As a student and also now a teacher of Arabic I’m always really curious, whenever I meet a fellow student, what techniques did he use to learn Arabic? What books did he read, which teachers did he have, where did he travel to? If he watchs Arabic TV then how much does he understand, and just exactly what level has he reached? How long did it take, did he take any breaks? Did he study full time or part time?
In anticipation of those questions being aimed at me, I’ll do my best to answer you, and to throw in some tips as well.
Where am I now
I can now understand most of the Qur’aan and can explain the grammar for the great majority of the verses, الحمد لله. It took about 3 – 4 years of occasional part-time study all-in-all to reach that point. I can also hold my own in conversational Arabic, a skill I learnt sometime after learning the grammar, by spending a year in Syria. I keep my grammatical knowledge fresh by teaching Arabic at the beginner and intermediate level, and reading the Qur’aan and other Arabic books. I have an occasional conversation in Arabic (maybe once a month), which is far too little. I concentrate hard on speaking Arabic fully correctly with all the correct inflections/تشكيل, which is something that even most Arabs don’t make the effort to do. I really think that once you’ve learnt the grammar it’s not much harder to speak 100% correctly and it’s largely laziness on the part of the Arabs when they don’t do so.
In terms of grammar I know about as much as they teach in the first year of an Arabic degree in an Arab country. However, in terms of vocabulary I only know around 2000 – 3000 words. Yes, learning the vocabulary can be difficult. I have been told that to have a conversation, read the newspaper or understand TV in English you need to acquire around 1,500 words. In Arabic you need around 6,000.
How did I get here
I was thinking about embracing Islam and I wanted to verify the translation of the Qur’aan that I was reading (Yusuf Ali), by learning Arabic and reading it for myself. I was hoping to reach that level in a year (how naive I was!). After having decided to learn Arabic I did what I always do when I want to learn something new – I went and bought a couple of books about it. This was around 1998 so it was long before you could do anything on the internet other than buy PC equipment or chew the cud on alt.programming.why-i-hate-spreasheetpro2000. I did my best with Teach Yourself Arabic (I think the Teach Yourself series is pretty good) and managed to gain a rudimentary grasp of the script, which is of course very different to the Latin script used for English. As I later learned, the Arabic script and Latin script actually have a lot in common, but to the beginner they are worlds apart. However, on my own I struggled and could not even get past the most elementary level of ‘how are you?’ etc. It was time to register for a class.
I started evening classes at Hackney Community College located in, you guessed it, Hackney, London. It was one class per week and each class lasted about an hour and a half. In the first term there were about 20 students, some who were planning to take a holiday in Morocco or Tunisia, some who wanted to be flight assistants for Middle-Eastern airlines, one muslim student wanting to learn Arabic, one elderly Jewish lady who was studying all Aramaic related languages and various others. By the second term there were fewer of us and later in the year there were not enough students to make a third term worthwhile. The teacher’s name was (as I knew it then) Ahmed Babakr, now I know him as Sheikh Babakr. He taught us how to read and write Arabic, together with some simple vocabulary and everyday phrases جزاه الله خيرا و حفظه الله (may God reward him and preserve him).
I of course was unable even to approach the Qur’aan in Arabic at that point, but I knew enough that I wanted to become a muslim and I did so, الحمد لله. From that point I attended weekly circles where I made various good friends, one of whom recommended the Islamic Foundation’s one-week residential course to learn simple Arabic. I was able to attend a couple of days of the course and the main thing I got out of it was my introduction Sheikh Tijani, with whom I went on to learn most of the Arabic grammar that I know now. Later that year Sheikh Tijani came down to East London and taught a 3 week intensive course (including the weekends) in Arabic, concentrating on, as he always does, examples of verses from the Qur’aan coupled with very clear explanations of the grammar, conjugations of the verbs etc. I had decided to take a sabbatical from work (in IT systems development) and attending this course was not a problem – in fact, I loved every minute of it.
It’s very much worth saying at this point how fortunate I was that I had found two such excellent teachers. Both of them have served as probably the best examples of muslims that I have ever met and I don’t consider it a coincidence that I came across them at this stage of my life.
Also, it quickly became clear to me that I loved the language. I really loved attending the classes and learning more about this amazing language. It has a beautiful and rich internal structure and allows for the expression of concise, beautiful and deep ideas. Even to a non-religious person the language almost seems almost to be designed, it is so regular and its patterns so clean.
So, at this point I had a decent grasp of Arabic grammar and morphology (إنّ و أخواتهاو كان و أخواتهاو المفاعيل الخ) but my vocabulary was very poor – perhaps only two hundred words! Nevertheless it was good progress and I had also realised by this time that it was important to at least maintain the Arabic during the quiet periods between courses – don’t let it slip backwards. I achieved this by never leaving it more than a few months before attending another class or course. Over the next two years I was living in Leicester, and I attended Sheikh Tijani’s Saturday morning class pretty much every week. My grammar slowly improved to the point that I could actually teach the class from time to time when the Sheikh was unable to make it. Incidentally, Sheikh Tijani still teaches this course and I recommend it strongly to beginners and intermediate level students. It’s also very worth attending if you plan to teach Arabic.
