By Adam Kadduora

Twariq in the Sahara — from the 2013/14 catalog
Twariq in the Sahara — from the 2013/14 catalog

The Arabic language has the reputation of being difficult, however, we believe in the exact opposite.

It isn’t necessarily a difficult language to learn, Arabic is simply so different from western languages in the script, grammar, syntax, and sound that most western students never get comfortable with it. If you’re a native English speaker, you can’t approach Arabic in the same way you would another Germanic language or a Romance language. English and Spanish have differences in grammar, syntax, and sound, but there are enough similarities between the two tongues that most students don’t have a hard time crossing over. The same is not true for Arabic.

Nevertheless, it is absolutely possible for English speakers to become fluent in Arabic. Gaining fluency will simply require more time and effort than it might with a western language. If you plan on studying Arabic, take these important points about the language into account before getting started.

Sounds in Arabic that may be difficult for non-Arabic speakers

Depending upon your native language, you may have a hard time pronouncing some of the sounds present in Arabic. English speakers have particular problems with the kh sound (pronounced like the “ch” in the Scottish loch,) the soft gh sound, the rolling r sound (similar to the rr in Spanish,) and the hard Q sound (pronounced like the letter k, but further back in the throat.) These are just a few examples of sounds that you’ll have to get used to if you plan on speaking in Arabic. As with any other language, the only way to learn how to pronounce Arabic properly is to practice speaking out loud.

Arabic script

Learning how to discern and write Arabic script often presents some serious obstacles for students. The first of these obstacles is its direction: Arabic is written from right to left. The second, and perhaps more serious, a barrier is the form of the script itself. Individual Arabic letters each have four forms, called the initial (when the letter is at the beginning of a word,) the medial (in the middle of a word,) the final (at the end of a word,) and the isolated (when the letter stands on its own.) Some Arabic letters look the same in every form, but others change their shapes dramatically from form to form. Finally, short vowels are not usually present in written Arabic. While short vowel accents and markings do exist, they are almost never printed in Arabic-languages books, documents, or articles (with the notable exception of the Qur’an.)
Arabic students are sometimes discouraged when they discover the complexity of the language’s written script. However, if you look at learning Arabic as a challenge worth pursuing, you shouldn’t have any problems learning how to read and write its script, given enough work. Learning how to properly form Arabic letters may require some outside help, but the independent effort can also go a long way towards learning written Arabic.

The differences between written and spoken Arabic

The Arabic taught in schools around the world is called Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA. This language is a variation of the Classical Arabic spoken in the 7th and 8th centuries, and it is always used in written Arabic. However, it is almost never spoken. Spoken MSA is primarily reserved for speeches, sermons, university lectures, proceedings in court, and other formal occasions. In all other settings, Arabic speakers use colloquial dialects. These dialects tend to differ wildly both from MSA and from each other, depending upon the geographical distance between the regional dialects in question.
If you want to study Arabic, try to determine exactly what you want to do with your Arabic knowledge. If you plan on using it in a professional setting, you can stick with MSA and not bother with the dialects. If you plan on living in a country where Arabic is the first language, however, you might also want to learn that country’s primary spoken dialect. College and university courses only teach MSA, so you’ll have to find a tutor or study independently if you want to focus on any specific dialects.

Arabic is undoubtedly a challenging and complex language, but it’s also an exciting one. If you put forth the effort and find the right kind of help, you should be able to achieve fluency without any problems. 🙂