How are Arabic words formed?
December 18, 2017

Why is Arabic hard to learn?

Arabic has always been a challenge for people to learn, no matter if it’s Modern Standard Arabic, abbreviated MSA, or Spoken Arabic, simply called “dialects”. In this article we are going to go through some of the struggles people have when they decide to learn Arabic. As a non-native speaker myself, I have had my share of obstacles when I started learning how to speak Arabic in college. The good news is that you can overcome all of these problems if you put in a little effort and determination. Ready? Here we go!

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.


Arabic sounds

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!


Arabic vocabulary

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.


Arabic dialects

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:

  • MSA is mostly written, you’ll see it in magazines, newspapers, websites etc. It is the official language of all Arab countries. However, it is rarely spoken on a regular basis, I’ve heard it used only in official circumstances: speeches, lectures.
  • When it comes to speaking in Arabic, especially in informal situations: everything from shopping at the market, going to get papers done, coffee breaks, ordering food, calling a call centre; you name it, dialects are used. I tried ordering hummus and ta3meya in Cairo using my MSA and the waiter, although he understood, was close to bursting into laughter because he was simply not used to hearing people ordering stuff in standard Arabic. He answered in Egyptian.
  • MSA is a very stable language, it has logical structures, precise rules, almost like mathematics. If you acquire these rules, there’s no way you can fail.
  • Dialects have little to no rules. There is a huge debate on whether it’s useful for someone to learn MSA and then start a dialect or the other way around, but the bottom line is dialects are looser. Sure, if you learned MSA prior to starting an Arabic dialect course, you will recognize some words and patterns, but that’s about how much help you’ll get.
  • I mentioned earlier that MSA is the official language in all Arab countries. That means that it’s the same in all of them, no matter the coordinates: from Morocco to Kuwait or from Oman to Tunisia, people use the same standard language.
  • Well, I can’t say the same thing about spoken Arabic. Not only do the dialects differ from a country to another, they happen to differ from a city to another. For example, Egyptians in Cairo don’t speak the same way as Egyptians in Alexandria! So I suggest that if you started learning Spoken Arabic, stick to that particular dialect and don’t mix it with other dialects. The main issue here is that if you speak in Levantine Arabic with someone from Libya, for example, he’ll understand you, BUT he will reply in Libyan Arabic. That’s when you might become a tad confused. Don’t sweat it, practice makes perfect and in time you’ll start understanding more and more.

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.