How Arabic Words Made It Into The Chinese Language

How Arabic Came To China

Today’s guest post comes from accomplished polyglot Judith Meyer.

She runs a blog called LearnLangs and was also the organizer for the Polyglot Conference in Berlin this year.

As I mentioned recently on Facebook, Judith’s running a fundraising campaign at the moment to get help putting together a really impressive tool for learning Mandarin Chinese called LearnYu (if you ever wanted a Duolingo-esque tool for Mandarin then this might be what you’re after).

The campaign still has just under 2 weeks left and I’m sure she’d really appreciate your support.

Click here to check it out.


I still remember a high school history class on what might be called the Islamic Civilization – the series of Arab states and caliphates that experienced a Golden Age of Science while Europe lived in the Dark Ages.

Starting around 622, Muslim scholars were encouraged to travel the world, learn what they could in every country and write about their findings in Arabic.

They created the basis for modern mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine.

Through the spread of Islamic Civilization, their traders, their technological achievements and the Muslim faith, a lot of Arabic words have entered foreign languages.

In English, you can find words like ‘alcohol’, ‘coffee’, ‘sugar’, ‘cotton’, ‘sofa’, ‘guitar’, ‘algorithm’, ‘alkaline’ and more.

When learning Swahili, I noticed a lot of Arabic vocabulary, from ‘wakati’ (waqat = time) to ‘fikiri’ (fakara = to think). ‘Safari’ is a Swahili word in English but the Swahili word is itself based on the Arabic ‘safara’ (to travel). Same thing in Indonesian on the other side of the globe: ‘waktu’ (waqat = time), ‘kursi’ (chair) and ‘adil’ (‘adl = fair, just) are just some of the words I recognized from Arabic.


So how did Arabic fare in China?

Muslim traders settled in China as early as 616 AD and by 1000 AD, most import/export was in the hands of Muslims. Yet Chinese is notoriously resistant to adopting foreign words, often opting to translate the concept rather than instruct people in how to pronounce foreign syllables.

Arabic words that more or less kept their sound in Chinese include:

coffee 咖啡 kāfēi via English
guitar 吉他 jítā via English
sofa 沙发 shāfā via English
emir 埃米尔 āimǐ’ěr from Arabic
bedouin 贝都因人 bèidōuyīnrén from Arabic
imam 伊玛目 yīmǎmù from Arabic
mullah 毛拉 máolā from Arabic, possibly through Persian
muslim 穆斯林 mùsīlín from Arabic
islam 伊斯兰教 yīsīlán jiào from Arabic (jiào means ‘religion’)

Note that Chinese Muslims sometimes prefer the translation 清真 qīngzhēn for ‘Muslim’ and 清真教 qīngzhēn jiào for ‘Islam’.

The characters mean ‘clear and true’.

By contrast, Chinese people may refer to Muslims as 回族 huízú (Hui people). The character ‘hui’ means ‘to go back’ and is thought to be rooted in the word for the Uyghur nation of the 8th and 9th centuries.

Today, Hui people are recognized as an ethnic group in China, but really they are all Chinese nationals who belong to the Muslim faith, independent of their ethnic make-up. Huízú include descendants of Silk Road travelers but also Cham/Vietnamese Muslims and Tibetan Muslims.

Concepts that were translated for Chinese include:

gazelle 瞪羚 dènglíng (“staring antelope”)
giraffe 长颈鹿 chángjǐnglù (“long neck deer”)
chess 西洋棋 xīyángqí (“Western Qi”, where Qi is used in the name of Chinese chess, Weiqi/Go and other strategic games)
saffron 藏红花 zànghónghuā (“Tibetan red flower”)
harem 后宫 hòugōng (“back palace”, the place where the emperor’s wives lived)
hookah 水烟 shuǐyān (“water smoke”)
jihad 圣战 shèngzhàn (“holy war”)
minaret 尖塔 jiāntǎ (“sharp pagoda”)
alchemy 炼金术 liànjīnshù (“refine gold technique”)
chemistry 化学 huàxué (“science of changes”)
algebra 代数 dàishù (“substitute numbers”)

I love how Chinese often makes me think about concepts because the names are more meaningful – or the meanings are more readily accessible – than in Western languages. That’s why I have studied Chinese for 10 years already and it’s my favourite language to learn.


