How to be a good Arabic student

With the exception of Parts I and II, this may be the most important part of this book. Read it and think about it.

Foreigners coming to America have often commented on the industriousness and ingenuity of the people they have found here. You have no doubt had quotes from Arnold Toynbee to this effect read to you while you were in high school. Not surprisingly, many Arabs who have come to America have noticed the same thing and have commented on it on many occasions. Even Canadians have noted the creativeness used by Americans – especially with respect to Americans’ ability to survive the damage inflicted upon them by the American health care system. chaussure new balance

Unfortunately, this industriousness and ingenuity disappear from the American student as soon as he or she crosses the threshold of an Arabic classroom in an American university. I think there are several reasons for this – the results are obvious. Why, after all, are you reading this book?

Americans study Arabic for a variety of reasons, and most of them are excellent reasons as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately, as soon as they discover that the process of learning the language is going to take some time, their enthusiasm wanes and they confuse the time element with the difficulty of the language. Eventually most of them drop out, convinced that the language is too difficult to learn. Many of these people later appear as experts on Lehrer News Hour and Nightline. Just remember, when you see a Middle East “expert” on these programs, that there is a good chance that he or she is actually a person who was insufficiently motivated to learn Arabic. It makes me wonder about the rest of their knowledge about the Middle East. I guess that if you want to appear on Nightline then you should not read this book.

In any event, the majority of American students who study Arabic never achieve proficiency in any of the four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Even those who stay in Arabic classes for several years and obtain graduate degrees in one aspect or another of Middle Eastern studies often are barely able to use the language in their research. Even many of the few who do attain any real proficiency in language eventually lose it because they do not use it.

It is a pretty bleak picture, is it not? However, there is نور at the end of the نَفَق. There are many Americans who have learned Arabic well. Most of them have learned Arabic as a direct result of their own motivation. They are highly motivated and they translated that motivation into action. They are not any more intelligent (some would say less) than those who do not master even elementary Arabic. You can learn the Arabic language too.

If you ever want to be good at this language you will have to do more than take one course a semester at a university. But first of all, if you are right now taking a course at a university, make sure that you do the work for that course. Come to class prepared and be ready to contribute to the class that day. I am going to let you in on a little secret: Arabic teachers like it when their students are prepared and show enthusiasm for the language. Your teacher will teach you better if you do the homework. So do the homework, and pay attention to what you are doing. Study the lessons to be covered in each class before the class meets. Just doing this will greatly improve your Arabic. Alas, this is not enough, but it is essential.

In addition to taking an Arabic class, you need to like this language enough to do something extra. Try to read a little Arabic from the newspaper, speak Arabic whenever you run into an Arab, anything. Do anything that requires your use of the language. Try to do a little bit each day. Any exposure to the language is beneficial. If you have a short wave, tune in to an Arabic station. In several American cities, for example Washington, DC., Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the Arab Network of America (ANA) broadcasts on AM radio and in some places on cable TV. Their varied programming is excellent for the language learner, and you do not even need a short wave. Try to obtain tapes of Arabic programming and listen to them. Do something every day.

Do not try to do too much additional work each day. If you do too much, you will wake up each morning dreading your long Arabic session that day. Soon you will quit. Do just enough extra each day that you look forward to doing it again the next day. Even fifteen minutes a day will be beneficial – and it is much better than doing one three-hour session and then never picking up an Arabic book again.

No matter how good your teacher is (and there are some very good teachers of Arabic in this country), your teacher cannot learn for you. The things you will learn the best are the things you will teach yourself, either through reading your text books, or by exposure to the language in a natural context such as a newspaper, book, or a radio or television program. You are the one responsible for your learning of the language, so teach yourself something every day. It is not easy, at times it will be discouraging, but you are more than capable of doing it if you want to. So you must do something in addition to any class that you may be taking, and you should do that something, at least a little bit, every day.

You will find, I am sure, that the hardest thing about Arabic is not the grammar. All the grammar you will ever need is in this book, and as you can see, it is not intellectually difficult. The hard part, you will find, is the large vocabulary of the Arabic language. This is what everybody finds out who actually learns the grammar part. Thus, when you start looking at “uncontrolled” texts (texts not designed for learners of the language), you will be struck by the sheer number of new words you will be encountering. Do not worry about it. The words will come.

