When I first started teaching Arabic, I anticipated the difficulty of the language for my students. Not only is the alphabet markedly different from the Latin alphabet of English or Spanish, but it’s written right to left.
To add on to this, to being fluent t in Arabic would mean learning Modern Standard Arabic, along with a variety of colloquial dialects.
Business Insider lists Arabic as one of 9 most difficult languages to learn for English speakers. I believed it the more I saw many of my students come from backgrounds where they had been learning Arabic for a year or two, yet struggled to form basic full sentences.
In the beginning of my career teaching Arabic, I didn’t have much hope for my students to achieve a good level of fluency in Arabic. I did my best to make the learning experience as easy as possible, by incorporating a lot of the strategies I used, myself, in learning other languages or difficult science concepts.
I had confidence in my ability to simplify the concepts that my students thought were too difficult. But fluency? I wasn’t so sure about that. I took in all the pre-conceived notions about Arabic language learning and believed it might just be impossible for someone to speak Arabic fluently.
Well, I was wrong. I watched as some of my students went from barely putting two words together without stuttering, to speaking so fluently, that had I just met them for the first time, I would’ve thought they’re native speakers. It generally took a year to two years to achieve this level, but their patience and hard work paid off.
Here are some of the lessons I learned through my years of experience teaching Arabic, that will help you maximize your learning of Arabic language to fluency level:
1 – Don’t Learn Modern Standard Arabic!
Well, not at first. Most native speakers of Arabic learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in school or from TV, secondary to their colloquial dialect. MSA is mainly used for written language in books and documents; and when spoken, it’s reserved for the news or formal speeches.
It’s not spoken at home, on the street, in a restaurant, or pretty much in any part of the daily life of an Arab. And if you use it to speak to others in a casual setting, you can expect to be looked at as if you had two heads.
Contrary to its name, MSA is closer to Classical Arabic than it is to colloquial language. So speaking MSA in a Middle Eastern restaurant is analogous to speaking Old Shakespearean English to your waitress in an American burger joint. Don’t do it!
Learn a colloquial dialect first, practice it as much as possible and then consider learning MSA. The last thing you want to do is learn MSA for two years that you won’t be able to practice and that will have limited use.
MSA has its advantages. Its main purpose is to unite the more than twenty countries that speak it and all their dialects, by using one standard form of Arabic. It’s useful for those looking to work in a setting where they will need to be able to read or write formal documents, such as working with government agencies.
I recommend learning MSA it if you’ve mastered at least one colloquial dialect.
2 – Choose One Dialect to Focus on and Branch off From There
I recommend to students to choose either the Egyptian or Levantine dialect (Spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan) to focus on–I call this the “base dialect.”
Some students may choose the Gulf dialect, depending on their career goals (for example, if working in the oil field). But the Egyptian and Levantine dialects are the most popular.
There are more resources for learning these two dialects, as Egyptian cinema has been around for decades and the levant has a lot to offer in terms of TV shows and music produced. Having a lot of resources to turn to will help you with listening and learning new words.
The various dialects in Arabic have overlap in words and phrases used. So once you have learned one dialect fluently, branching off to other dialects will be easier.
In my lessons with students, I will often teach a lesson in their chosen base dialect, and introduce vocabulary in other dialects. This early introduction helps students get familiar with other dialects, while retaining their full focus on mastering the base dialect.
3 – Practice, Don’t Memorize
Practicing is the only way to retain new information or learn a new skill. Memorization is tedious, boring, and won’t get you too far. At best, you will learn a word or phrase but won’t be able to apply it to the real world or in different contexts.
Try to practice the new vocabulary you learn in more than one setting. For example, if you had a lesson on greetings in class, look through online videos, read about the meaning of each word separately (don’t memorize the full phrase!), and practice it with native speakers in your community.
If you’re too shy to just walk up to someone and say good morning in Arabic (can’t blame you there!), try mentioning to a native speaker that you’re learning Arabic. In my experience, many speakers of Arabic are very receptive and welcoming to others trying to learn the language. They may begin speaking Arabic to you or even teaching you a few useful new words.
