filed under Arabic, Hebrew, Reflection
Arabic and Hebrew: Why Semitic Languages Are Not Difficult

Libyan guy in Egypt

I read a lot of comments on forums and other blogs, and have received emails from people asking questions about the difficulty of Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew (Arabic mainly).

Fear-mongering novice learners try to frighten other would-be learners by describing Arabic as extraordinarily difficult, and the Foreign Service Institute places it in its fifth and most difficult category, with Hebrew and Amharic in its fourth.

As far as I’m concerned, the FSI’s placement of Arabic and Hebrew in those categories is absurd.

I’d also like to know how the hell Amharic (the Semitic language of Ethiopia with the much more challenging Ge’ez script and more unfamiliar culture to English speakers) is easier than Arabic.

If you’re an Amharic speaker/learner I’d like to hear your response to that question in the comments section below.

I admit that Amharic’s a language I haven’t studied yet, but after years of Arabic and Hebrew (and some Aramaic in college) I can confidently say that of all the languages that I’ve learned or dabbled in over the years, Semitic languages really are some of the least intimidating to learn.

I’ll briefly mention some, but not all, of my reasons below (with particular attention paid to Arabic and Hebrew).

 

Nerd, businessman or vagabond?

Before you do anything, it’s really important that you work out what your goals are for a language like Arabic or Hebrew.

This is true for all languages but for these in particular it depends on whether you want to learn the classical variety of Hebrew or Arabic for academic or religious reasons (e.g. Judeo-Christian/Islamic theological studies), a standard dialect to engage in business or to monitor current affairs (Israel/Palestine, terrorism, etc.) or a colloquial language for travel to engage and form relationships with local people.

With Arabic in particular the most common question asked by people is:

Should I learn Modern Standard Arabic or a dialect?

The only person who can answer that question is the one who asks it.

If you want to be able to converse in the language then pick a dialect (preferably the dialect of the region you’re planning to travel to) or a widely understood one like Egyptian. I’ve already mentioned the best series ever made for the Egyptian dialect, but there are plenty of others for other dialects whether you choose one like Moroccan or Iraqi (unfortunately dialects like Sudanese and Tunisian have fewer resources but I’d recommend starting with Egyptian if you’re interested in them anyway).

If you’re studying language for religious or academic purposes, then you’d benefit from a coursebook in Classical Arabic (or Biblical Hebrew) which are much more detailed about grammar, old vocabulary and exegesis.

Otherwise, the majority of resources available for Arabic are for Modern Standard Arabic (one of my favourite being this one) and from what I understand all Modern Hebrew resources are for Standard Hebrew as there are no major dialect distinctions in Israel comparable to those in the Arabic-speaking world.

 

Triliteral roots

Okay, so what makes them easier than people make them out to be?

First and foremost: roots.

Roots exist in all languages but one of the defining characteristics of Semitic languages is that most of their vocabulary comes from three-letter stems of radical consonants (there are a handful of four and two-letter stems too but most have three).

For example, in both Arabic and Hebrew, from the root K-T-B (كتب and כתב) we can derive many words relating to writing by simply adding certain vowels (or adding an extra consonant).

So for example:

كتب – katabahe wrote

مكتب – maktab – office

كتاب – kitaab – book

كاتب – kaatib – writer

Because of this, acquiring and recognizing vocabulary isn’t nearly as difficult as a language like English where the words office, book and writer have no clear connection whatsoever.

If you’re reading an Arabic or Hebrew article you can at least recognize dozens of stems and take a good shot at guessing the meaning of certain words. Even just a basic knowledge or awareness of various forms can enable you to take pretty accurate guesses at the meaning:

For example, let’s say you know that F-T-H (فتح) means “to open” and you know that putting a mim (letter M) at the beginning of a word with a long vowel on the last syllable turns it into an instrumental noun.

مفتاح

What’s an instrument used to open things?

A key.

It’s not always this easy but very often it is and it makes vocabulary so much easier to learn in comparison to other languages.

 

 

Dialects aren’t such a big deal

As I said above, people ask which dialect is the best to learn a lot and make a big deal about dialect variation as if this affects the difficulty level of the language.

The reality is, with the possible exception of Maghrebi Arabic (Moroccan/Algerian), people all over the Arab world will understand you regardless of the dialect you choose.

If you study Iraqi, Egyptians will understand you. If you study Levantine, Saudis will understand you. If you study Sudanese, Libyans will understand you.

Arabic speakers have grown up listening to all those varieties on TV and even if they haven’t, in much the same way as English speakers from New Zealand can understand the English of Scotsmen (with a bit of effort), these people can understand different types of Arabic too.

People say to me, but when they talk back to me I won’t understand them.

True.

But let’s say you can speak Levantine Arabic and you’re talking to a Kuwaiti with a rough Gulf dialect.

That Kuwaiti is able to imitate the dialect in the same way that I, as an Australian, can imitate an American to get foreigners to understand what I’m saying. Sometimes, especially when I’m teaching English, I have to put on an American accent because my Australian accent is difficult for some foreign students to understand.

Every Arab I’ve spoken to has been able to do the same.