Another thing you should do, if it is at all possible, is enroll in one of the many summer Arabic language programs conducted either in the United States or abroad. These programs are usually intensive and can accelerate your learning considerably if you apply yourself. You can inquire with your professor, if you have one, about these programs.

Strive to be good enough to get into the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) program at the American University in Cairo. CASA is a great opportunity. You have to be good just to be admitted.

As you know, there are four skills to be mastered for you to be considered fluent in any language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. This book is designed in large part to help most with your reading comprehension. In Chapter 4 of Part II there is a section on tips on how to teach yourself to read better. You should reread that section. If you are interested in politics, newspapers are a good place to start. But you may well have totally different interests such as religion, literature, history, philosophy, and the like. You will find these things in newspapers as well. In fact, you should browse through any newspaper you get your hands on and look for things that interest you. But you should also read other things related to your area(s) of interest. It is possible in the United States to order books in Arabic of all kinds; some places even have academic and popular periodicals. You can find where to order these materials by browsing through the Internet. If you are studying Arabic at a university, check out your library’s Arabic language holdings. The important thing is to try to work with things that interest you,because that will help keep you going.

I have had many students who have had an interest in reading the Qur’an, even though their primary interests in Arabic were not directly related to Islam or to religion in general. If you have such an interest, then read the Qur’an. It is easy to get a translation of the Qur’an which also includes the Arabic and you can teach yourself a lot that way. Obviously, the language of the Qur’an is of a very different caliber from that of a modem Arabic newspaper, but many of the words in the Qur’an are in common use today, and the Qur’an is a major source for the grammar of Modern Standard Arabic.

As for speaking Arabic, the best way is to practice. Speaking is a difficult skill to master and requires some courage and effort on your part. It is important to take advantage of opportunities to speak Arabic outside the classroom. These opportunities may not be as difficult to come by as you might think. You can, of course, start with your own Arabic teacher, if you have one. Make up your mind to speak only Arabic with him or her whenever the two of you come in contact. I am sure that your teacher will be delighted.

You should also avail yourself of any opportunities that contact with native speakers may provide. If you live in a major US city there is a superb chance that there will be an Arab community there. Obviously, if you live in places such as Detroit or Washington, you do not even have to look. But there are many Arabs in other cities as well. Look in the phone book for any organizations for Arab Americans and give them a call. If you are in a store and someone there, perhaps an employee, may be of Arab origin, lay a big مرحبا on him and see what happens. If the person is an Arab, he will be delighted. Any opportunity is a good one.

If you are a student at a university, there is a good chance that there are Arab students there. Try to locate them. Often there are student clubs which have something to do with the Middle East – check them out.

You will find, if you have not done so already, that most Arabs are flattered when Americans take the time to learn their language. In general, they will be quite pleased to talk to you. Many will even offer to give you lessons. This is a good way to make friends from Arab countries. I have even had one student who worked as a bouncer in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. He would address all of the Arabic customers in Arabic and often had interesting conversations and some great practice. After working, he would cross the street and enter a very nice Lebanese restaurant and speak with the employees and customers there.

I know it is hard to open your mouth and speak in a foreign language. Look at it as an adventure – it often will be. Do it a few times and you will lose your bashfulness – and your Arabic will improve. Remember, most Arabs will be pleased, very pleased (and probably very surprised), that you are trying to learn Arabic. Almost never will you find anyone who will be impatient, rude, or will make fun of you. Usually the opposite will be the case and your confidence will build – as will your enjoyment of the language.

There are a few caveats which I feel I should take the time to mention.

1. The first is that some Arabs may at first answer you in English. Do not feel embarrassed. Usually they are doing so for one or more of the following reasons:

– It is quite possible that the person did not understand what you said, not because your pronunciation was too far from the mark, but because he or she just was not expecting you to address them in Arabic. Therefore your Arabic was interpreted as some sort of English that they did not quite understand. Keep speaking Arabic with the person and see what happens.

