Why Arabic is not as hard as you think

Why Arabic is not as hard as you think

Arabic is surrounded by myths. Here are just a few:

“The script is impossibly difficult, like hieroglyphics.”

Not true. It has an alphabet of 28 letters. Letters are joined up. There are actually only 5 basic shapes. Writing goes clockwise (except for one letter – Hamza), from right to left, which for many people is easier than writing left to right as it involves pushing the pen, not pulling it.

“Arabic has too many exotic sounds, impossible to learn for foreigners.”

Not true. There are only two or three sounds which are not found in English and these can be learned easily through imitation.

“Arabic has an enormous vocabulary: 400 words for a camel, 200 for a lion, etc.”

Not true. Ancient poetry has a very complex and varied vocabulary. But the vocabulary of Modern Standard Arabic is no more complex than the vocabulary of any other modern language.

“Arabic grammar is impossibly complicated.”

Not true. Its verb system is quite easy. For example, there are just two tenses – past and non-past.

Easy Verb conjugation

If you’ve ever thinked (sorry, thought) about it, English and the other common European languages teached (sorry, taught) in school, are full of irregular verbs. That’s why really young kids will say things like “he hited me” – they haven’t got hold of the idea yet that in English, we don’t always form the past participle using the –ed ending. Arabic has nothing of the sort. The verb conjugation table is bigger than English (with singular, dual, plural, masculine and feminine categories), but once you’ve learned the table for one verb, you’re done. There are indeed a category of verbs called “weak”, which are sometimes thought of as irregular, but in fact each group of weak verbs (e.g. hollow verbs, defective verbs) follow a completely regular pattern, which is tweaked slightly from the basic verb conjugation table.

Learn one word, get dozens more free

Being a Semitic language, Arabic has a derivation system, whereby from a single root (defined as a three-letter combination), you can derive a whole array of related meanings. So from the root ‘a-l-m we get the verbs ‘alima (to know), ‘allama(to teach),a’lama (to inform),ta’allama (to learn), ista’lama (to inquire). Furthermore, the way each of these verbs is related to the basic root ‘a-l-m also helps with vocabulary acquisition. So whereas ‘alima (to know) is the simple form verb, ‘allama (to teach) is a 2nd form verb (the middle root letter l is doubled), and we use the 2nd form for causation. So literally ‘allama means to cause someone to know, and therefore to teach. Similarly, ta’allama (to learn) is the 5th form, which is a reflexive of the 2nd form. So ta’allama literally means to cause yourself to know, and therefore to learn. And again ista’lama (to inquire) is the 10th form, which is used for requests. So ta’allama literally means to request to know, and therefore to inquire.

Easy Pronunciation

Although learning Arabic involves learning an entirely new alphabet, once learned, you can benefit from the fact that (1) Arabic is written phonetically, so every word is spelled exactly as it sounds, and (2) there is no correct intonation to learn in Arabic (which in English would have to be read “there is no correct intonation to learn in Arabic”), as all syllables are equally stressed. Arabic certainly has its fair share of challenges but you might find that it’s a whole lot easier to understand and get along with than you had thought.

Choose your own word order

The World Atlas of Language Structures estimates that around 35% of languages have a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order, like English, (e.g. The dog chased the cat), 41% have an SOV order (The dog the cat chased), and only 7% have a VSO order (Chased the dog the cat). Although the standard word order in an Arabic verbal sentence is VSO, making it part of this minority, in fact word order in Arabic is very flexible. You can stick to VSO, or you can make it the same as English, SVO. Although this has subtle rhetorical differences in Classical Arabic, in Modern Standard Arabic the two word orders are equivalent.