 

Hebrew and Arabic scripts have the same origin as ours would you believe

Another major concern for people wanting to study Arabic or Hebrew are the scripts/alphabets.

Both of these languages have very exotic-looking writing, written from right to left, and this intimidates people. This is particular true with Arabic because the letters are connected and in both languages some of the letters change depending on their position in the word.

Despite what some scientists say, neither of them are overly difficult to read. I taught myself how to read both scripts in a day – it just takes a bit of adjustment switching over to a right-to-left language and getting your head around which letters change shape depending on position.

The Arabic and Hebrew scripts originate from the Phoenician alphabet, just like our Latin one does.

This means that some letters actually have slight resemblance to the ones we already know in Europe, and switching between Arabic and Hebrew is even easier because the letters are almost the same.

Pheonician Arabic Hebrew Latin

 

Really simple grammar compared to many other languages

Semitic grammar in my opinion is a heck of a lot easier than many other languages.

When I put down a German or Greek grammar and pick up my Hebrew grammar it’s like taking a breath of fresh air – seriously.

Without going into too much detail here are some examples:

  • The verb ‘to be is omitted in the present tense in both languages (e.g. “you are good” is simply “you good”)
  • There’s no neuter
  • The definite articles (ال) and (ה) are indeclinable, meaning they can be applied to masculine or feminine nouns and don’t change for different cases
  • A lot of the more intricate details of grammar (e.g. vowel changes for different noun cases, nunation, Masoretic markings, etc.) aren’t really a concern for anyone wanting to study colloquial dialects. The only people who really want to pay attention to this stuff are religious students.
  • Verb forms in both languages are best learned as words in context, rather than trying to learn and apply grammar rules. Over time you start to recognize the different forms (e.g. from the root 3-L-M - (اعلم) to teach (اتعلم) to learn) and see their connection, but there’s no need to overwhelm yourself in the early stages trying to learn them.
  • Learning a few suffixes is all that’s really necessary to understand noun possession and direct objects in verbs (e.g. -ka = you (m.) so kitaabaka (your book) and a7ebuka (I love you). <– Modern Hebrew possession is a little bit different as it uses the same suffix on a separate word for your (שלך).
  • In Egyptian Arabic in particular, to make a present or past tense verb negative is very similar to the way it’s done in French with a prefix and suffix (ne…pas – e.g. je ne viens pas) using ma… sh. So ‘he wrote’ - katab. ‘He didn’t write’ - makatabsh).

Those are just a handful of examples of why I consider Semitic grammar to be simpler than other languages. So much of the complexity that you find in other languages just isn’t a problem for Arabic and Hebrew learners.

 

Are those pharyngeals, velars and uvulars or are you mad at me?

Those harsh sounds you hear that sound like somebody’s pissed off about something.

There’s actually no secret or shortcut to pronunciation of the guttural sounds (and it certainly can’t be explained in writing). In the same way you’d learn Chinese tones or the French guttural R, you just need to listen and practice over and over.

As I said in a previous post, take your time with pronunciation and don’t race ahead until you get the sounds right. Like all languages, it just takes time and practice to start producing it properly.

Maha, a very popular YouTube polyglot originally from Palestine and now living in Italy (fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, Italian and English) has put together some very good videos aimed at beginners that have attracted a huge following. Here’s one of her videos on pronunciation:

 
 

 

Surprising amount of loanwords from English and French

Finally, there are quite a lot of loanwords in the English language and if you know other languages that have had a lot of contact with the Arab world then chances are there are plenty of loanwords there as well.

Turkish for example is full of Arabic words. Even Georgian has some Arabic borrowings.

Rather than reproduce the list, there’s a really good list here of Arabic loanwords in the English language.

Hebrew has a lot of European influence and so do the North African and Levantine varieties of Arabic, where you’ll find words like asansir for elevator, bisseen for swimming pool, and cwafir for hairdresser to name a few.

Going from Arabic -> Hebrew, Hebrew -> Arabic or Dialect -> Standard is also very easy as most of the work is already done with shared vocabulary as well as the common grammar.

 

Semitic languages aren’t that bad

Take classifications by the FSI and others with a grain of salt and don’t be intimidated by Semitic languages.

If you’ve learned, are learning or want to learn a Semitic language (including those I haven’t mentioned here), make sure to share your thoughts below!

Also make sure to read this post I wrote on 5 books that you absolutely should own if you’re learning Arabic.

 

This was written by .

Do you use StumbleUpon, Reddit, Pinterest or Digg? A quick upvotelikepin or digg will make my day! Thanks :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

Enter your email in the 'Join the Guild' box above!
Tags: ,

66 Responses to “Arabic and Hebrew: Why Semitic Languages Are Not Difficult”

  1. This is extremely well-done Donovan. Congrats.

    The detailed breakdown of Arabic is eye-opening for me. As you mentioned, most of what I know of the Arabic language is that it is difficult to learn, complex and would be a major undertaking. The dialect issue is another thing that normally scares people (like me) off of the language.

    Your clear breakdown and explanation convinced me otherwise, and I also learned a ton. Thanks a lot and keep them coming!

  2. I wonder if someone with dyslexia should shy away from Hebrew or languages using Arabic script because he/she could have trouble reading from right to left. Have you ever met someone from a right-to-left writing structure with dyslexia learning to read and write well in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu or Hebrew?

