Learning Arabic

Arabic العربية, one of the official working languages of the United Nations and the official language of countries in the Arab World, has a reputation of being hard to learn. Now that I have been learning it for 2 weeks, I could share some insight. Depends on whether you have learned a language that is not based on Latin letters or not, the feeling varies. I learned to speak Mandarin Chinese and write traditional Chinese before I learned English. Chinese, obviously not using any Latin letters at all, is significantly different from English, and it did take a few years before I actually reached the stage where I am fluent in English. I feel like learning Arabic is kind of like that process all over again. Here are a few things that makes Arabic hard, or at least take quite an effort, to learn. First of all, it’s a completely different set of alphabets. This means that if you can’t really guess on how to pronounce a word by just looking at it. I can do that with Norwegian, French (not very successful with this one), Italian, or pretty much any other languages using Latin letters. It may not sound right to native speakers, but it probably is close to how it’s supposed to be pronounced.

Second of all, since we aren’t using a set of alphabets that we already know, to even write out words takes a while. It really is an effort to first think about how a word is spelled, how to connect the alphabets together in the right form (in the case of Arabic, each alphabets has 4 forms: independent, frontal, medial, and end), and to add the right number of dots on the right alphabet. I now have a lot more respect for people whose native language is one that uses Latin letter and learned Chinese. To write in Chinese there isn’t even a set of alphabets. Each character is unique and you pretty much have to learn each one by itself. In comparison, Arabic has only that many shapes I have to remember (does not make Arabic easy for me though). This definitely makes learning the language a little bit slower compared to learning other languages at the beginning. (What can you learn if you can’t even read what’s on the textbook?)

Third, the grammar. Even though I haven’t learned that much yet, I can already see that it’s a hassle. Arabic, unlike English and Chinese, is a language with genders. This means that nouns and adjectives are either masculine or feminine, with not much rules to decide what words are which. This also means that when you put a noun with an adjective together (with the adjective positioned after the noun), the gender of the two needs to agree the gender of the noun. Also, by adding a certain group of alphabets at the end of a word, you can change the word into possessive form. When the possessive form is for human (my, your (masculine), your (feminine), your (plural,) his, her, their), there is a different combination for each one of the possessive pronoun. We haven’t even learned any verb conjugation yet, and I am already feeling like my head is going to burst open.

Lastly, the pronunciation of words. There are certain words that are just really hard for me to say, or really hard for me to tell the difference when two similar ones are spoken. Arabic uses a lot more muscles and sounds in the mouth and the throat, and when you mix up similar sounds, the words you say could mean very different things (for example, the word “pigeon” in Arabic is pronounced Hamam, while the word for “bathroom” is pronounced Hammam).

If you want to learn Arabic, don’t let this post stop you. It is a very useful language, and you never know when you will be able to use it. It is one of the languages that the US listed as “critical-needed” (another way to say that they are willing to give you scholarship to learn it). I really like learning languages, because when I go to places, knowing the language allows me to understand more about the place (and eavesdrop on people who think you can’t understand them). I feel like I am missing a whole lot not being able to understand or communicate with my host-family, but I am picking up more and more words they are saying, so maybe I will be able to have an intelligible conversation with them by the end of the program. من يدري؟


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