Arabic is hard to learn, especially at the beginning. You might have heard that hundreds of times. But is it true? Well, yes and no. It really depends on your intention, your planning and the effort that you are willing to put in.
Do you play any sports? Perhaps you are good at football, cricket or rowing. Learning a new language is similar to learning a new sport.
We all learn to walk and run as we grow. Perhaps we also learn to swim or to ride a bicycle. This is akin to learning our native tongue; we do it organically as we grow and become masters at it.
What happens when you want to play a different sport? Well, let’s say you play cricket and you would like to learn how to play tennis. Probably you will already have a foundation since both sports have a ball and a tool to hit it, the bat or the racquet.
But if you want to learn how to play a different one, let’s say archery, that might seem much harder.
Mastering a language is similar to mastering a sport. If you speak English, you might consider that languages like French, Spanish or Italian are relatively similar. They are all ball and racquet sports. But if you speak English natively and want to learn Arabic, Chinese or Korean, it might seem more difficult, because they have different tools and skills. They have a different code.
However, all sports share similarities: they require physical effort, they train our coordination, they make us fitter and healthier or they train us to work with others. Likewise, all languages share the same goal: to communicate with others.
If we keep that in mind, learning a new language—any language—becomes easier. We need to keep in mind that what we want is to communicate and understand others. That might be through speaking, reading, writing or listening/understanding.
Knowing that will allow us to focus our efforts better and set the right intention.
1. Set the Right Intention for Learning
In our tradition, we know of the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, which says that: “Actions are by intentions” (Bukhari and Muslim).
This is true for anything we embark upon, be it a business venture, a visit to a friend, a run to the supermarket or learning a new language.
Before we start anything, we need to stop and reflect on why we are doing it. What is it that motivates us? What do we want to gain? What do we expect?
This also applies to learning a language, especially Arabic, because it can change our approach, the subjects that we study, the vocabulary we learn, the outcomes we expect or how we measure our progress.
For example, if our intention is to understand the Noble Quran and Ahadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him, probably is not necessary—at least at the beginning—that we learn vocabulary and conversation skills related to an airport or a car workshop.
On the other hand, if what we want is to move to an Arabic-speaking country, it will be handier for us to learn about getting directions from and to the airport and how to get to the nearest shop or pharmacy.
This is important because it will subjectively make learning Arabic easier or more difficult. If we want to understand the Quran and, after six months of studying, we have only learnt directions, different food types and how to go to the doctor, and we don’t know basic Quranic vocabulary, we will feel frustrated. And vice versa.
This is perhaps one of the things that makes it very difficult to start learning Arabic, that we did not set the right intention and goals to start with. But luckily, it does not have to be so for you.
What Can We Do About It?
Before you start learning Arabic reflect and set your most important goal and intention of why you want to learn it.
You have to research what is the best course for you. You have to gather information before embarking on it and be clear about your intention to your teachers. They will be the best people to help you and guide you through the process. Listen to them. In many cases, they have dedicated their lives to teaching Arabic and have had many different students. Their advice is precious.
What is really important is that you choose the course and the teachers most appropriate for your goal. Anything that you learn about a language will make your skills better, but focusing on the field that you are most passionate about will help you make your journey easier at the beginning.
Learning a language has different skills: speaking, understanding, reading and writing. The approach that we recommend is that you dedicate some time to each skill because one will reinforce the other. Reading will give you vocabulary that you can then use when speaking, and understanding will make your writing easier.
It is advisable that you set short, medium and long-term milestones. For example, in the short term, you might want to be able to understand first-hand a short Hadith or an Ayah of the Quran, or perhaps greet family and friends in their language. In the medium term you might want to understand a Khutba or a longer chapter of the Quran, and perhaps have a short conversation with a friend. And in the long-term, you might want to be able to attend lectures in Arabic or move to an Arab-speaking country.
Setting milestones will keep you motivated and will show you that you are progressing towards your intention.
2. What Type of Arabic You Should Learn?
If you are new to Arabic, you might think that there’s only one Arabic language, like there is only one English (though this is also subject to discussion). And, in a theoretical sense, that might be true. But not in the day-to-day of most Arab speakers and countries.
There is classical Arabic, the Arabic of the Quran, the Ahadith and much of the classical literature. This is what is generally known as fusha. It’s the mother of all other ‘types’ of Arabic.
Then we have the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is a modernised version of classical Arabic. It is used in newspapers, broadcasts and recent books.
And then we have the different dialects. Generally, each region has one. The Arabic they speak in Egypt is not the same as what they speak in Morocco, Kuwait or Jordan, for example.
All of those different variations of Arabic are alive and functional. It might be confusing, but they all have a purpose.
Classical Arabic is generally used in religious and academic settings. Though generally, people understand it, they do not necessarily speak it well. It is the most complex in terms of grammar and vocabulary and, at times, it can be quite technical.
The MSA is used in formal current settings, like universities, broadcasters or newspapers. Most people understand it and can speak relatively well if they have studied.
The dialects, on the other hand, are what people speak in their day to day. Generally, they are not written, and they borrow their grammar from classical Arabic, though with twists.
What Can We Do About It?