  3. I meant to ask if you know of a dyslexic whose language is read from left to right doing well with writing in languages using Arabic script or the Hebrew language?

  4. Im dyslexic and know Hebrew and English. I had no issues with the right to left. Sight reading (which I think is what dialectics do best) is easier in Hebrew without the vowels. The worlds are shorter than in English. Hebrew reading with vowels is much harder for me. All that info just gets so confusing. ;)

    By Ploni on Apr 16, 2012 | Reply
  5. I believe that the focus on grammar in a lot of Standard/Classical Arabic instruction is largely responsible for the idea that Arabic is so hard. Just like any language, it has some really complex structures. The difference is that in "high" literary languages like Arabic, people actually teach them and expect students to be able to master them. As a linguist, I study a lot of complex things in English (or spoken Arabic dialects) that exist, but simply aren't taught in any class. Accepting that proficiency in Arabic does not necessarily require mastery of all of the intricacies of the classical grammar can go a long way in making it less arduous to learn. After all, most educated native Arabic speakers make mistakes with the jussive, and they get along just fine. If you want to be a writer, journalist, or grammar professor then you should learn the right forms. If not, you'll be in good company with most Arabs.

    I do have to mention one factor which does make Arabic more difficult to learn than many European languages, at least for native speakers of English. Although there are lots of loan words from English (or other European languages) in the spoken dialects, there just aren't a lot of cognates. This is true when learning any non-Indo-European language. As I was learning Arabic, I found it very hard to acquire new vocabulary because most of the words just didn't have anything in common with what I knew already. Plus, if you hear a new word you can't cheat and use your English knowledge to guess. This problem gets better at advanced levels when you have enough words to productively use the root/pattern system. People often ask me what's hard about Arabic. They think it's reading right to left, the strange script, or the funny consonants. For me, all of that paled in comparison to just learning vocabulary.

    Oh, and I would also like to put some blame on the way that Arabic is taught. Because it is considered a "hard" language, many even *graduate* level courses are not conduced entirely in Arabic, or don't expect the students to be able to really communicate with it. Arabic is a language like any other, and if students were encouraged to really use it for communication (either through immersion or other pedagogical tools), I think we could learn it faster. French majors have classes in French, so why not have our (at least upper-level) classes in Arabic? If you are never required to productively use it even in the classroom, of course you will feel that you don't know it and aren't making any progress.

    By Sara on Apr 16, 2012 | Reply
  6. Thank you for this interesting post. Some time ago I was thinking about learning Arabic, since it is an important world language. But I was quite intimidated by comments ("Arabic is sooo difficult to learn"…) that I dropped the idea. Today, after reading this article, I put Arabic back on my language wish list! Hopefully the new timetable next semester will allow me to visit the Arabic course at my university.

  7. Thanks Jared.

    By the way, Spanish is full of Arabic influence too :) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_language_infl

    By mezzoguild on Apr 16, 2012 | Reply
  8. I admit dyslexia's something I've never considered for right-to-left languages, Susanna.

    That article from the BBC that I cited above makes me wonder if Arabic would be a problem for those people though.

    Ploni here would be a good person to ask about dyslexic people and Hebrew.

    By mezzoguild on Apr 16, 2012 | Reply
  9. Hi Sara.

    There certainly is an expectation on students to master the intricacies of Arabic which I think is because of the 'sacredness' of the language to most Arabs, especially with Classical Arabic courses.

    I did one course on fus7a when I was a beginner and I just gave it up because as you say, it was taught incorrectly and even Arab students hated the class. The way the grammar's taught just overwhelms people.

    As for vocabulary I haven't really ever thought of Arabic vocab as tremendously difficult, but in saying that it's the first foreign language that I ever learned (apart from Mandarin in school) so I didn't get to start with an easy Romance language full of similar-looking, similar-sounding cognates.

    By mezzoguild on Apr 17, 2012 | Reply
  10. Great. Good to hear! :)

    Thanks Mae.

    By mezzoguild on Apr 17, 2012 | Reply
  11. I didn't read all the way through, but wil come back to it. I found it interesting that you said people find your Australian accent difficult to understand. As another Australian I've found the opposite. Admittedly, I haven't travelled a great deal and am still learning my first language but when I was in Europe we'd playy the game 'do you know where we are from?' with people. Very few guessed Australia but most said they found our Australian accents easier to understand than a harsh american accent or an english accent.

    By regarderetlire on Apr 17, 2012 | Reply
  12. What a great post! I like that you broke down the problems of learning Arabic into reasonable chunks.

    I have to admit that my problems with Arabic is syntax. When I try to say things link, "I want you to come with me," I get tongue-tied.

    Do you have any suggestions for Arabic syntax?

    By igtima on Apr 18, 2012 | Reply
  13. Thanks! :)

    Which specific problems are you having with syntax?

    For Egyptian you'd say "ana 3aizak tigi ma3aya" (I want you, you come, with me). It's fairly straightforward. I think MSA is a little more confusing particularly when you have sentences where the verb is first but with a bit of practice it comes naturally.