I always knew that I wanted to learn Chinese

Those characters irresistibly lured me.

As a child, I drew up my own character-based script but I still craved the real thing; I was just too afraid to learn Chinese on my own and I didn’t have any role models of successful language learners among my family and older friends.

In my case, what made a difference was Esperanto.

When I was 14 I read a popular science book about linguistics that included a chapter on planned languages and it mentioned that Esperanto was both the most successful and the easiest planned language. Knowing that, and with the new-found resource of the internet at my hands, I enrolled in a free e-mail-based Esperanto course.

Five non-intensive months later, I was able to read and write anything in Esperanto, but more importantly, I had gained the confidence that I could indeed learn a language in self-study and I had developed the habit of doing so.

Through self-study, I greatly improved my English, Latin, French and Italian, which I was learning at school, and asked a friend to start teaching me some Modern Greek.

Finally, in 2004, when I saw an ad for a Chinese-learning competition for high school students, and I was in my last year of high school, my goal of learning Chinese changed from “someday” to “now”. I always liked a challenge.

It was a long trek though.

At that time, Chinese learning materials still very much followed traditional methods. I couldn’t remember any character beyond the most common 600-800 and also had a lot of trouble acquiring conversational abilities.

It got to be so frustrating that I all but paused my studies for a few years.

In 2009, with a lot more language study experience under my belt, I took up Chinese again and managed to learn 2500 new characters in one year. Since then, I haven’t dropped Chinese again. I’m currently taking a class in Modern Chinese Literature.

I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how to make learning Chinese easier.

The approach I came up with involves applying machine intelligence to the teaching of Chinese, letting the computer figure out which words or grammar points are easy or hard for you and providing optimal support.

I think the resulting course is quite amazing and might just revolutionize how Chinese will be taught in the future.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

If you like it, please support the development of more lessons, because paying the Chinese teachers, audio editors and so on is getting too much to be my hobby expense and I’d really like to make the course available for free for everyone. This site also gives you a quick overview of what is so innovative about the course.

If you want to read some of my language-learning advice, I normally blog at

Good luck with your studies!


This was written by Judith Meyer.

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter 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.

11 Unmistakable Characteristics Of A Damn Good Language Learner

Good language learners

Note: I’ve got some big announcements coming soon which I’ll only be sharing initially with mailing subscribers. If you’re interested then select the language you’re learning, enter your email and click ‘Join’ above (most previous sign-ups need to be done again unfortunately).

Thanks! :)


What makes a person a damn good language learner?

Why do they seem to do really well at picking up foreign languages while other people don’t?

Here you’ll find 11 unmistakable characteristics that define a damn good language learner and which determine the success or failure of any language learning endeavor.

Just as there are certain characteristics of people who succeed in business and other areas of life, you can spot a pattern when you look at successful language learners as well.

Nobody is born better at languages.

The following characteristics of damn good language learners are simply patterns of attitude and behavior that anyone can learn to do and put into practice.


1. He knows he doesn’t look like a fool when he tries and even if he does he doesn’t care

A damn good language learner first of all isn’t afraid to take risks and look stupid.

One of the biggest challenges for people wanting to learn another language is the fear of looking or sounding ridiculous when making mistakes or having poor pronunciation.

The damn good language learner doesn’t care what other people think and is determined to give it his best no matter how he may look.

Because of this he improves rapidly, builds more relationships and comes away with plenty of unforgettable cultural experiences.


2. She pays attention to the difference between good resources, bad resources and outright scams

Here’s a general rule of thumb:

If you have to try to make sense of it, it’s probably shit.

Damn good language learners know this and see it as a waste of time having to make sense of something that should be clear and straight to the point.

There are two more general rules of thumb:

1) Old does not equal less quality (some of the best language books I’ve seen were written as far back as the 19th century!).

2) High price does not equal high quality (some of the worst books on the market also happen to be the most expensive).

The damn good language learner also knows better than to hand over her money and trust to people who say things like, “You can be fluent in [insert outrageous nonsense here]” or anything that uses the word “master” in its advertising. :)


3. He’s able to take a boring thing and make it a totally not boring thing

After the honeymoon period of language learning is over (the beginner stage when everything’s new and your motivation’s high) you’ll hit plateaus that can be dreadfully boring.

This is when you feel like you’re not learning much.

The damn good language learner is always finding creative ways to keep it all fun and interesting.

