If I Started Learning Arabic Again, This Is How I'd Do It
- 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.
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Arabic was the first foreign language I learned to fluency.
I started almost 17 years ago when I was just starting college and it took me a full 3 years to reach a point where I felt comfortable communicating in it and understanding people when they spoke to me (which I always say is the most difficult part about learning another language).
Over the last decade I’ve travelled to the Middle East for language immersion many times and had some pretty amazing experiences along the way such as almost marrying a girl who only spoke Arabic.
But you know after all these years of learning other languages as well as doing Masters research on language acquisition, I look back in retrospect on my experience with Arabic and I can now see a lot of things that I would of done differently which would have helped me learn a lot faster and more effectively than I did back then.
Like I said, it took me about 3 years to reach a point where I was speaking Arabic fluently.
And understanding people when they spoke back to me.
That’s quite a long time even though I was very determined.
So if I had the experience and knowledge 13 years ago that I have now, I’m sure I would have had much better results.
Here’s what I would do if I had the chance to start over again (and what you should do if you’re just starting now):
1. Choose a dialect from the beginning and stick with it
If you’re reading this and you’ve decided to learn Arabic but don’t know anything about it, it’s important that you know there are lots of different ‘Arabics’.
People from the West coast of Africa right across to Asia speak Arabic and everywhere you go it sounds totally different, has different words, different grammar and in some cases sounds like an entirely different language (yet still called “Arabic”).
So before anyone learns Arabic they need to decide what part of the Arab world they’re interested in and make a decision to stick with that particular variety of Arabic at least for the time being.
You’re not going to get far if you divide your attention (I say the same about learning any two languages at the same time).
In the early days I started out with Levantine (Palestinian) and Iraqi Arabic, and also Modern Standard Arabic for reading (the formal dialect of the media).
I eventually switched to Egyptian and ended up spending the next 10 years of my life focused mainly on Egypt and getting my Egyptian Arabic to a high level but if I had of just chosen Egyptian from the beginning I could have made much more effective use of my time.
That’s not to say that Levantine, Iraqi and MSA didn’t benefit my Egyptian.
It definitely did.
But it would have been better to focus on one dialect from the beginning.
Our resource TalkInArabic.com currently offers 8 spoken varieties of Arabic.
We also recommend this resource for Egyptian Arabic.
2. I would not attempt to learn Modern Standard Arabic first
Or even at the same time as learning a spoken dialect.
I say choose a variety of Arabic and stick with it but if your goal is to learn to speak Arabic, then forget about Modern Standard Arabic and focus on something people actually speak.
Modern Standard Arabic isn’t spoken by anyone on Earth as a native language. It’s archaic, it’s grammatically more complicated to learn than spoken dialects and you will understand virtually nobody when you travel to the Arab world (apart from the TV).
Save yourself the regret and read this article I wrote which explains why I’m so against learning it first.
I made the mistake of devoting quite a bit of time to it in the early stages and getting continually frustrated when it conflicted with everything I was learning about Egyptian.
As I said above, it’s not that it didn’t help me in the end (especially having worked in translation in recent years), but at the time it would have been better not to.
3. Learn the alphabet immediately and not just resort to Arabizi / Franco Arabic
If you want to learn Arabic, don’t be put off by the alphabet!
Arabic script is actually what’s called an abjad which means it’s an alphabet primarily made up of consonants without vowels.
This means that a word like computer written in Arabic looks like this: km**b*ywtr.*
The problem is when you see a word written like this and you’ve never encountered it before, it’s very hard or impossible to know how it’s pronounced unless you can hear it.
You can guess but you just can’t know (you do improve at this at higher levels and can make more accurate guesses).
I think this is one of the main reasons why people avoid the alphabet altogether and use materials with transliterations.
This is a mistake.
The thing is – yes it will be confusing and difficult to read at first but as long as you have quality material with audio and/or a native speaker to listen to (all very easily accessible these days either in person or online), you’ll get used to it.
Have you ever seen this before?
There have been studies which have proven that when we read text, we don’t read every letter of every word. We see the outer letters, but the ones on the inside can be scrambled up.
Chances are we won’t even notice mistakes while we’re reading.
What this means is that when you get used to Arabic words – just like English – you’re not actually spelling the word out anyway.
You’re just recognizing the image of the word in a sense.
So for example if I take a simple word like كتاب, I know instantly by looking at this word without spelling out it’s individual letters what it is and what it means.
I’ve associated the image of that word with sound and meaning.
The problem is if you always resort to Arabizi / Franco Arabic, you’ll never improve at this. It’s a lazy way out and will affect you majorly later on.
Also, pretty much all good quality resources for Arabic use the Arabic alphabet.
You’re missing out on quality material if you avoid it.
I made the mistake early on trying to just write Arabic using English letters. This caused delays for me later on down the track.
The alphabet’s a piece of cake as I explained here so why not take some time to learn it?
4. I would recognize and practice the importance of Arab acculturation and assimilation from day 1
This is one of the most important things I’ll tell you.
To the Jews I became a Jew.
To the Greeks I became a Greek.
Every time I step off a plane somewhere new in the world this ancient bit of wisdom that I live my life by comes back to me (admittedly way out of context but still!).
Assimilators learn languages better than anyone else.
They appreciate and understand other cultures better than anyone else.
And vitally, they earn the respect and trust of local people better than anyone else.
This is one thing I was always mindful of even when I started with Arabic and I’d do it all again.
To the Arabs I became an Arab.
There’s a big difference between learning Arabic and becoming Arab.
Of course you’ll never become an Arab in the literal sense but it’s a mindset that will drive you to succeed with the language.