The European Influence

Arabic is divided into Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA – used in the media, modern writing etc.) and the various geographical dialects (e.g. Egyptian Arabic). Most Arabic students start their Arabic education by learning MSA, and then expand to the other forms if necessary. Although the basic grammar of MSA is identical to Classical Arabic, it has been significantly influenced by translation works from European languages. As such, a number of phrases and connectors, not to mention vocabulary, have entered the language, making it significantly easier to communicate. For example, the verb to lie in Classical Arabic is transitive (so we get constructions like he lied his friend). In MSA, due to the influence of English and French, in both of which the verb to lie is intransitive (i.e. he lied to his friend), the verb is now used intransitively in MSA too. Although this has purists up in arms, if your goal is to learn MSA, this undoubtedly makes things easier.

How Difficult Is It to Learn Arabic?

According to the British Council, Arabic is on its way up. Although it has long been a favourite among students looking to get a hang of a more exotic language, learning Arabic has been becoming more popular over the recent years. This is understandable – in addition to packing some serious cultural and historical punch, Arabic is also the language spoken in oil-rich Gulf countries, and in parts of Africa that are quickly becoming the world’s quickest expanding markets. All of this provides great economic incentives for learning this beautiful, yet puzzling language.

For those of us contemplating jumping head first into studying Arabic, we’ve compiled this guide to provide some overview and insight into the process.

Introduction to Arabic

Arabic is a notoriously difficult language to categorise. The widely held belief is that it actually comprises of a wide-ranging group of dialects pulled together under this one category. The fact that, linguistically speaking, it is impossible to determine which separates a language from a dialect, makes “Arabic” a somewhat loose term. In addition to the dozens of spoken dialects, Arabic also refers to the Modern Standard Arabic – this is the “official” form which is used in literature and formal speech, although thanks to its relations to the ancient Classic Arabic, MSA sounds a bit archaic and artificial by now.

The differences in understanding what makes Arabic, well, Arabic is also the reason why it’s difficult to determine its number of speakers. If all different spoken dialects of Arabic are pulled under this one umbrella term, the estimates are that there can be around 422 million native and non-native speakers, making it one of the five most widely spoken languages. In addition, Arabic is also the de facto religious language for the 1.6 billion Muslims.

Why Arabic Is Considered Difficult

Arabic is a frequent visitor on lists about the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. The language learning communities are filled with anxious Arabic learnersventing about the tough task of becoming fluent in Arabic. The Foreign Service Institute estimates about 2,200 hours (or 88 weeks or almost 2 years) of study time to achieve general proficiency.

The most often-cited reasons for labelling Arabic as difficult is simply because it contains rather little in common with the European language families. Belonging to theAfroasiatic language family, Arabic has had a path of development distinctly different from the big European languages. Although, since Arabic was the language of science during the Middle Ages, there are words that have crossed over to the global speak from that era.

The aspects of Arabic that can seem the most foreign to native English speakers are the fact that reading and writing happens from right to left – the opposite direction to English, the existence of a completely different alphabet and its rather unusual sounds which have no equivalent in English. To further complicate things, vowels are omitted from written Arabic (I mean, srsly?!) which can complicate understanding when first learning the language.

But It’s Not All Bad

Although Arabic does definitely present some rather unique difficulties, it still isn’t the most difficult language on the planet. Mostly because there is no such thing. The trick to learning any language is to start making your own connections to what you’re learning and simply enjoy the process.

Since Arabic differs so much from location to location, it might benefit to also change your approach to learning it depending on your goal. If you simply want to pick up some conversational Arabic for your trip, simply start by learning some colloquial Arabic of your destination country. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive overview – start by learning Modern Standard Arabic and widening your understanding of the local dialects from there. Dr. Aaron Ralby argues that learning Arabic should be viewed as not learning one, but several related languages – much like studying French, Spanish, and Portuguese which all stem from the same origins. This might also put the task in better perspective.

Although learning Arabic has been thought to be incredibly difficult, this notoriety comes down to being, at worst, based on myth or, at best, over exaggerated. In the end, it’s your own attitude and context that make the most difference in learning a language.

If you’re still doubting, this page will give you some reasons why learning Arabic is a great idea.

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