect, bringing with you a solid basis in MSA. Also remember that MSA and the modern dialects are actually intertwined; educated speakers of Arabic often pepper their speech with words and expressions borrowed from the written language.

For most people, I also recommend that you start with MSA. There will always be some people who for special reasons are better off starting with a local dialect, such as those already living in an Arab country. If you are one of these people, I would start by finding a good textbook. Many excellent books are available for learning Egyptian Arabic, Gulf Arabic, Levantine Arabic, and other varieties.

Take a classroom course. If you have the opportunity, I recommend starting by taking a class. For most people, having a regular meeting time, classmates, and a teacher setting the pace is much more motivating than trying to work through a book on one’s own.

Start with the alphabet. But suppose you can’t take a classroom course or really prefer not to. Then I propose you start by learning the alphabet, and the most effective way to do that is by using a textbook dedicated to learning the writing system. Two books I can recommend for that are my own Bite-Size Arabic and the widely used university textbook Alif Baa. The advantage of these two books compared to some others on the market is that they devote ample attention to writing as well as to reading: Bite-Size has a free writing workbook you can download, and Alif Baa doubles as a workbook, with plenty of space for writing in the book itself. You can supplement these books by finding videos about Arabic handwriting on YouTube.

The reason I recommend starting with a book dedicated to the alphabet is that several popular general beginning textbooks of Arabic devote too little attention to the alphabet and are incomplete in their explanations, making it difficult to get past the first few chapters. And since these books devote almost no attention to handwriting, it is very difficult for the learner to do the exercises that require writing the answers in Arabic.

Watch video content. Learners in our modern world are very lucky to have so much video content at there fingertips. For the absolute beginner, I would recommend starting with ArabicPod101’s “Arabic in Three Minutes” series. After that, you could explore some of the video content for beginners listed on the home page of Dr. Bulbul’s Arabic under the heading “Things to Watch and Listen To”.

I would not consider video material as a substitute for a textbook, but something extra to be used alongside it. Generally speaking, only a textbook is going to give you adequate, systematic explanation.

Get a beginning textbook designed for independent learners. There are lots of beginning textbooks out there, but not all of them are good, and some of them that are good are better tailored to classroom use than to the needs of an independent learner. (The university textbook Al-Kitaab is one such classroom-tailored book.) Two books I have two with are Mastering Arabic 1 and Complete Arabic. Again, I recommend first learning to read and write the alphabet before beginning with either of these books.

Find a language buddy, tutor, or teacher. Working with a book can remain rather theoretical. You can continue to learn new vocabulary and grammar without really improving your ability to communicate. The best way to grow those communication skills is with real, human interaction in the target language. My favorite way to do this is through the iTalki.com, which is a hub where you can find language teachers, tutors, and language exchange partners. If you want formal lessons, you search for a teacher; for paid conversation practice, you look for a teacher that offers “informal tutoring”; and for a language buddy, you find other members interested in your language who also speak Arabic and send them a message. You conduct the sessions using Skype or some other VOIP program. The formal lessons and informal tutoring are relatively inexpensive, and all of the administration, like scheduling and payment, are handled through the hub. I’ve had great success with iTalki.com for other languages.

Another tool you may wish to try is Amikumu, which is an app for your smartphone that locates other speakers of your language in your area in real time so you can set up actual meetings to practice.

Other resources. There are other places than here to find ideas on learning Arabic. I will add to this list as I find new ones:

Good luck! Learning Arabic is fun and rewarding. I hope these tips were of help to you. If you have additional tips for getting started with Arabic, leave a comment below.



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