I’ve applied this same principle in every country I’ve lived in around the world while learning the local languages and I always earn respect from local people for it.
The one thing that really separates what I do on this blog from most other language learning blogs out there is that I take a very holistic approach to language learning which encompasses complete assimilation into the target language culture.
For me language immersion and cultural immersion cannot be separated.
As far as I’m concerned language fluency only comes about when you’re fluent in the culture as well (so to speak!).
I often encounter people too who say things like “I want to learn Arabic but I don’t really like Arab culture.”
My response is “Forget it. You’ve already failed.”
If you don’t respect and appreciate the culture and its people then don’t waste your time.
And if you want to truly excel in any language, strive to assimilate.
5. I would devote time in the beginning to surrounding myself with and listening to the target dialect
Be a fly on the wall in every Arabic speaking community you can find.
I can’t emphasize this enough if you want to learn Arabic as quickly as possible.
Assuming you’re living in a Western country in or close by a major city – you’ve probably got Arab community groups and events going on somewhere.
I attended every event I could when I started Arabic (Arabic-speaking churches, Islamic events, cultural festivals, refugee centers). If I even suspected that there were going to be Arabic speakers there, I was there.
If I started again I’d be even more active in finding every single opportunity to be around people and if this wasn’t possible, I’d at least have Arabic media playing in my house every day just so my ears adjust to it and Skyping with Arabic speakers daily.
6. I would find Arabic teachers who don’t just drill grammar but teach with a communicative style in the dialect I’m learning
I hate to say this but most native Arabic teachers have one of two common problems:
1) They either teach using outdated and ineffective teaching methods.
2) They teach Modern Standard Arabic as if it’s real Arabic and don’t understand the value of spoken dialects.
Traditional teaching methods which are all about drilling grammar rules and tedious memorization are prevalent all over the world unfortunately.
I’ve had a lot of bad teachers over the years (not just Arabic teachers) and the ironic thing is the bad ones have tended to be the most expensive. 🙂
If you feel overwhelmed, bored or confused in a lesson don’t always be quick to blame yourself.
Chances are the teacher stinks.
As a general rule you should come away from every lesson with you having spoken 80% of the lesson.
If you feel like you just sat there and listened to explanations without talking much then your teacher is rubbish and it’s time to look for another one.
Harsh words I know but if your teacher is doing all the talking then they aren’t a real teacher and should find another career.
Also make sure that they understand and appreciate the value of spoken Arabic dialects over Modern Standard Arabic.
Modern Standard/Classical Arabic are held in very high regard – sacred in fact – in the Arab world. For this reason, it can be quite challenging to find teachers who understand why you specifically want to speak a local dialect.
In fact, even with my own site for spoken Arabic dialects TalkInArabic.com, I’ve often had trouble explaining the concept to my Arab friends who struggle to see the logic behind learning spoken dialects of Arabic instead of Modern Standard Arabic.
7. I would start speaking Arabic as soon as possible even if it’s grammatically terrible
This is something I didn’t have much control over when I first started.
I began learning Arabic at a time where amazing tools like italki didn’t really exist. I couldn’t jump online to Skype people for a couple of a bucks an hour.
That would have been a dream come true for me back then! 🙂
If I wasn’t too sure about getting the grammar right and didn’t know enough vocabulary, I’d just avoid using Arabic and speak English.
These days when I learn a new language I speak as much as possible as early as I can even if my grammar is horrendously bad.
Mistakes have a way of working themselves out over time but you need to take every chance you can to practice the little that you do know.
8. I would only spend time using quality books and resources to learn Arabic
When I started learning Arabic all those years ago, there was hardly anything available for learning spoken Arabic.
My very first book for Arabic was a book from a local mosque that was absolutely atrocious. A waste of paper and ink (but I persisted using it!).
I’ve still got it today. I look at it sometimes and think “Wow. Did I actually use this crap?”
Thankfully things have improved somewhat for dialects (not a lot though unfortunately!).
And then of course there’s my own 8 dialect resource which me and a few buddies have put together here.
Finally before you go ahead and get a language book or resource, see my crucial checklist for deciding whether it’s good or bad.
9. I would cast fear and prejudice of Arabs and the Middle East aside
Let’s face it: swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are nuts right now.
There’s some pretty horrendous stuff going on in various places. It’s always unpredictable what’s going to happen next even when there’s peace.
But you know one thing I’ve learned during all my travels through the Middle East and everywhere else in the world:
Most people, regardless of their political or religious affiliations, just care about the same stuff you and I care about. Mundane things like getting married, having kids, going to work to put food on the table, buying a new home, the latest gadgets, a new pair of shoes, etc.
I said the same thing about Russian people after doing language immersion there – most of them aren’t even aware of Putin’s politics and couldn’t care less. They’re too busy working, paying the bills and putting a roof over their kids’ heads.
Painting the entire Arab world as violent and psychopathic is a really naive and stupid thing to do.
My first trip to the Middle East was not too long after September 11th and I was absolutely shitting myself that something was going to happen to me.
My mother cried at the airport because she thought it was goodbye and so did I. Seriously!
And something did happen.
I loved it and went back for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc. 🙂 My life was changed forever and I fell in love with the people there.
Are you learning Arabic? Share your thoughts below!
Also check out:
TalkInArabic.com for spoken Arabic dialect material.
Or Rocket for a comprehensive Egyptian Arabic audio course.
For online Skype teachers and conversation practice for a few bucks an hour I recommend italki.
NEW: Are you learning Egyptian Arabic? We just released an excellent new book called Egyptian Arabic: Easy Stories With English Translations. It’s aimed at high-beginners to low-intermediate learners and a great way to build vocabulary and comprehension.
It’s on Amazon here.
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