The Best Way to Learn Arabic From Scratch, From Someone Who Did it for 4 Years

By Ngoc Nguyen

Four years ago, I arrived alone in Qatar, a country that I barely knew anything about. I got there four months after stumbling (during a Google search) on a university that offers Arabic language courses.

Studying Arabic was one of the best decisions of my life. Not only did it open up a whole world of culture and history, but it also helped me connect with like-minded travelers.

Learning Arabic, however, presents some challenges. It's hard to find out how and where to learn the language. Based on all my trials and errors, I'm sharing seven tips for new students of Arabic.

1. You don't need to know how to say “The United Nations” in Arabic

I used to think a university course was the best way to study a language. But now, I realize just how wrong I was.

My university was notorious for producing American diplomats and CIA agents. So, during the first week of my Arabic course, one of the vocabulary words that I had to memorize was “United Nations” —a word I've never used in the following three years.

Before you spend large sums on an Arabic course, learn from my mistake and examine the syllabus. During my years taking university courses, I had no idea how to say “arm”, “banana”, or “I love you” in Arabic.

Make sure you learn everyday language before learning technical vocabulary. Some favorite courses are Madinah Arabic for learning how to read, and for dialects.

In terms of books, I recommend Your First 100 Words in Arabic as your beginner's guide, which explains the alphabet in an approachable way. It also includes daily vocabulary that helps you get around town, order food, and ask for directions.

If you're taking a course, you will probably use the Al Kitaab book series as an English speaker learning Arabic. However, I only recommend using them at the intermediate level, because they don't cover the basics enough to get you speaking and writing quickly.

If courses aren't for you, there are many Arabic tutors online on sites like Italki, Preply, and Teacheron. They provide effective lessons at only a fraction of the cost of university courses.

In the past few months, I've found a private tutor who is filling in the gaps in my education. She has taught Arabic in many schools, so not only can she cover the bases, but she can also tailor the lessons to my needs.

2. Learn the alphabet, in all its three forms

I'm not kidding when I say your world will expand if you learn the Arabic alphabet early on.

Even in English-speaking cities like Doha or Dubai, traffic signals and contracts are only written in Arabic. I personally take pride in being able to read every Arabic sign on the street, and that I won't get lost if dropped in any Arab city.

In the Arab world, Arabic writing is considered a mode of artistic expression. Writing Arabic is both therapeutic and a good exercise for mental discipline. Arabic calligraphy is one of the most popular and profitable art forms in the Middle East.

Unlike the Latin alphabet, Arabic is written from left to right, with specific rules for word connections. Each letter has three different forms, for when it's written at the beginning, middle, or end of a word.

Take the letter ب (ba) for instance, and its three forms:

Each time you learn a letter, create a table and memorize it in three different forms. This table from Madinah Arabic is a perfect resource for reference.

3. Choose a dialect, and stick with it!

If you speak FusHa (literary Arabic) in public in the Arab world, people will think you're crazy. Each Arabic-speaking country has its own dialect that people speak, and FusHa was only a recent invention to help everybody in the region communicate.

My university only tested students' proficiency in FusHa, so I learned zero practical speaking skills during my first two years of Arabic study!

If you're eager to speak Arabic, I recommend learning one of these two popular dialects early on. They are easily understood all over the Arab world and are the closest to FusHa. Can't decide? Just choose based on which country you want to visit first:

People from Egypt and the Levant live all over the Middle East and the rest of the world. This means it's easy to find a tutor or a speaking partner from wherever you are.

4. Know what Arabic language media to consume

Surprise surprise! People in the Arab world actually watch the same things that we watched growing up. In fact, Sesame Street and all the Disney shows have their Arabic versions.

A Qatari friend actually handed me a stack of Arabic Disney comics she read as a child after she found out I was trying to learn Arabic.

Below is a list of a few Arabic shows and books that are widely known across the Arab world. Some of them are children's shows with relatively simple language that is suitable for beginners:

5. Where to study the Arabic language

My tutor always says that I must “get used to the sound of Arabic” in order to learn it. What better way to do that than embarking on a language trip to the Middle East?