    By mezzoguild on Apr 19, 2012 | Reply
  14. Thanks for the response! The commas are the points at which I get tongue-tied. It gets worse for me when I try to say, "Do you want me to come?" I don't know why the structure won't stick in my head.

    Fusha does this differently. I don't remember exactly how Moroccan does it, but I vaguely remember something akin to your Egyptian translation.

    By igtima on May 3, 2012 | Reply
  15. Very cool, and thank you, because I’ve wanted to learn Arabic for a long time and had thought (well, maybe, but I’m going to wait until I’ve learned a few others because I’ve heard how hard it is so it’ll take forever to learn). Good to know it’s really not that bad–kinda reminds me of Chinese and Japanese actually, they’re both really easy to learn if you don’t count the writing system, Chinese in particular is known for having ridiculously simple grammar and Japanese grammar is also quite simple.

    “Maha…attracted a huge following”

    Gee, I wonder why, haha. Gorgeous girl :)

    I’m especially interested in learning Lebanese Arabic, I checked and it turns out there are a ton of resources available for it and levantine/Eastern Arabic (which is the type of Arabic that Lebanese Arabic is), so that’s good to know.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  16. As a Hebrew speaker I can tell you it is not more easy to me learn Arabic for example, it's hard too, yes their are similar words it helps but both languages are very difficult with a difficult grammar to learn.

    Ben
    http://www.lingolearn.com

    By benblasto on Jun 8, 2012 | Reply
  17. I think for the most part Amharic is categorized as an easier language to learn becasuse of its less harsh or less alien sounding pronunciations, as appose to the harsh sounding, over emphasized "Kh's" and "3aa's" sounds that are found in other Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Tigrinya. Amharic is more gracile/soft sounding in nature.

    Learning Amharic from an English speaking perspective is somewhat hard, but in contrast to learning other Semitic langauges like Arabic and Hebrew it is much easier, easier in regards to certain pronunciations (given the certain similarities), not in regards to sentence/word formations.

    By Yohannes on Jun 14, 2012 | Reply
  18. Thanks Yohannes.

    How long have you been learning Amharic for?

    By mezzoguild on Jun 17, 2012 | Reply
  19. Would it be a good course of action to first learn standard Arabic and then learn various dialects later on after the mastery of standard? Or is standard Arabic much like Shakespearean English compared to modern English?

    By Adam M. on Jul 31, 2012 | Reply
  20. Classical Arabic is more comparable to Shakespearean English.

    It all depends on what your goals are. If you just want to learn conversational Arabic, then start out with a dialect and forget MSA for a while.

    If you're learning Arabic for a job or to read newspapers and so on, then start with MSA.

    Don't learn MSA first up if your goal is to become a fluent speaker.

    By mezzoguild on Jul 31, 2012 | Reply
  21. Just to clarify, Modern Standard Arabic is the same as Classical Arabic??

    By Adam M. on Jul 31, 2012 | Reply
  22. No.

    Classical Arabic is the language of the Quran and other religious literature. It's similar to Modern Standard but not the same.

    By mezzoguild on Jul 31, 2012 | Reply
  23. You've almost convinced me to start learning Arabic soon. I had been freaked out by the script and grammar before I read this post but not anymore. I just have to decide whether I want to learn Egyptian or Levantine Arabic.

    By Mickk_33 on Aug 8, 2012 | Reply
  24. I think people need to learn classical Arabic first,all Arabs know it,and on forums we chat with it,we listen to it in news and it's the language you read in it ! it's the base,it will be easy from that,to imitate whatever dialect you want,the most understood ones are the Egyptian and Syrian,because simply they are the leaders in making series,so people get to understand them with time.

    By Abraham on Aug 12, 2012 | Reply
  25. Thank you for mentioning that Mahgrebi Arabic really is quite different. If you speak Mahgrebi Arabic in the Middle East, you won't be understood. However, most people in North African countries understand Modern Standard Arabic and most other dialects (especially Egyptian and Levantine, thanks to the entertainment industries). Generally, people can speak MSA, too although some Mahgrebi expressions tend to creep in.

    By Liza on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply
  26. True.

    Are you learning Maghrebi Arabic, Liza?

    By mezzoguild on Sep 19, 2012 | Reply
  27. An article I read at some point last year suggested that scientifically Arabic should be easier for a dyslexic person. Israeli research had concluded that (and I'm paraphrasing here because I cannot fully remember the article or find it), unlike English and Hebrew, Arabic is read with the right side of the brain which is the side more dominant in those with dyslexia. Therefore, although Arabic may be more confusing for a dyslexic person who already struggles with English, a dyslexic child may find it easier to learn to write in Arabic than to learn to write in English. Hope that makes sense!

    By Charlotte on Sep 26, 2012 | Reply
  28. Speaking both Arabic (MSA) and Hebrew, I actually tend to say that the latter is harder since its grammar is more conservatively afroasiatic and Semitic (more antique in a sense).

    Arabic is the easiest (not phonology-wise though, but that's a detail since many arabic speakers can't pronounce all arabic sounds in the first place… Take Hassan Nasrallah, he can't pronounce 'raa').