– It is also possible that the person may think you are speaking Arabic because of some deficiency in their English. Therefore they want to keep the conversation in English to show you that they do know the language. Remember, language insecurity goes both ways. Many Arabs are immigrants to this country and they will have accents and they will be sensitive. Tell this person (in Arabic) that his or her English is very good, and that you are the one who needs to practice, since he or she can practice with anyone.

– It is possible that the person you have addressed really does want to practice English, but usually this situation arises when you are in the Arab world, not here in the US. Explain your interest in learning Arabic and desire to practice.

2. Be wary of getting involved in a language exchange situation where you help the other person with English if he or she helps you with Arabic. The tendency is for their English to be better than your Arabic and you will end up only speaking English with this person. But, if you have the self-discipline to make sure that you use Arabic with this person, then go ahead and try. You may well become friends and get to meet other Arabic speakers as well.

3. Since your spoken Arabic is no doubt pretty limited it is most likely that any conversation you will have will soon exceed the level of your Arabic. Many people find this very frustrating. Just try to learn one or two things from each encounter and then use them the next time.

4. Do not be surprised if many native Arabic speakers you encounter in this country are weak with respect to the grammar you have learned, especially when it comes to their explaining it to non-native speakers. You had best rely on professionals when it comes to grammatical questions.

5. You will discover that not all people you will encounter will be comfortable speaking with you in Modern Standard Arabic. They will instead use at least some of their own dialect mixed with the standard when they talk to you. Welcome to the real world. Read the section below on colloquial Arabic.

Listening is a skill in which virtually all American students of the language are very weak. Even after three or four years of university study, most students of Arabic cannot understand anything spoken by someone other than their teacher. Obviously, one way to work on your listening is to speak with Arabs. You should also get your hands on audio and video tapes. Most films in Arabic are not in MSA, so the tapes you will need to get will be of news programs and interviews. As stated above, the Arab Network of America broadcasts in several major American cities on AM and numerous short-wave broadcasts can be heard here as well. These would be good sources for taping. In addition, see the section at the end of this book which gives addresses for acquiring books, it will give you information on how to acquire audio and video tapes as well.

In any event, once you have access to live or recorded video or audio material in Arabic, you should try to listen at least for a few minutes each day. Do not listen with the intent of decoding every word you hear. If you do that you will spend hours upon hours trying to decipher what you are hearing and will attain little or no benefit. Instead, listen to a portion of the programming all the way through (even a segment one minute long could be plenty to work with) without stopping your recorder. Do not focus on each word. Just listen. Your brain will start to work on its own. Just see what it understands. Play the segment over a couple of times. In the beginning, you will not understand much at all. But even on the first day after you have been listening just a few minutes you will be able to make out some words more clearly. See if you can tell what the item you are listening to is about in the most general sense. Forget the details. Just ask yourself if the piece is about cooking or space exploration or whatever. Do this some each day. After a while you will find yourself able to make out more and more words. You will even be able to correctly spell some words that you have never seen before. If any word or words seem to be important and you do not know the meaning, try to find them in your dictionary while still listening to the tape. Just try to learn one or two things a day this way. You will probably learn much more than that. In a few months you will be surprised at how much more you are able to understand. The key thing is not to be put off by your first experience listening because you will most probably not understand anything at all at first. Do not worry, the person you are listening to will definitely be speaking the language you have been learning and will be using many words that you do know. Your brain just has not yet learned to separate the words. It will learn.

The best way to improve your writing is to write. Write summaries and commentaries on things you are reading and show them to your teacher. Try to establish pen pals overseas. Many Arabs correspond with pen pals in the United States. You should have little trouble hooking up with one. Any Arab friend or associate you have should be able to help you arrange something like this.

When you write, try to write about some of the things you are currently reading about (especially in Arabic publications) and try to use some of the new vocabulary you are learning. This is a good way to work on vocabulary.

