Here are the most common FAQ about Arabic language:
1. How hard is Arabic?
That depends on a lot of things, like what your native language is; for example, if you’re a Hebrew speaker, Arabic will be easier for you than it would be if you were a native speaker of Spanish. But for native English speakers, Arabic is objectively a difficult language, largely because it’s just so different from English. This page sums up the difficulties of learning Arabic for native English speakers pretty well. The State Department’s Foreign Service Institute ranks Arabic as a “category 3″ language (“exceptionally difficult for native English speakers”), along with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. So, depending on your native language, how much experience you have with learning languages, and so forth, Arabic can definitely be a difficult language. But the important thing is motivation — if you really want to learn it and are willing to work at it, you can do it. You have to invest a lot more time and effort into learning Arabic than you would with Indo-European languages, so many people give up early. But like I said, if you have the desire to learn, that’ll make everything else easier.
The Arabic alphabet does seem intimidating at first — all those squiggles, and it goes from right to left! And then there are all those letters like ح ,ج, and خ that are the same except for the dots. But if you just sit down, focus, and go through it systematically, it’s easy to learn in just a few days. (And you can comfort yourself with the fact that at least Arabic does have an alphabet, unlike, say, Chinese!) Pronunciation can be difficult for a native English speaker — letters like ع ,ح, and غ may be hard to produce at first. But that sort of stuff will get easier with practice.
What complicates things a bit is the fact that short vowels are usually not indicated in writing outside of the Qur’an and children’s books. This makes things pretty difficult when you’re just starting out and have no way of knowing, just from unvoweled text, the correct pronunciation for words you’re unfamiliar with. For example, looking at the word فلفل, you would see “f-l-f-l” and not know what vowels come in between those letters. The good news is, this gets easier with time and practice. And if you memorize the verb forms (more on them below), that really helps in figuring out the correct pronunciations for lots of words.
A lot of people have trouble with Arabic grammar, especially at the beginning of their studies — it’s systematic but complex, and the case endings can be difficult to handle, particularly if you’re not already used to a language like Russian or Latin. Also, one irritating thing is the broken plurals; while some nouns take regular plurals, many have completely irregular plurals. However, there are patterns of broken plurals, and if you memorize enough words with their plurals, you can eventually internalize the patterns just through the practice, and be able to guess plurals intuitively.
As far as vocabulary goes, there are only a tiny number of cognates, which does make it harder to pick up a newspaper and immediately recognize words (as you could with, say, French). Also, the vocabulary is very rich; there are many synonyms and words with similar general meanings but different usages/connotations. As I’ve gotten further on in my Arabic studies, I’ve found that after you develop a good base of grammar knowledge, it’s the endless vocabulary that continues to pose a challenge.
Stylistically Arabic is also complicated; it’s quite common for sentences to go on for a paragraph, so that by the time you reach the end you have to remind yourself what the original subject of the sentence was! The Arabic writing style is also a lot more “flowery” than the way English is usually written. So writing in Arabic is quite different from writing in English, and it takes a lot of practice to write in a smooth, natural style.
And then there’s the diglossia issue: the divide between the standard Arabic that’s written and the Arabic people actually speak, which varies from place to place. You can think of the different dialects in terms of American, British, and Australian English, albeit with more differences.
2. What’s the root system? Most Arabic words are derived from a three-letter root that connotes a general meaning. (There are some four-letter roots, but they’re quite rare.) The usual example given is d-r-s, which has to do with studying. So the form 1 verb درس darasa means “to study,” while the form 2 verb درّس darrasa means “to teach”; درس dars means “lesson,” مدرسة madrasa means “school,” and مدرّسmudarris means “teacher.” And so forth; you can derive tons of words with related meanings from a single root. It’s really quite helpful; if you come across an unfamiliar word but recognize the root, you can use that knowledge to make a good guess at the meaning.
3. What are the verb forms? Every trilateral Arabic root can (theoretically) be transformed into one of fifteen possible verb forms (أوزان awzaan). Each root has a general meaning (like “leaving,” for example), and when you add a specific combination of letters to transform the root into one of the verb forms, that alters the meaning (like “making someone leave”). See below:
Most Arabic words are derived from a three-letter (trilateral) root. And each trilateral Arabic root can theoretically be transformed into one of fifteen possible verb forms (الأوزان, al-awzaan). (Forms 11 through 15 are very rare, so people usually just focus on forms 1 through 10, although 9 is also pretty rare). Each form has a basic meaning associated with the general meaning of the root being used. Here’s a more detailed breakdown, using فعل (fa3ala, to do) as an example. (This is all taken from old handouts I got at the AUC, so it’s not my original work.)
Form 1 - فعل (fa3ala)
Expresses the general verbal meaning of the root in question
|Root||Form 1 verb|
|خ ر ج (x-r-j) – leaving, departing||خرج (xaraja) – to leave, go out|
|ج م ع (j-m-3) – joining, uniting||جمع (jama3a) – to gather, collect|
|ع م ل (3-m-l) – doing, making||عمل (3amala) – to work, to do, to make|
|ق ط ع (q-T-3) – cutting||قطع (qaTa3a) – to cut, cut off|
|ب ع د (b-3-d) – separating, distance||بعد (ba3ada) – to be far from|
Form 2 - فعّل (fa33ala)
Built on form 1 by doubling the middle radical of the form 1 verb (adding a shadda to it)
Often is a causative version of the form 1 verb
خرج (xaraja) means “to go out”; خرّج (xarraja) means “to make (s.o.) go out; to graduate (s.o.)”