    By Yesha3 on Oct 6, 2012 | Reply
  29. I'm starting to learn Arabic and I have a Lebanese neighbor, but our communication is sometimes poor: although we chat in my native language (Portuguese), he doesn't understand the conception of what is Modern Standard Arabic, what is Classical Arabic and what is just his dialect (being he Libanese, I think it's Levantine), I don't really know why, maybe because he came to Brazil a lot of time ago and I don't know since when these three "types" of Arabic are well separated and known by the people, since when they keep it in mind.

    What should I do? Should I try to "discover" what type of Arabic he's speaking about? He's not a teacher, I will learn Arabic most by myself, but it would be cool to have clues, tips, from him.

    P.S.: Sorry for my bad English.

    By Igor on Dec 5, 2012 | Reply
  30. My name is Mohammad. I am from Ramallah city in Palestine. Certainly Arabic is my native language. Hebrew and English were my academic languages at "Hebrew College- Boston USA" where I studied for a master degree in Jewish Studies. I just want to say that all languages are beautiful and easy to learn especially when you have an interest to learn. Certainly Semitic languages are more difficult for European people for several factors like different shapes of letters and for the guttural letters. But this is not a big problem. I recommend the Jerusalemite Arabic dialect for people intend to learn spoken Arabic. It’s because this dialect is a “standard” and can be understood in all Arab countries. This relates to the geographic location of Palestine which is in the middle of the Arab world. I encourage everyone to learn Arabic and/or Hebrew.

    By Mohammad K. Hussein on Dec 27, 2012 | Reply
  31. Arabic is unequivocally one of the hardest languages for Westerners. The working vocabulary is scarily enormous in spite of the root system, and the verb conjugations are patterned but complex, with many more sophisticated rules to learn than say, French. I believe the UN rightfully estimated that learning Arabic takes a good four times as long as learning a romance language (for English speakers). I believe it was about 2100 hours estimated time in a classroom only to get to a 3 on a 5 point scale of Moderb Standard Arabic only. It’s quite misleading to give people the impression that studying Arabic without previous exposure to or semitic languages is anything but a highly-challenging lifetime commitment, and that few who set out reach fluency in reality.

    By John on Feb 2, 2013 | Reply
  32. I would argue that those people fail for other reasons (motivation, time, methodology, etc.).

    If I hadn't achieved this myself, I wouldn't be so confident in what I'm saying.

    By mezzoguild on Feb 2, 2013 | Reply
  33. From maghreb.
    Beginnig a new language needs to go to it source country.
    If i want to learn the sweet English of Shakespeare we needs to go in Britain not in Wales o Scotland or Canada…(furthmore in german or sweden whore saxons)………
    After learnig english we can attempt to understand those english dialectes ….
    The same rules applies for Latin (thiugh it is a "dead" language not spoken today ….we need to go in Italia ….
    good day………

    By AMROU on Feb 13, 2013 | Reply
  34. From maghreb(suite)….
    The arabic countries of Africa (Maghreb including Egypt) are not the origin source of arabic…but their dialects have most similiraties because their poeples are african not semitic like iraqian or syrian(somilar dialectes) ….like dialectes (of English) american and canadian….. .
    Things that demonstrate the simplicity of arabic compared to others language is that I can understand easyly a poem writed in Ve century BC by the great arabic poet I.Quais…..(also for the holy quaran )…

    The difference between the arabic and other languages:his simplicity…….
    I speak easely the french…….but compared to english it is a nightmare….
    I think the same comparing english to others language :his siimpliciy

    But english suffers like arabic from their pronunciaton…….
    good day…..

    By AMROU on Feb 13, 2013 | Reply
  35. I'd had the impression that there was much greater linguistic diversity in the Arab world, such that Classical Arabic would be comparable to Classical Latin, MSA to Medieval Latin and the dialects to the Romance languages.

    Oh, and another thing that I'd imagine to be difficult about Semitic languages: how do you read unfamiliar words aloud when the script (unless you're reading the Qur'an) includes no vowel information?

    By GCarty on Mar 3, 2013 | Reply
  36. One of the things which attracted me to Arabic and Hebrew were those granular, explosive consonants – and in the case of Hebrew- the pure vowels, like Italian or Spanish. Plus- one gets to read the various scriptures in the original.

    By Attila on Mar 6, 2013 | Reply
  37. I absolutely agree, Sara. It is much harder to remember the vocabulary in Arabic, for the reasons you state, than in the other (European languages) that I have learned. The grammatic structure does not present too much of a problem. I had begun to think that I had developed memory problems with Arabic, until I discussed my fear with other Arabic students. They all said the same.

    By Jane de Florez on Mar 12, 2013 | Reply
  38. I have found that the Lebanese tend to run all of the consonants much more closely together and leave out most of the vowel sounds. If your neighbour originates from a Christian neighbourhood in the North of Lebanon, he may also add different words taken from Amaraic, which was widely spoken there. Those people tend not to have an Arab identity at all and see themselves as Phoenicians, which does influence their mindset on language and culture.

    By Jane de Florez on Mar 13, 2013 | Reply
  39. I love the way Palestinians speak Arabic!