One thing which I feel compelled to mention again is the subject of using word lists or flash cards for vocabulary memorization. My advice is never to use such devices. They teach you the words out of context and will not help you commit the words to long-term memory. Instead of sitting down with a list of words in a vain effort to memorize them, get on the phone with an Arab and speak Arabic, or sit down and write that person a letter in Arabic. or read something new in Arabic, or reread an article your have previously read, or listen to something in Arabic. These activities will help you commit new items to long-term memory and are not sheer drudgery. I cannot emphasize this enough. Instead of spending time memorizing words, spend that time using the language actively. Avoid word lists and flash cards the way a good Muslim avoids pork.

One last thing I wish to bring up the is subject of colloquial Arabic. As you are probably aware, the Arabic spoken by people throughout the Arab world differs in many respects from the Arabic normally taught in university classrooms. I am going to outline the situation for you and then tell you what you should do about it.

The Arabic you are learning in this book is known as Modem Standard Arabic. This is the language used in writing, news reporting on television and radio, and on formal occasions. It is closely related to the classical language which is based on the Qur’an and on other classical sources such as the hadith, works on history and law, etc., which were written in the early years of Islam. This classical language is known as الفصحى (short for العربية الفصحى ) meaning the “eloquent” language. Often the term الفصحى is applied to Modern Standard Arabic due to a lack of a better term. The two are not quite the same, but they are close enough that الفصحى has come to represent both.

In daily life in the Arab world, people do not speak الفصحى They speak their own Arabic dialect. The dialects are known collectively as العامية. An individual dialect is called a لَهْجة The individual dialects differ not just from country to country, but from city to city, and village to village. The differences are also based on class, education, and gender. There are also differences based on urban versus rural and on religion.

The dialects are used as the sole means of communication on a daily basis. Thus, in the home, in the market, or anywhere else, the colloquial language is used exclusively when speaking.

The presence of two languages, الفصحى on the one hand, and العامية (referring to all of the dialects collectively) on the other, has caused considerable trouble for both teachers and students of the language. If your personal goal is just to be able to read Arabic, then you do not have to worry about the problem of “diglossia” as this phenomenon is known. But, if you wish to be able to speak colloquial Arabic, then you have entered into a realm of considerable debate.

My personal advice to those who do wish to learn Arabic well is for them to actively pursue learning a dialect. Here are some points, based on my own experience, which I feel are important to keep in mind if you wish to study colloquial.

The Four Noble Truths About Studying Colloquial Arabic

1. Do not study colloquial Arabic until you have a foundation in MSA.

2. Once you begin to learn a dialect continue to study your MSA. Never, ever, abandon your study of MSA.

3. Do not study a dialect before studying MSA.

4. Egyptian (Cairene) colloquial is probably the most widely understood Arabic dialect in the Arab world. That consideration aside, it is irrelevant which dialect you study. So pick a dialect that for some reason or other interests you.

An Explanation of the Four Noble Truths

It is best to wait to study a dialect until you have a good grasp of the basics of MSA. Look at MSA as the foundation. Once you know its structure, the changes in the dialect you are studying become much more comprehensible and can even be predicted. Furthermore, the vocabulary of MSA and of the dialects overlap tremendously, so the larger your MSA vocabulary, the larger dialect vocabulary you have before you even begin to study a dialect.

Always continue to study MSA. If you stick with a dialect only, you will not maintain the MSA grammar you have learned and you will lose your skills in reading since almost nothing is written in the dialects. Furthermore, unless you are in an Arab country, you will have difficulty studying and practicing colloquial Arabic at home due to the lack of readily available authentic materials (films, TV shows, radio shows, scripts for plays) whereas there is an unlimited amount of written material in MSA. In addition, any new vocabulary you acquire through your continued study of MSA can usually be applied directly in your use of a dialect.

Never study a dialect before you study MSA. This is basically a restatement of Noble Truth number one. The vast majority of Americans who have really learned Arabic started with MSA and then worked on learning a dialect. It does not work the other way around for a number reasons. Students who say “I want to be able to talk to the people” never learn to “talk to the people” and they remain illiterate in Arabic. They fail to learn anything of value. As I said, there are a number of reasons for this fact. Here are some of them:

1. Arabic colloquial textbooks are on the whole very, very poor. Their presentation of grammar is weak so you do not get a good overview of how Arabic works. Furthermore, they usually do not use the Arabic script, opting instead for some system of transliteration. Thus, the switch to MSA is even more difficult and the students cannot see the relationships between colloquial vocabulary and pronunciation on the one hand, and the standard language on the other.