We go back to point one, what is your intention for learning Arabic? This will tell you what type of Arabic you should focus on.
If your primary intention is to understand the Noble Quran, the Ahadith and the classical literature, then you should focus on classical Arabic or fusha. It will equip you with the tools to understand it and be able to engage with these texts in a personal way.
And you do not need to travel to an Arabic-speaking country for that. In fact, if you travel at the beginning of your journey to learn Arabic, it might be counterproductive. That is because people on the streets do not speak it and it might confuse you.
If you decide to travel to an Arabic-speaking country to study classical Arabic, it might be wise to already have a foundation before doing it. It will allow you to engage better with your teachers and students and benefit more.
If your intention is to study at university, work or conduct businesses in Arabic-speaking countries, then learning modern standard Arabic might be wise. No matter which country you choose, you will understand and be understood.
Once again, you might want to start learning MSA before you actually go, for it’s perfectly possible to have a decent level of MSA without having set a foot in an Arabic-speaking country. It will make your life much easier once you get there.
Finally, if you want to learn a particular dialect, we recommend that you first have a strong MSA foundation. That is because all dialects derive and borrow their grammar from it. Having a strong foundation of MSA will make it easier to learn any dialect.
Then we would recommend you go to that country and fully immerse yourself in learning it.
Of course, it is possible to also learn a particular dialect before you go, but since dialects are mostly spoken, what you really want is to be in a situation where you are forced to speak and communicate. That’s the way you will advance the most.
3. Arabic Is Hard to Hear and Pronounce for a Non-native
Arabic is a hard language to learn—for English speakers—because both languages belong to different families.
For someone who speaks Urdu, on the other hand, Arabic might seem easier because they share the same alphabet (with slight variations), they have relatively similar grammar and share a lot of vocabulary. We could say that both languages are part of the same family of instruments.
We learn our native language organically as we grow and develop. Psychologists say that babies are world language speakers when they are born. That means that any baby can learn any language if they are exposed to it.
What happens, according to psychologists, is that babies when they are born can hear and differentiate all the subtilities of letter pronunciation, intonation, rhythm, etc. of all languages. Essentially, they could learn to speak natively any language.
But through exposure to a particular language, their brain begins to focus only on the sounds particular to it, and they become unable to differentiate properly sounds of other languages.
For example, for an English speaker, it’s difficult to differentiate between ÿ≠ ÿÆ Ÿá because the three of them are equal to the phoneme ‘kh’. But for an Arab speaker, it’s very easy because their ear and brain (which work hand in hand) are accustomed since they were babies to differentiate it.
The process of differentiating and hearing the subtilities of all languages end when the baby is about 9 months old. The good news is that, just by exposing a child younger than 9 months to a language three times a week for an hour, they’ll get their native pronunciation, but also that of the language they are exposed to.
For those who were not exposed to Arabic as children, and want to learn it as adults, this might be the single most important obstacle.
What Can We Do About It?
But fortunately, although you might not have a native accent, you can master a language even better than native speakers. Arabic too.
The secret is to immerse yourself in the language. At first, you might feel shy to speak with other people, and that’s normal. But you can watch cartoons, listen to the radio, watch appropriate movies, read children’s books…
Even if you do not understand it, your brain is picking it up. Just as it happens with children. They might not understand what they are hearing. But it sticks.
As you develop your skills and vocabulary, try also to speak with other people. If they are native speakers, even better. Don’t be shy. Arabic speakers are generally very welcoming and helpful when someone tries to speak their language.
Remember, practice makes perfect. And your brain is really, really powerful. What matters is consistency. Fifteen minutes every day is better than two hours once a week. But of course, both help.
Where to Go From Here?
These are the three most common reasons why learning Arabic might seem difficult at the beginning. What can we do about it?
- Set the right intention: think and reflect before you embark on the journey of learning Arabic. What is your main reason for studying? Make that a priority. Look for the correct course and talk to your teachers. Focus on the field that you are most passionate about and develop all language skills holistically.
- Decide what type of Arabic you would like to learn: this depends on. your intention. You might want to focus on classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic or a particular dialect.
- Immerse yourself as much as possible: you do not need to travel and live in an Arabic-speaking country to learn classical Arabica o MSA, but you do need to train your ear and brain to its sound and calligraphy. Read children’s books, watch cartoons and appropriate movies, listen to the radio… your brain will pick it up, even unconsciously. If you want to learn a dialect we recommend that you first gain a strong foundation of MSA and then immerse yourself fully where it is spoken.
We hope that now you might have a clearer understanding of how to start learning Arabic and why it might seem difficult at the beginning.
Don’t let that stop you. Learning Arabic is a beautiful journey. A cricketer who has mastered the bat and decides to learn tennis will go back to cricket with wider skills.
Similarly, when you learn a new language your cognitive capabilities increase, and you become better at your native language.
At Fluent Arabic, we have courses and native teachers for learning classical Arabic and MSA. We also have personalised 1-to-1 lessons that will give you an edge.
If you have any questions about where and how to start learning Arabic, drop us an email and we will advise you on your best route depending on your intention.
Are you ready to embark on this journey?