The first day of a lesson I’ll take time to introduce the topic and allow my students to ask questions..etc. The second day of a lesson is solely dedicated to practice. Third day is for testing. You can use this same strategy at home by making sure you give yourself equal time for learning a new topic and practicing it.
4 – Learn Outside of the Classroom
Take something you like to do, like listening to music or watching movies, and incorporate it into your learning. Not only will you be practicing the vocabulary you already know, but you will learn new ones.
As I mentioned, the Egyptian and Levantine dialects should provide the most options for this. But don’t be discouraged to look at movies or music in any dialect (as I mentioned, various Arabic dialects have a lot of overlap). Two things to remember if you are doing this, however.
The first is to not get hung up on memorizing any new words. The point is to get repeated exposure to vocabulary, which will help you remember and use them. When I first started learning Spanish, I noticed that when I watched TV in Spanish and really focused on trying to learn every new word, I barely learned anything.
But when I was busy folding laundry or doing something else, while it’s playing in the background, I somehow picked up words easily. I didn’t learn every new word, but I learned a few more than I would’ve had I been too focused on getting every word.
When it comes to learning language, your mind needs to be relaxed and receptive.
Second, before listening to a song or watching a show or movie, make sure you know what dialect it’s in. You don’t want to confuse the various dialects with each other in the future.
Keep a log of different words that have the same meaning. For example, say your base dialect is Egyptian and you learned that “Eih” means “what.” If while listening to a Lebanese song you found out they used the word “Shoo” for “what,” write it down under levantine dialect.
5 – Look for Language Immersion Opportunities
Some of my students chose to participate in language immersion classes in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Those students have generally come back speaking Arabic with a near native fluency.
But I wouldn’t recommend a language immersion program abroad if you’re not above intermediate level already. And you certainly don’t need to travel to be fluent in Arabic. ‘
Look for local immersion opportunities, whether it be a class (check to make sure it’s not teaching MSA only) or a volunteer position with a local not-for-profit. Some organizations offer programs to teach English to Arabic speakers. In that case, you would get the chance to practice your listening skills and make some Arabic-speaking friends.
If you live in a big city, you might find nearby private Islamic schools that teach Arabic and might be open to taking in volunteers. There are many muslims who do not speak Arabic and many Arabic speakers who are Christian or even Jewish. The words muslim and Arab are not interchangeable.
However, Islamic schools will often teach Arabic as it is the language of the Quran. So consider offering to volunteer as a teaching assistant, where you could both help and learn more Arabic.
6 – Change Teacher or Tutor If Needed
I heard a lot of complaints over the years from students on previous teachers’ or tutors’ methods. “They only taught MSA”, or “they couldn’t answer my questions,” or, my personal favorite, “they yelled at me when I got something wrong.”
I understand that there isn’t an abundance of Arabic teachers or tutors, let alone good ones. And if you’re learning Arabic at a college, you might not have the ability to pick a professor (if the college only has one).
But if you find yourself spending a lot of time and effort without results, especially if a year has passed, it’s most likely not your inability to learn or the difficulty of Arabic. If a full year has passed since you’ve been learning Arabic and you still aren’t able to comfortably speak full sentences, it’s time for change.
Consider taking courses during the summer if another professor is teaching, or at another college for transfer credit. Or if you have a private tutor, consider looking for another tutor who you might match with better.
7 – Give it Some Time and Structure
You won’t learn to speak Arabic fluently in a year if you only dedicate an hour a week to learning it. In my experience, students who took classes twice a week and did some outside homework in addition to that, had a better chance of achieving fluency within two years.
It’s not impossible or even difficult to learn Arabic, but it does require some amount of time. There are many dialects and so you may learn more than one word for any given meaning. The more time you put into it, the earlier you will be able to speak it fluently.
Taking classes at a local college or with a tutor might help you set some goals in terms of hours per week and provide structure. But if you think you can set a weekly schedule for yourself and stick to it, that’s also fine.
Note: I advise students to take a 2-4 week break from Arabic language classes every 4-5 months. Having this break often helps students re-evaluate the progress they made and re-adjust any strategies or goals as needed, keeps them motivated to learn, and helps them come back to classes with a rested and ready to learn again mind!