2. Most colloquial textbooks go only so far into the language. Thus, even if you mastered your book, you would only be at a very low level of ability. So then you start the MSA and run into problems discussed in item 1 above.

3. Americans who opt for colloquial first tend not to be as serious about learning the language as those who desire to learn MSA – since they think they are taking the easy way out.

There are other reasons as well, but these three should make the point clear.

As far as deciding what dialect to study goes, you may well be limited by what is available at your school, or what textbooks can be found in your city. Within these limitations, it is best to pick whatever dialect interests you the most. If you have an interest in Lebanon, then go ahead and work on Lebanese colloquial. The only caveat to keep in mind is that Cairene colloquial is certainly the most widely understood of the dialects due to Egypt’s historical, intellectual, and cultural leadership in the Arab world and the sheer number of Egyptians living in other Arab countries. So if it is a toss up between Cairene and another dialect that does not particularly interest you, then go with the Cairene.

One thing you will learn if you have a good base in MSA and begin to study one dialect and then another, is that many of the dialects are really not all that different from one another and that a strong base in MSA makes it easier to learn them. Thus, if your base in MSA is strong and you are studying say a dialect used in Jordan, you will see that a person from Lebanon is relatively easy to understand especially once you learn two or three patterned differences between the Lebanese person’s speech and the dialect you are learning. Those differences are easier to discern if you know the standard language.

For the most part, the dialects are extremely mutually comprehensible even for non-native speakers. If you are strong in MSA you should be able to rapidly get the basics of a number of dialects if you so desire, and you should be able to go as far in any particular dialect as you want to go, provided you have access to the proper materials.

One advantage to knowing at least some colloquial (IN ADDITION TO YOUR FIRM KNOWLEDGE OF MSA) is that there is a sort of middle language which incorporates both MSA and colloquial. This middle language is often used in lectures in the university classroom and in radio and television interviews. An elementary knowledge of the major features of colloquial Arabic is all that is needed to follow what is being said – if your standard is strong.

It should be clear to you that if you have to choose between learning MSA and learning colloquial Arabic, then you should unhesitatingly opt for MSA. It is the universal language and is a must for an educated person.

If you wish, you can use MSA in speaking wherever you go in the Arab world. Since you are a foreigner, you will not be expected to speak the local dialect. Most people will understand why you are speaking the standard. I had one friend from Bangladesh who was getting his master’s degree in Arabic at Yarmouk University in Jordan who only spoke MSA all of the time. He was highly respected by his Arab classmates and professors. His Arabic was outstanding and he picked up whatever colloquial he needed to know (but which he generally refrained from using because of his devotion to the classical language) with great ease.

In any event, I hope that this book has been (or will be) of value to you and that the comments above will assist you in pursuing your study of the language on a regular basis.

السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاتُه

2 comments… add one
  • Hello. Great to see some more detailed information on aspects of Arabic grammar which are usually either too superficial to be of benefit to an intermediate level student or are really heavy Arabic grammar references. One thing that I’ve never really had a great understanding of is quantifiers/expressions of quantity in Arabic, e.g. enough, too much, not many, loads of, too little/few, quite + adjective, very/really + adjective, not at all, etc. I think I often sound unnatural in Arabic because of this, and find that Arabic native speakers use a whole host of more authentic expressions to express such concepts. They don’t really fit into the traditional scheme of topics in Arabic grammar (cases, verbal morphology, idhafa, etc) but are really useful! Just one more thing. I just read your useful little words list, which I found very interesting. I thought you might consider adding شيئا ما for ما. Keep up the good work! Mark

  • that was one great article. It got me inspired to persevere with my Arabic lessons.
    What do you think about the Shariah program taught by Yussuf Mullan? It is very expensive but is it worth the cost?


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