Introduction to the Arabic Language
The famous linguist and language instructor Charles Berlitz once posited that if a person were to become conversant in a list of 20 languages, they would be able to speak with over 95% of the world’s population. The Arabic language features prominently on that list.
Arabic is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, spoken by over 300 million people in the world. It is the official language of 26 nations, including Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and it is widely spoken in other countries as well.
It should be noted that there is not one universal language that can be called “Arabic” but rather a unified literary form (Modern Standard Arabic or MSA) that is taught in schools (mostly through the vehicle of the Qur’an) and a large number of dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible. Some of the dominant dialects are Egyptian, Sub-saharan, Levantine, Bedouin, Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian, but there are numerous others.
Arabic is without question one of the most challenging languages for an English speaker to learn, so why would anyone want to take the trouble? One of the best reasons is that there is a high demand for qualified Arabic speakers in the Western world but few who speak, read, and write the language well enough. In government, in business, and in education, Arabic speakers will find many opportunities for employment. Beyond this, Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, and the Arabic-speaking world is the home of a rich cultural heritage. Once you get away from the world of politics and intrigue, a Westerner who speaks Arabic is both respected and appreciated in many parts of the world.
Arabic is a Semitic language descended from the Afro-Asiatic family of tongues and thus is far removed from the Indo-European group from which English originates. There are very few similarities between English and Arabic, apart from words that English has borrowed, such as algebra, artichoke, almanac, algorithm, genie, giraffe, marzipan, and around 900 others.
As mentioned, Arabic is as different from English as one could possibly get. Fortunately, learning any language, no matter how different from your own, is only a matter of consistent, diligent practice. Little kids learn Arabic, and you can too.
These are some of the challenges to overcome:
1) The writing system. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters. Each letter, however, has four forms, depending on where it is found in a word—at the beginning, in the middle, at the end, or all by itself. These are called initial, medial, final, and standalone. Arabic is written from right to left. Like Hebrew, Arabic is written without vowels, although the vowels are added with diacritics (accent marks) for learners and in sacred texts.
2) Pronunciation. Arabic is the language people point to when talking about difficult sounds. Many of the consonants and vowels sound like something only a camel in a sandstorm could produce. However, every human being has the same vocal equipment; if one person can make a sound, another one can as well. It just comes down to practice. As a result, learning Arabic from a book alone will never give the same results as working with an audio course or with a teacher.
3) Grammar. Arabic grammar is based on a system of triliteral roots. That is, most words are formed on the basis of three consonants, and different vowel patterns are added to modify the meaning. An example would be k-t-b (write). The word for “I wrote” is constructed by combining the root the pattern -a-a-tu, to form katabtu. Among other words in this pattern are kattabtu “I had (something) written”, takātabnā “we corresponded with each other”, katīb “book”, maktab “desk, office”, and maktabah “library, bookshop”. All of these words have something to do with the core meaning of writing.
Which version of Arabic should you learn? That depends entirely on why you are studying it. If you want to study the Qur’an, you’ll probably want to learn Modern Standard Arabic. If you wish to speak the language, Egyptian Arabic is probably the best bet, due to the prevalence of Egyptian television broadcasts and movies throughout the Arabic speaking world. Whatever you choose, be sure it meets your needs.
How long is learning Arabic going to take? Probably about a year of intensive study for basic conversations, and two to three years or so for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. But know that mastery of any foreign language is a journey of a lifetime—the longer you study, the better you’ll get.
One cannot study a language for any length of time without learning something about the culture of those who speak it. Family is one of the most important aspects of the Arab society. While much of western society celebrates individuality and creativity, family loyalty is the greatest lesson taught in Arab families; Arab society emphasizes the importance of the group. The Arabic-speaking world has a unique musical style and a varied and rich culinary tradition.
Arabic Word Examples
horse: حِصَان (hisan)
mother: أم (um)
father: أَب (ab)
tea: شَاي (chay)
come: جاءَ (ja-a)
teacher: أُسْتاذ (usstaz)
friend: صديق (sadiq)
Useful Arabic Sentences
Hello. مرحبا (marḥaban)
What is your name? إسمك إيه؟ (ismak/ismik ey?) (m/f)
My name is … اسمي... (ismee…)
Good morning. الخير صباح (ṣabā il kẖayr)
Goodbye. مع السلامة (maʿa s-salāma)
Where is the toilet? فين؟ الحمام (el-ḥammām fain?)
I don’t understand. أفهم لا (lā ʾafham)
Learning Arabic will be a challenge but could be one of the most satisfying things you have ever done. Persistence and consistency in this matter will open new doors to you in the worlds of business, tourism, and scholarship that will remain forever closed to others who have not mastered this rich and fascinating language.