    By Jane de Florez on Mar 13, 2013 | Reply
  40. Being an arabic native, I would recommend learning Modern Arabic or Classical Arabic two names for the same thing. Dialects are only recommended for someone who will be living in a given Arab country for a long time and wants to speak like the locals but if you do this than you won’t be able to read books or watch the news as it’s all done in the mother language not the dialects.
    All Arabs default to Classical Arabic in a conversation if their dialects are two far from each other, anybody who has been to school understands it and it is really not like Shakespearean English…It is part of everyday life.

    By Meriem on Apr 29, 2013 | Reply
  41. I'm learning Modern Standard Arabic, because I was told (by lots of people) that I should learn that first and then pick up dialects if I plan to go to, say, Egypt. I want to read the newspapers and watch Al Jazeerah news programs and later, much later, books. My chances of going to Egypt, or anywhere else, are slim to none. Also, I know no Arabs, so I have no chance to speak with a real live Arab at present. So for now I'm sticking with Modern Standard Arabic, even though I agree with a lot of what you say. Thanks for the article.

    By Mary Jane Burton on May 20, 2013 | Reply
  42. If i already know Hebrew fluently, how hard would it be to learn (spoken) Arabic?

    By david on May 30, 2013 | Reply
  43. Donovan, after reading this post, I just got motivated to learn both Arabic and Hebrew. I feel that once I get hang of one of these two languages, learning the other one wouldn't be to difficult. Plus, they have similar pronunciations.

  44. Meriem– First of all, MSA and Classical Arabic are not the same thing. Classical Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, it is not the same as written Modern Standard Arabic. And while I agree that Arabic learners should learn MSA, if you want to SPEAK Arabic without people laughing at you/feeling uncomfortable then you must learn a dialect. A person from Saudi Arabia and an Egyptian would not speak MSA to each other, they would either speak dialect (which both would be able to understand with little effort) or even English. Speaking MSA to each other in public would sound odd and uncomfortable. Also, many Arabic speakers understand MSA but only speak dialect.

    By Greg on Jun 9, 2013 | Reply
  45. I have just started learning Hebrew a week ago. It's incredible how similar to Arabic it is. I am confident to say I have learned a great deal in this extremely short period of time. I am native Arabic speaker and have been always intimidated by the seemingly completely different alphabet. I assumed I would be learning a completely alien language, but I obviously was wrong. My point is that once you master Arabic, Hebrew will be a piece of cake and vice versa.

    By Invictus Sawsan on Jun 26, 2013 | Reply
  46. I can say that one of my passions is Arabic, i speak spanish (my mother tongue), english, portuguese, chinese (after of 4 years of studies… I finally could say that I speak it in a good level). but Arabic is my obssesion… unfortunately here in my country there’s no arabic courses, no arabic teachers, no arabic people… so there’s no way to learn it. I found a teacher who was giving free online lessons.. so finally I started to learn. That experience was good and bad at the same time.. good because i started to learn Arabic.. But sometimes frustrating because the rythm was so slow… one hour a week lesson, and my group wasn’t very helpfull.. while i was waiting for learning more and moe things… the rest in the class.. were asking to repeat the last lesson over and over again.. because they never remembered what do we study in the last lesson.

    I started with Classical Arabic.. because the lessons were designed for muslims, I’m not muslim, but these was the only one chance i had to learn “my language”. After of it, the teacher didn’t give more lessons.. iso I stopped my studies.

    Some months ago, looking on youtube, I watched people who studies arabic in universities around the world.. then I thought.. why do they can speak arabic so well and I don’t? So i decided to study by myself…

    I back to my Books. (I was using Al-Madinah book in class) so I looked over book 1, then i studied by myself book 2.. Now I’m working on a book called “Al-arabiya baina yadaik” it’s a bit classical.. but more modern than Madinah for sure.. anyway, classical arabic is not my goal. But helps me to be familiarized with arabic pronounciation it has many drills in different actual situations.. and everything has audio!. I don’t know if I’m doing well or not, but I’m just dropping all vocal endings, because I think when people rarely uses MSA, thet don’t use nounation. Please If I’m wrong let me know!

    After of my studies of MSA I would like to have a Basis of egyptian dialect, in case that if I do speak with an arabic native speaker, i would like to sound a bit more familiar… but i’m still with some doubts rounding on my head… can i speak directly to any person using MSA? and speaking without vowel endings?? If it’s possible to mix MSA and dialect when I’m speaking???

    By Mauricio on Jul 19, 2013 | Reply
  47. i will learn tigrinya, just not sure how fast, but i will. i don't fond it hard, just different and amazingly lovely, and i am a bit intimidated by the script, coz im technically dyslexic, but since they pronounce as the write and, my first langue is like that, (english is my second language), i will also be less dyslexic in tigrinya then in english. because of the way english is, i am highly dyslexic precisely in that one, lol. thank you for encouraging me with you explanations about semitic languages.

