The Arabic alphabet
I’ve heard this one too many times: “How can you write those letters? That must be excruciating!” The truth is, the Arabic alphabet is one of the easiest parts! Trust me, the excruciating issues are yet to come! But let’s get back to the topic: Arabic letters are not that hard to learn! It takes a couple of weeks to master, provided that you practice consistently, not just by watching how letters are written using an Arabic learning app, but by actually grabbing a pen and a piece of paper and starting to do it yourself -old school, but highly effective. Please note that Arabic is written right to left, as opposed to other European languages. That might seem confusing for about 5 minutes, but after you try it out yourself, it will become natural. The Internet is highly resourceful and you can find plenty of tutorials where you can learn the Arabic alphabet. However, I would recommend being extremely careful with your writing technique, as it is very important to have a correct writing direction (you’ll see that if you write a letter starting from the bottom up instead of the reverse, it won’t look right). I remember when I started my Arabic language course my handwriting looked awful, but after some time it became effortless. Don’t give up! One more thing: there are various styles of Arabic script, or, as they call it, al-khaṭṭ al-ʽarabiyy: you can check them out here or here. I can say they are all gorgeous and I understand why Arabic script has sparked people’s interest in getting tattoos in Arabic (beware of getting gibberish tattooed on your skin though!), but you’ll soon realize that some of them are more complicated than others, so understanding all of them can turn into a bit of a nuisance.
After you mastered writing Arabic letters, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty: pronunciation in Arabic. It won’t take you long to notice there are some sounds that don’t have any equivalent in English or any other European language. Sounds like ʽayn (ع), ghayn (غ) or ḥāʼ (ح) can turn out to be troublesome at first, since their pronunciation is nothing like English, French, Spanish, Italian and so on. Classic Arab scholars boasted that the letter ḍāḍ (ض) can only be pronounced by natives and is the avatar of the Arabic language, hence the title lughatu-ḍāḍ (“Language of the ḍāḍ”). Luckily for all of us, scientists have discovered that all humans share the same voice apparatus and we are capable of uttering that sound, if we practice hard enough. Start pronouncing Arabic letters as soon as you learn how to write them, and do that a lot! Maybe you won’t pull it off the first time, but I assure you that after a month of thorough practice, you’ll be acing your ع and ض!
I met a lot of people while teaching Arabic for beginners that were very afraid of grammar rules in Arabic. From my personal experience, Arabic vocabulary is more difficult that the grammar itself. Why? Because Arabic is like an ocean, as classics put it, and there are countless words for defining the same concept. Moreover, since words in Arabic are written without vowels, you can have a difficult time guessing what that word is about. Needless to say, it’s hard making any kind of associations between Arabic and a European language, because they just don’t sound the same! Now, as a freelance Arabic translator, I still rely on my trustworthy dictionaries for rendering the actual meaning of a word, and I often come across more than 10 of them for a single entry! Not to mention that a single word in Arabic can be translated into English using an entire phrase :take the word اِحْمَرَّ, which in English means “to turn red”. The good news is Arabic is very logical and if you start thinking in Arabic you’ll see how beautiful the language is.
Here comes the fun part. I recall a comic I saw on Facebook some time ago and there was this guy going to a language learning centre to learn how to speak Arabic. He went up to the receptionist and said “Hello! I want to learn Arabic!” and she bluntly replied “Sure! Which one?”. No matter how you decided to learn Arabic: language blogs, YouTube tutorials, native Arabic teacher, online Arabic courses, MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STANDARD ARABIC AND SPOKEN ARABIC! This is of utmost importance, because it can make or break your endeavor. MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) is one thing and Spoken Arabic is a completely different thing. Here’s a list of essential differences:
There you go, here’s a very brief explanation of my top Arabic-related challenges. It is different, it is beautiful, it is your bridge to understanding a completely different culture, and, just like all great things, it does not come easy. There isn’t a recipe for success when it comes to learning Arabic online or learning Arabic in school, but as long as you work hard enough for it, you’ll cross that bridge and the rewards will be tremendous.