Hi again! Assuming that you have understood and accepted the classification of Arabic that I proposed in my previous piece, I will help you to start learning Arabic. The first and absolutely necessary step is to master the alphabet! Now, there is bad news and good news about the Arabic alphabet. As usual, the bad news first.
As you may have either experienced personally or heard from others, the alphabet is the main reason why most people give up learning Arabic. The uniform rows of graceful curls (ح / ع / ي), smooth loops a (ص / ط / م) and fancy scoops (س / ق / ل) decorated with single, double, and triple dots seemed indecipherable to me at first, but with enough persistence and practice, I managed to nail each and every one of them down in a firm place in my mind. The fact that I learned the alphabet enabled me to read and write before I even had the chance to exchange greetings in Arabic. Therefore, while it is true that mastering the Arabic alphabet takes time and drive, it is crucial to the process of learning, as explained below.
First, knowledge of the alphabet can be helpful even if you do not intend to learn Arabic, but you travel often to the Middle East. Thus, you will at least be able to read road signs, destination names, and other types of instructions in countries that do not use English. For example, imagine you’re in Iraq, driving from Baghdad to Erbil, and at one point you come to a crossroad that shows right to اربيل and left to موصل. The English version is missing and, in case you were thinking about using a GPS, you know that technology often fails us, so what do you do? Well, you either live or die, because the first word mentioned above means Erbil, which is a safe city in Iraq, while the second one means Mosul, where there used to be a deadly explosion every two to three days when I was in Iraq a few years ago. Therefore, a basic grasp of the alphabet can get you much farther in the Arab world than reliance on English and all the technology in the world and, in some cases, it might even save your life!
Second, knowledge of the alphabet is a prerequisite for reading, which underlies the process of learning any language. Therefore, if your goal is to become fluent in Arabic, learning the alphabet will help you to build and diversify your vocabulary by looking up words in a dictionary. For example, let’s say that you want to know how to say “watermelon” in Arabic. You’ll look it up in your English-Arabic dictionary and you’ll just stare at بطيخ without having the slightest clue of how to pronounce it, as most Arabic dictionaries do not transliterate Arabic words into Latin characters. Even if they do, you can’t get the correct pronunciation without knowing the alphabet: do you know how to pronounce “batikh” (the transliteration of بطيخ) in Arabic? Believe me, it sounds very different from what it looks like in English!
Moreover, learning the alphabet is the best way to master the notoriously difficult Arabic pronunciation. Most people would say that the best way to learn the correct pronunciation of a language is by conversation with native speakers, but be advised that many native speakers of Arabic mispronounce certain letters either intentionally or unintentionally! For example, Arabs from certain Arab countries pronounce ذ (dha) as a ز (za) and ث (tha) as a س (sa) or ت (ta), although there is a clear difference between them in speaking. In addition, many Arabs willingly mispronounce the letter ج (jim), which becomes a soft “e” in the UAE, a “g” in Egypt, and a grating “j” in Lebanon. Therefore, I advise you to find a reliable source for learning the correct pronunciation of Arabic, such as the podcast herein enclosed, or other audio recordings of the alphabet made by Arabic language experts.
Finally, you’ll never pronounce Arabic correctly unless you understand the difference between:
- ت and ط
- س and ص
- ض and ظ
and other similarly sounding letters. Once again, the only way to get the pronunciation right is by studying the alphabet with a reliable audio source at hand, because reading the phonetic description in a study guide is not enough. The pronunciation of certain Arabic letters involves the activation of muscles in your throat and mouth that none of the European and Asian languages require, so your throat and mouth might not process what you’re trying to get them to do at first, but with enough practice, they should oblige.
When it comes to spelling, please note that every Arabic letter has different spellings, depending on its position in the word (initial, medial, or final). I would be happy to explain this differentiation and other aspects of the Arabic language in a class, as their complexity surpasses the capacity of an article to accommodate such information. I am currently teaching a class of Arabic and I could always open another one for new students. Feel free to contact me at [email protected] or on Twitter @Amalia_Costin for further details.
Next time, I will introduce you to some basic expressions, mainly greetings, that should get you started in the Arab world and allow you to practise your pronunciation skills. In the process of discussing these expressions, I will provide you with relevant cultural advice that will help you to make a good impression on your Arab friends, colleagues, or business partners. In the meantime, check the podcast below that I made for you and that offers you an introduction to the correct pronunciation of the Arabic alphabet. Good luck!
Amalia Costin is a language teacher specializing in English, French, and Arabic. She has a B.A. degree in English and Norwegian, and an M.A. degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University. She is fluent in several languages, but Arabic is her greatest linguistic achievement so far, as it was the hardest one to master. Amalia also has a passion for writing, which she considers to be the best way to share knowledge and debate ideas with people from all over the world.