Often an intensive version of the form 1 verb (especially if the form 1 verb is transitive)
جمع (jama3a) means “to collect, gather”; جمّع (jamma3a) means “to amass, to accummulate”
Form 3 - فاعل (faa3ala)
Built on form 1 by adding an alif between the first and second radicals of the form 1 verb
Usually gives an associative meaning to the form 1 verb; describes someone doing the act in question to or with someone else
عمل (3amala) means “to work”; عامل (3aamala) means “to treat or deal with (s.o.)”
Form 4 - أفعل (af3ala)
Built on form 1 by prefixing an alif to the form 1 verb and putting a sukuun over the first radical
Similar to form 2 in that it is usually a causative version of the form 1 verb
خرج (xaraja) means “to go out”; خرّج (xarraja) means “to graduate (s.o.)”; أخرج (axraja) means “to expel, to evict; to produce”
Form 5 - تفعّل (tafa33ala)
Built on form 2 by adding the prefix تـ to the form 2 verb
Often a reflexive version of the form 2 verb
خرّج (xarraja) means “to graduate (s.o.)”; تخرج (taxarraja) means “to graduate” (Note: form 5 is usually intransitive)
Sometimes an intensive version of a form 1 verb
جمع (jama3a) means “to collect, gather”; تجمّع (tajamma3a) means “to congregate, to flock together”
Form 6 - تفاعل (tafaa3ala)
Built on form 3 by adding the prefix تـ to the form 3 verb
Usually a reflexive version of the form 3 verb
عامل (3aamala) means “to treat or deal with (s.o.)”; تعامل (ta3aamala) means “to deal with each other” (Form 6 is usually intransitive)
Form 7 - انفعل (infa3ala)
Built on form 1 by adding the prefix انـ to the form 1 verb
Usually a reflexive and/or passive version of the form 1 verb
قطع (qaTa3a) means “to cut, to cut off”; انقطع (inqaTa3a) means “to be cut off (from); to abstain (from)”
Form 8 - افتعل (ifta3ala)
Built on form 1 by adding the prefix ا to the form 1 verb and placing a sukuun must be placed over its first radical
Often a reflexive version of the form 1 verb
جمع (jama3a) means “to collect, gather”; اجتمع (ijtama3a) means “to meet; to agree (on)”
Sometimes has a specially derived meaning relative to a form 1 verb
بعد (ba3ada) means “to be far away”; ابتعد (ibta3ada) means “to avoid”
Form 9 - افعلّ (if3alla)
Built on form 1 by adding the prefix ا to the form 1 verb, placing a sukuun over its first radical, and adding a shadda to the last radical
Relates to colors
ح م ر (H-m-r) relates to “redness”; احمرّ (iHmarra) means “to become or turn red”
Form 10 - استفعل (istaf3ala)
Built on form 1 by adding the prefix استـ to the form 1 verb and inserting a ت between the first and second radicals; a sukuun must be placed over the first radical
Often a considerative version of the form 1 verb; means “to consider or to deem someone to have the quality” of the form 1 verb in question
بعد (ba3ada) means “to be far away”; استبعد (istab3ada) means “to consider s.o. or s.t. remote or unlikely”
Often a requestive version of a form 1 verb; means “to request or to seek something” for oneself
عمل (3amala) means “to make; to do”; استعمل (ista3mala) means “to use, to put into operation” (that is, to seek to make something work for oneself)
And here’s a table of all the verb forms, including their perfect and imperfect conjugations (الماضي والمضارع), active and passive participles (اسم الفاعل واسم المفعول), and verbal nouns (المصدر). Because they’re all regular and predictable (with the exception of form 1 – the second vowel in the imperfect and perfect conjugations, and the verbal noun), if you just memorize them, you’ll know them for almost every verb there is. So if you’re learning Arabic, I suggest you memorize all the verb forms along with their associated meanings as soon as you can; it’ll really come in handy.
|المصدر||اسم المفعول||اسم الفاعل||المضارع||الماضي|
|مُفاعَلَة or فِعال||مُفاعَل||مُفاعِل||يُفاعِلُ||فاعَلَ||3|
4. Which dialect should I learn? That really depends. If you have a special interest in a particular part of the Arab world, or if you have friends or family from a certain area, go ahead and learn that dialect — although if you’re interested in, say, Morocco or Algeria, just keep in mind that Arabs outside the Maghreb cannot understand these dialects in their “pure” form. (The first time Ahmed Ben Bella spoke to the Arab League, he had to do so in French, because nobody could understand his Algerian dialect!) If you want to learn 3ammiyya but have no real leaning towards one variety or another, I would recommend Egyptian or Levantine Arabic. Egyptian is the most widely understood dialect, thanks to the well-established music, TV, and film industry there; Egyptian media is popular enough that no matter where you go in the Arab world, you’ll keep hearing Egyptian Arabic on TV and the radio. So if you learn Egyptian Arabic, people all over the Arab world will be able to understand you easily.
Levantine Arabic is the next most widely understood dialect after Egyptian. Thanks to the popularity of Lebanese music, Syrian musalsalaat, and so on, the Levantine dialect is well-understood in the Arab world. Gulf Arabic is not as widely understood outside the Khaliij, though, and as for Maghrebi Arabic, Arabs from the Maghreb generally have to modify their speech significantly to be understood when talking to other Arabs (see the next question). Since this is harder for non-native speakers to do, I would recommend choosing a dialect that’s easily understood throughout the Arab world like Egyptian or Levantine.
5. How can I read Arabic fonts and write in Arabic on my computer?
Here’s how to enable Arabic on Windows. Mac users can use this information to enable Arabic support. If you want to be able to type in Arabic without going through any of those steps, you can use this online Arabic keyboard, which you can also use to learn the Arabic keyboard layout. For really exhaustive information on enabling Arabic for Windows, this webpage covers just about everything.
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