Arabic and Hebrew: Why Semitic Languages Are Not Difficult
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
Note: If you’re learning Arabic, we’ve just created an amazing new resource for learning spoken dialects. Click here to check it out.
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).
One more thing: in case you’re looking for an online resource to learn Arabic or Hebrew, these are the best available in terms of quality:
Rapid Arabic for Modern Standard Arabic. This is a very unique downloadable audio set that teaches you Arabic through catchy, repetitive music (based on scientific research into ‘stuck song syndrome’ and memory).
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.
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 – kataba – he 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.
What’s an instrument used to open things?
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.
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.
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!
Visit my Essential Language Learning Tools page for resources to help you learn Arabic or Hebrew.
Also make sure to read this post I wrote on 5 books that you absolutely should own if you’re learning Arabic.
You’ll also find some great listening comprehension resources for Arabic here.
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