If you feel bored with language learning then you’re doing it wrong!


4. She gives lack of sociability a kick in the arse and practices no matter what

This is closely related to the previous point but it’s important enough to be a point of its own.

There are days and weeks when the last thing you feel like doing is practicing with people.

Resting is important but long periods of doing nothing or avoiding people are detrimental and a complete waste of time.

A simple 5 minute chat is all it takes to be making progress.

A damn good language learner pushes through ‘not feeling like it’ by reminding herself how important it is to keep going – even when she’s not in the mood for it.


5. He knows that language learning takes a long time – and he’s cool with that

Learning a language properly is a long term thing.

The damn good language learner knows this and doesn’t get himself down or become a quitter if he doesn’t see fast results.

He just takes it one day at a time and enjoys the process without rushing himself.


6. She’s awesome – but she’s on a constant mission to be even more awesome

One vital characteristic of the damn good language learner is her ability to assess her own strengths and weaknesses, and to constructively criticize her own approach to always be improving.

If her learning method isn’t working then she does something about it.

I’ve picked up a lot of good personal strategies over the years which work well for me but I’m always open to listening to and learning from other people for different ideas too.

The damn good language learner welcomes feedback and ideas from others, and she knows which of her skills need the most improvement.


7. He takes a stab at it rather than shrugging his shoulders

Listening is the one skill you can’t bullshit in foreign language learning.

It takes time to be able to understand what people are saying. Serious time.

Every language learner has at some point had to be able to predict what people are saying or what a piece of writing is about from the context and with the limited vocab he knows. You probably won’t ever know everything that’s being said and you’d be surprised at just how capable you are at taking a stab at it most times.

A damn good language learner can put two and two together (and is not afraid to ask for clarification when he can’t).


8. She knows what matters most and doesn’t waste valuable seconds on shit she doesn’t need

The problem with a lot of materials and courses is that a lot of what they teach is irrelevant or unnecessary for most people.

The damn good language learner can discern what she needs and what’s a waste of her precious time.

She focuses on stuff that’s totally relevant and important to her.

If all you care about is improving your speaking skills then spending half a course on literacy skills might be a pointless waste of time. The same thing would be true for a person only interested in reading.

A damn good language learner devotes time to the areas of skill development that matter to her – not what the one-size-fits-all course says she should.


9. He invents ways where there are none to put his language skills to use

The damn good language learner seeks out creative ways to test out the stuff he’s learned.

For example, learn all the language you need to get a haircut then go out and get a haircut straight away so you can use it all while it’s fresh in your memory.

If you’re not in a foreign country and can’t do this sort of thing, find a Skype language exchange partner, teach yourself all the vocab and expressions you need to discuss a particular topic and then chat to them straight away and use it.

Practice your reading and writing creatively by writing a story or reading some interesting articles online. I use to practice my Arabic writing skills by writing love letters to an Egyptian girl I almost married. :)


10. She sees mistakes as small victories rather than big failures

The damn good language learner knows that every mistake and every “failure” is just a stepping stone on the path to success.

So you tried to talk to someone, forgot the words, screwed up the grammar, couldn’t understand what was being said to you and felt like crap.

But guess what… you moved forward, not backward.

That failed attempt at conversing in another language moved you closer and closer toward not failing the next time. You learned more about what you need to focus on to improve and you learned more about yourself.

You gave social anxiety an arse-kicking and actually tried which is more than you can say for most people. Good on you. Pat yourself on the back every time.

Damn good language learners know this and even look forward to making mistakes because they know how important they are.


11. She makes sure that other people will call her out if she tries to be a quitter

Don’t underestimate how important accountability is.

The damn good language learner makes sure that if she decides to be a quitter people are going to notice.

Here’s a quote I shared a while back:

“Once you make a public commitment, there’s no turning back.

Essentially, you don’t want to let yourself or other people down. By committing publicly, you’re far more likely to follow through on your promises.”

As I’ve said before, one of the main reasons I started this blog was so that I could publicly announce that I’m learning a language and let my readers hold me accountable to sticking with it and finishing what I started. It’s made such a huge difference to me.

Damn good language learners know that letting people around them know that they’ve just started something important and plan to see it through is a hugely powerful motivator.


Can you think of any other characteristics of a damn good language learner that you’d add to this list?


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter 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.

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