I highly suggest enrolling in a language immersion program because it's too easy to get away with speaking English even if you travel to the Middle East.

Immersion programs will have you sign a contract where you commit to speaking only Arabic for its duration, minus your daily phone call home. Most learners study FusHa at home, then go on a trip to the Middle East to reach fluency.

Not all trips are created equal. Based on conversations with dozens of learners, teachers, and professors, I highly recommend enrolling in the three institutions below:

Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan: Qasid is among the most renowned centers of classical and Modern Standard Arabic (FusHa).

It offers courses year-round, ranging from group classes to private lessons. Being in Jordan, the center is also an ideal place to learn and practice the Shami dialect.

Hedayet Institute for Arabic Studies in Cairo Governorate, Egypt: Egypt has arguably shaped the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language as a field, and The Hedayet Institute is one such institution.

It offers total immersion programs for both kids and adults. It has also partnered with many language centers in Europe, North America, and Asia to train Arabic teachers.

Qalam wa Lawh Center in Rabat, Morocco: The Qalam Center offers a language immersion experience that incorporates travel and the study of Arabic culture. This is the ideal program for anyone going to the Middle East for the first time.

The Center also offers the highly competitive Ibn Battuta Merit Scholarship for Peace & Diplomacy for students who have studied Arabic for at least two years and demonstrate good results.

If you can't make the leap to travel to the Middle East, there are still plenty of Arabic language immersion programs at home. For instance, the Middlebury Institute offers semesterly immersion programs in Vermont, USA.

In Europe, there are many Arabic centers like the Excellence Center in Halle, Germany, and Ibn Rushd University in the Netherlands.

6. Learning the culture will make the language tenfold easier

Ever noticed that you behave differently when speaking another language? That's because there are different cultural expectations that come with each language.

This can't be truer for Arabic learners. Arabic is the language of Islam, and Arab cultures are heavily influenced by the religion. Arabic speakers, whether religious or not, reference Allah (God) constantly as a sign of modesty and respect.

For instance, if you're trying to make future plans with an Arabic speaker, they will say ان شاء الله (Inshallah), which means “if God willing” instead of yes or no.

It can get confusing because you don't know if you've agreed on something or not, so make sure to check back in to see if you're still on the same page.

Another example is giving compliments. Every time you offer a compliment, make sure to follow up with ماشاء الله (Mashallah), which roughly translates to “God bless”.

You say this to show that you're not envious of what the other has, and to pray for them for protection against the “evil eye”. You can also say Mashallah as a general way to praise someone respectfully.

Like Arab people, the Arabic language is also very affectionate. Arabic speakers may call you حبيبتي/ حبيبي Habibi (m)/Habeebti (f) “my love” when addressing you, especially among friends of the same gender. Think of it as similar to being called “Darling” or “Honey” by an English speaker.

7. Practice pronunciation and reading daily

Arabic is hard to read because you don't write out all the short vowels needed to pronounce a word. This is why it's important to memorize all of a word's vowels (not just consonants) when you are learning its spelling.

Take the word يتكلم Yatakalam “he speaks”. In its full written form with all the short vowels, it looks more like يَتَكَلَّم. However, Arabic speakers don't write out all the small vowels to save time, and because they've already remembered how the word sounds over time. Vowels are typically written out in Arabic calligraphy.

Arabic also has a repertoire of sounds that aren't similar to any language. Below are several Arabic letters that often stump beginners.

ع (A'yn): This is arguably the most difficult sound in Arabic. You have to squeeze your throat to make the sound.

ط (Ta): This is a hard T sound, which is different from the soft t ت. You pronounce it by rounding your mouth and stressing on the T sound.

ض (Dha): An emphasized D, pronounced with the same logic as ط.

ص (Sa): An emphasized S, pronounced with the same logic as ط.

As you can see, putting stress on words creates brand-new consonants and vowels in Arabic.

You'll constantly be switching between words with stresses and words with relaxed pronunciation. This will become easier with practice, and most people can pronounce the alphabet correctly within a month.