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Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The 7 Crack Commandments Of Learning Arabic
The 7 Crack Commandments Of Learning Arabic
By :Will Ward entrepreneur and musician living in Washington DC
“3ayz aru7 el-mat3m” I repeated to the cab driver, getting more frustrated as he cruised around the city.
I was a few weeks into my summer course in Arabic at the American University in Cairo. It was my first time studying the language and my parents were coming to visit.
They were landing that night. I was supposed to meet them at the airport outside customs. I had lost track of time at a bar with some friends when I realized it was time to head to the airport.
We had been driving around for half an hour but it didn’t look like we were on a going-to-the-airport kind of road.
“El-mat3m” I repeated, making the motion of a plane landing on my arm. “Ahhh el-Mataar — ze airbort” said the cab driver, grasping now what the frantic, slightly tipsy American wanted.
I later realized I had spent 30 minutes telling my driver to “take me to the restaurant” and, he was (sort of) trying to oblige me by driving around Cairo in circles. I don’t know – maybe he was hoping we would randomly hit the right restaurant.
The Awful TruthAbout How To Learn Arabic
From my experience, it takes 3-5 years of hard study to become practically useful at Arabic. What do I mean by “practically useful”?
Able to read a newspaper article without having to look up most key words
Able to have more than a basic conversation beyond the cab driver back-and-forth
So if you are counting on taking a couple college courses and calling it a day, you’re probably wasting your time unless your objective is to be able to order falafel sandwiches (or you were a “false beginner” like my wife who grew up speaking it at home).
In fact, I have seen people at advanced levels of academic Arabic struggle to order a bottle of water. (Confusingly, the word for “bottle” and how you pronounce “water” vary greatly from place to place.)
Since that night in Cairo (btw, my parents gave up on me and ended up getting a cab on their own) I’ve gotten a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies, lived in Egypt for 2 years, spent time in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Morocco, and now run an English Arabic translation company.
But I still hesitate to say that I “know” Arabic. While I am able to read and write fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) I would sound like an idiot if I had to go on a TV debate show. And while I am comfortable with the local dialects in Egypt or Syria, I had no idea what was going on in Libya.
Arabic is constantly humbling and one of those things that is always humbling and if you are lucky and work hard, your learning curve will look something like this:
Many people think the unfamiliar alphabet and the fact that it’s written right-to-left makes learning Arabic so challenging.
But the alphabet is the least of your worries. It takes just a week or two to learn it and there are a lot of good tools and apps out there to help you. The really hard things for English speakers are:
Sounds: Arabic has at least 7 sounds that do not appear anywhere in English: ع ض ص ط ظ ق ح. This video I found has a good explanation of them (don’t get distracted by his epic beard. Okay do, it’s fine)
Diglossia: This is a concept that doesn’t really exist in English. It means that Arabic has two main registers. Each register has its own grammar rules, pronunciation and vocabulary for common words – a high (fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic) and a colloquial (amiyya, or regional dialect). If you are reading a newspaper, writing a constitution or delivering a formal speech you will be operating in fusha. If you are talking with your friends and family or ordering in a restaurant you will be using amiyya. This is a huge topic, but the important thing for language learners is that university Arabic classes focus on fusha which is seen as more prestigious and professionally useful. The problem is that people in the “real world” don’t speak formal Arabic. So when you show up the the Arab world after a few years of academic Arabic and try to rent a flat using fusha people will look at you like you’re speaking Shakespearian English in Tony Soprano’s New Jersey.
Dialects: Not only will you have to learn the high and low Arabic to be considered fully proficient, but the colloquial Arabic differs from country to country. So after you have learned that the word for “table” (and it’s these day-to-day words that change the most) is tawilah in MSA but tarabeza in Egyptian, be prepared to get strange looks in Iraq because there they call it a mayz in certain places…
Grammar: I am not a linguistics geek and don’t have a lot of the vocabulary to explain exactly why Arabic grammar is hard. But suffice it to say that you will be spending a good deal of time with charts like the one below, especially if you are learning at a place that is big on grammar-translation in their teaching style.
So Without Further Ado …
Will’s Seven Commandments Of Learning Arabic
I often get asked for advice on learning Arabic so I’m compiling my usual sermon here so I can write it once and be done with it. Your suggestions and additions are welcome. This is what has worked for me but of course your mileage may vary…
1. Don’t Sprint.
Learning Arabic is jumping into the ocean not the swimming pool. No single test, course, or even year of your study will get you there so you need to play the long game. You are trying to get a compounding effect over many years of study; pushing too hard risks burnout.
2. Skip Forward A Class If You Can.
This is not a contradiction to Commandment 1. In most programs, a lot of Arabic 2 is re-teaching Arabic 1. If you come in knowing the alphabet going in and a few basic expressions, try to skip the first class or semester. Being around people who are more advanced than you is a great way to up-level yourself. You will sponge their knowledge like a newborn baby and by the end of the class you’ll be on the same level.
3. Don’t Try To Learn Arabic While You Work Full Time
For me, I know I have a golden hour every day, maybe two or three if I’m lucky when my brain can get good, high glucose work done. You will need to invest those hours into your Arabic practice to get anywhere. I remember pounding nescafes trying to get enough caffeine to stay awake through Arabic classes after my full time job was done. Needless to say I didn’t retain a lot of what I learned in those classes and didn’t have a lot of time to do enough studying and unstructured reading. If you at all can, try to study full time.
4. Study Abroad. In Bursts.
University programs are fine for learning grammar and vocab, but you really need to be living in the Arab world to even start to understand the nuances of how diglossia and dialects work. Despite the headlines, Egypt is a wonderful place to go and I’ve also heard great things about Yemen. I had some amazing experiences studying Arabic in Syria, but sadly that’s not an option now. But I found that once I’d been studying for about 6 or 8 weeks I would start to plateau and get bored, but the faster progress would return after I left for a while and came back. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but it happened to me several times, so I think there’s something there.
5. Don’t Study MSA & Colloquial At Once.
This gets less important as you are more advanced, but during the first 2 years or so of study, when you are really trying to solidify the grammar in your mind it’s best to only focus on one or the other because the grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary can be significantly different and you will get confused.
6. Get A Private Tutor ASAP.
I’ve made some of my fastest progress working with a private tutor. If you are trying to learn fast, once you’ve got the basic grammar down its often the best use of your time and money to just get a private tutor and work with them 1-2 hours per day. This is often cheaper than taking university courses and you get much more value in terms of personal attention and matching the work to your needs. Plus you make friends with your tutor, get to go to their house, and typically get privy to a lot of cultural knowledge that you wouldn’t get in a classroom setting.
7. If You Are White, Don’t Wear A Galabiya :D
In every Arabic course for foreigners, there is always one guy who thinks he will “blend in” by going down to the souk and getting a traditional Arabic man-gown to wear to class. This is a horrible idea on many levels – trust me.