Around the year 2002, about 4 years after deciding to learn Arabic and having gained a good grasp of the grammar, I got married to a Syrian and went to live in Syria for a year. I registered at the University of Damascus on an Arabic course targeted at non-Arabic speakers. The course is structured in two-month cycles, each cycle consisting of six weeks of tuition and a two week break. There are supposedly 6 levels but only 4 were available when I was there. On arrival at the language centre I took an exam to see at what level I should start. This was a written exam and I did very well in it, so they put me into level 4. However, all the tuition was in pure Arabic and because I had never learnt conversational Arabic I literally did not understand anything that the teacher said! I went down to level 2 where the grammar was easy and I was able to ‘reverse-engineer’ what he was saying by assessing what was on the board and what he must therefore be teaching. By the end of the six weeks I was understanding about 80% of what he said. By the end of my last term there I understood about 90% of what the teacher was saying.
Since returning to the UK I have studied some Arabic grammar books that are written in Arabic, and having reached this stage of understanding proper Arabic grammar books my level of understanding of the language deepened considerably. I think the point at which you can read the grammar books of a language in that language is certainly a turning point. However, it is still a long way from mastering the language. A very long way! My conversational skills still leave much to be desired and I need to improve my vocabulary.
In terms of my goals I feel I am not far from reaching them. I understand much of the Qur’aan when I hear it or read it, I understand religious books quite well (I know that vocabulary) and feel that I’m not far off properly understanding e.g. documentaries on TV. Along the way I have of course learnt many other things that have helped me (thank God) to keep my efforts directed properly and for the right reasons. There are many perils in this area for the muslim student who can be tempted to use his meagre knowledge of Arabic to show off, or as an attempt at claiming authority to win arguments that he probably shouldn’t even be entering into.
Which dialect of arabic to learn
The total beginner does not realise but he first needs to decide which dialect of Arabic he wishes to learn. The beginner should know that Arabic falls into two broad categories, spoken Arabic across the Arab world, and ‘classical’ (or its derivative ‘modern standard’) Arabic. Spoken Arabic is very diverse, from Morocco in the West to Iraq in the East. The local dialects, particularly on the periphery of the Arab world, are actually a mix of a number of local languages and Arabic, and then have evolved over the passage of time into what we hear now. Classical Arabic is represented at its pinnacle by the Qur’aan. This feature of classical Arabic gives a permanent reference point to the learner of the language as to the best grammatical forms, and prevents the language from diverging, either over time or geographically. This gives educated Arabs and also muslims worldwide the ability to communicate with each other over thousands of miles and even thousands of years.
All Arabic written material is in classical/standard Arabic. If you want to read Arabic books or newspapers then you’ll need to learn that.
Because I wanted to learn Arabic to understand the Qur’aan, and also now to experience the wealth of Islamic expression, I only desired to learn classical Arabic.
Where to start
For the muslim student there’s only one good answer to that – start by making it your intention to learn Arabic for the sole reason of understanding your role on this Earth better, and not for ‘becoming a sheikh’ or showing off.
For the non-muslim then of course you need consider why you are learning Arabic. Consider if you want to learn conversational or written/classical Arabic.
How long does it take
If you’ve read my account above then you’ll have realised that there’s no answer to that. However, providing that you take it upon yourself never to slip back, and keep making a good intention and slowly pushing forward, then you will reach your goal in the end, God willing.
Learning the vocabulary
When I arrived in Syria I only knew a few hundred words and was bottom of the class. I had a set of 1000 flash cards, from which I learnt 30 words per day for the first month. By the end of that month I was top of the class, entirely due to my better vocabulary. You must be prepared to make the effort and learn the vocabulary. However, to be able to learn 30 words per day you need to be fairly familiar with the feel of the language, which cannot be hurried. Set a reasonable target for yourself according to your level and keep it up. Don’t allow yourself to forget words you’ve already learnt, by keeping a record of the words as you learn them. Always learn singular and plurals at the same time, and also present and past tense of the verbs at the same time.
It’s wonderful to experience the beauty of the Qur’aan direct and firsthand, whether you are reading it yourself or standing behind the imam in tarawih. Savour the beauty of the ayats, understand them more deeply and let them permeate your inner self and have maximum impact in shaping your consciousness and knowledge of God.
Aim to keep moving forward step by step even if it seems really slow – never go backwards. Attend classes and any courses that you can. Be prepared to repeat the same grammar material a number of times – perhaps even 3 or 4 times for the same material. Concentrate on learning vocabulary even though it can be very boring.
For the muslim student then your intention should be to learn Arabic as an act of worship, not for getting respect from others. This means that you are successful (in that you are getting rewards for your good deeds) from the very moment you make the intention to learn Arabic, and for every letter and word that you read. Keep that in mind. If I’ve just described you then I also fully expect to you to master the language over time – it’s worth it!