    By eve on Jul 27, 2013 | Reply
  48. Yeah, that was a problem for me too, and i am an Arab, the system mostly used to learning Arabic depends on memory, and there is only so much the human memory can remember, and because of that i used to get very bad grades when it comes to Arabic, but one time my brother challenged me to get a higher grade in junior high school than he did, and i hate to loose a challenge, so i started studying(i used to be the worst student in my class) and when it came to some classes such as French(i hate french) and Arabic, i would find really hard to study in class, so i started studying it on my on, and then i started to "understand" the language instead of remembering it, and i got the equivalent of an A
    The learning system for Arabic is frustrating, i find that courses like Rosetta Stone are really good for people who hate to depend on their memory, i am currently learning Spanish using it, and it's really easy(a hell lot easier than learning French)

    By Ahmed AlHallak on Jul 27, 2013 | Reply
  49. Most Arabic speakers can pronounce all letters, Hassan Nasrallah and Bashar AlAssad are anomalies, most the people i know can pronounce every letter not just in Arabic but even the ones that doesn't exist in Arabic (V,soft G, J,P), well at least i can

    By Ahmed AlHallak on Jul 28, 2013 | Reply
  50. I am an Arabic, there is no real difference between MSA and Classical Arabic, it' just that after, it's the same, and have the same words, but in CA one wouldn't say Telefizieon for TV, but he would say "AlRa'i" which means something close to "The Vision-er" as in the the thing that let you see, and instead of saying "Camera" you would say "Swara" which is the "Machine Name" from the root "Sora" (picture-photograph) which means "The Photographer but not for the man but for the machine (the camera), you can understand it, but it would be weird to use it, even though some people do
    Speaking MSA in public isn't "very" weird especially if you're talking about a serious thing or you are on tv or speaking about science-philosophy-all serious matter, and you can't use anything but MSA for writing an article or a formal message
    This is simply because dialect isn't that reliable when talking about a serious matter because everyone would understand it in his own way, unlike MSA which have rules and it can't mean something for a Syrian(i am Syrian) and mean something else for a Moroccan

    By Ahmed AlHallak on Jul 28, 2013 | Reply
  51. It's not a very big deal to speak MSA or a combination of both, especially that it's not your native tongue
    But if you want to learn a dialect i strongly advice you to learn Levantine, it's the closest you would get to MSA, and it's the most understood and most loved dialect in the Arab world, the only problem is, that there isn't much sources to learn i think
    I am currently learning Spanish, and i got to say, it's easy, and Arabic is much closer to Spanish than it's to English, and it have lots of Arabic words(Arroz, pants, camissa, etc) and it rules are also a little bit close

    By Ahmed AlHallak on Jul 28, 2013 | Reply
  52. Thanks for your input.

    By Carlos P. on Jul 29, 2013 | Reply
  53. Thanks for your comment. Very enlightening.

    By Carlos P. on Jul 29, 2013 | Reply
  54. Thanks Mohammad. I appreciate your comment. Peace be upon you! Shalom!

    By Carlos P. on Jul 29, 2013 | Reply
  55. I found your article really interesting. I have had a few false starts learning Arabic and, as a languages teacher, found this discouraging. Now I am restarting and having more success. I think the key for me is having a support network of three Arabic speaker friends (from the old LiveMocha) who I talk with on Skype to check and consolidate my learning from books. This way, when I encounter a problem, I get quick feedback from a native speaker and can move on. I'm now starting an Arabic class to add to the sources I learn from. Fingers crossed!

    By Les Churchman on Sep 13, 2013 | Reply
  56. Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are almost exactly the same. The only difference is that MSA has more "modern" words and most of them are borrowed from english.

    Overall MSA uses less words than The Classical Arabic. There are 500 words for "Lion" and 200 for "snake". Only a handful are used in Modern Arabic.

    If you want to learn arabic, try modern standard arabic first. Almost every arab understands it as it is used in newspaper, books, tv and radio. Even when they don't speak it fluently for lack of practice they can use it with some effort when talking to you.

    And apart from morrocan and algerian who are heavily influenced by amazigh, french and some spanish all other arabics dialects are easy to understand if you know Modern arabic.

    By Jaafar on Sep 24, 2013 | Reply
  57. hey there..i’m ethiopian and a native amharic speaker (oromo, a cushitic language, is my mother-tongue).. I also know arabic. If you already got past your fear of foreign scripts, amharic is really easy to learn. The grammar is easier than english and reading the script is as easy as it could get, believe me! If you want to write ”grammar”, you write symbols for ”g”, ”ra”, ”me”,”r”. Just break down the word and that’s it. But you’ll obviously need to know the symbols..and they’re not hard. But they are formed in odd ways. The pronounciation is devoid of glottal stops and stressed H’s, but these don’t make arabic any harder. Well, i learnt arabic from reading and listening to tv from youn age. On the arab satellite, the dialect is usually standard & only ocassionally regional. But whatever dialect you learn, it wont be hard switching once you master it. As for classical and modern arabic, trust me it’s not comparable to shakespearian and modern english. They’re much closer.
    p.s. One bad news for amharic learners..lack of material! Good news..almost no dialect disparities. Plus formal amharic is nearly the same as colloquial amharic.

    By abo on Oct 5, 2013 | Reply
  58. "we needs to go in Britain not in Wales o Scotland" <- LOL

    By littlemisstwiggydee on Dec 21, 2013 | Reply
  59. I, too, am on the Arabic adventure (moghamara!, one of my favorite words in Arabic, hehe)…and I find that one of the biggest impediments is the teaching method, which I am beginning to suspect is a worldwide Arabic teaching problem. Everything is focused on grammar, grammar, grammar, whereas the teachers of most other world languages have moved on to a communicative approach. I have taken 2 years of Moroccan Darija classes and am in the third year of Standard Arabic. The Darija classes were great because the teacher was pretty much given free range to do whatever she pleased, so we were forced to talk all the time, get into lifelike situations, learn useful vocabulary. After 2 years, we definitely knew far more than in 3 years of MSA. In MSA, we are taught the jussive, subjunctive, incredibly lengthy conjugations (how often are you gonna be using the feminine dual jussive of one of those hollow verbs, eh?), etc. but we are very very rarely given the chance to practice anything at all. So people can conjugate these insane verbs, but when asked to say "I want a glass of water," they choke up, get nervous and say something incomprehensible. Anyway, it seems useless to study all the grammar if oral practice is not included.

    But I shall persevere! I am growing to like MSA the more I know, but will always have a special affection for the whimsical, creative nature of Darija, with its hilarious expressions and endless slang (totally absent from MSA, and so much a fun part of language learning). I often feel like Darija is akin to English, in that it has many synonyms for the same idea, but each from different origins and having different nuances, because it often uses most or all of the words from Standard Arabic (with a pronunciation change), as well as synonyms from Berber, French, Spanish, Portuguese or English.

    By Zeke Joneke on Jan 26, 2014 | Reply
  60. I've been living in Ethiopia for a year and a half now, and I must say (at least for me) Amharic has definitely been more of a challenge. I only studied Arabic for a semester in Egypt, but I found it much easier to navigate than Amharic, for three main reasons:

    1) Lack of standardized resources for Amharic– especially as you get into higher levels. As a Peace Corps Volunteer we were given language training, but even the Amharic teachers struggled to find ways to explain what they were teaching. There just really are not any good resources outside of local tutors/friends– and even those can often be a struggle because they can't communicate specific grammatical points.

    2) The fidel! If reading the language is important to you than Amharic is definitely harder than Arabic. Learning to read from right to left was no problem compared to memorizing the different fidel and how they change based on which vowel. Sure there are common ways the fidel change based on vowels, but there are just some that throw you for a loop. Plus, there are several different fidel for sounds that are exactly the same– several different h's and s's.

    3) Explosives. The explosive p, t, and s are not that hard to learn, but many people don't take the time to learn them or struggle with them. Not difficult, they just take some time– like the kh and ain in Arabic.

    Hope this gives some insight for anyone contemplating learning Amharic! yichalal!

    By lacynoel on Feb 18, 2014 | Reply
  61. I am native Romanian and understand Italian French Spanish ,even Portuguese.Ten years ago, I learned Modern Hebrew quite fast, then I start to learn Arabic MSA.I had to learn by heart the plural(s) for every noun/adjective.Arabic is even harder than German or Russian. Nowadays I don t understand Moroccan dialects – completely different language.

    By Al on Feb 22, 2014 | Reply
  62. In conclusion Arabic is far more difficult than Hebrew ,Syriac,Amharic.Dispite its regular grammar and strange phonetics, you have to learn by heart most nouns and verbs.At least two forms,unless you wanna make mistakes.Arabic deserves its place next to Chinese,Japanese,Korean,etc.It is difficult,unique and (for some) sacred.So stop saying bullshit.

    By Al on Feb 22, 2014 | Reply
  63. There are many differences between "modern" and "classical" Arabic, especially in vocabulary (words like 'car', 'airplane' , 'television'), and a multitude of others don't exist in "classical" Arabic, of course, but do in Modern Literary Arabic, as well as in the dialects. And some dialects in the mashreq have words like "shloonich" (how are you?), "ambahkou" (i am speaking ), "bi'ooluh" (they say…); etc., which are far from classical (or literary) Arabic! Nowhere today (unfortunately) is classical or literary Arabic the normal daily speech. ALL Maghreb dialects (including Chadian and Maltese!) use the verbal prefix "na-" for "I", for "we" the suffix "-u" is added. EVERYBODY uses their own local dialect (unless conversing with an Arab from a distant region…) Hopefully, as education spreads, this situation will be ameliorated!

    By el-Shinqiti on Mar 13, 2014 | Reply
  64. One thing this entire article overlooks in regards to Arabic is the concept of Nahu. Maybe the emphasis is not to learn heavy grammar, but if any person must know know Nahu to use the Arabic language in any sort of productive way. This oversimplification of learning languages brushes off some of the most important aspects of the language.

    Also, I completely have to disagree on the use of the Egyptian dialect. It has been taught in Western academic Arabic curricula and it has been popularized by Egyptian soap operas and media, but Egyptian Arabic is highly irregular in terms of pronunciation of letters and the use of general vocabulary across the Arabic world. The best accent to learn is probably the proper Jordanian accent, both in terms of universality of meaning and closeness to the proper pronunciations of the letters and words.

    By Bakr on Mar 26, 2014 | Reply

Post a Comment

About The Author:

I’m an Applied Linguistics graduate, ESL teacher and translator with years of travel and language learning experience. I have a huge passion for language learning and for helping to raise awareness of endangered minority languages around the world.

Like this blog?