In February 2016 I set a goal to learn Modern Standard Arabic as a consumer, i.e., to gain the ability to read and listen in Arabic, with no intention to speak or write. I enjoy to learn things by myself, and despite plenty of recommendations on the web which advised me to find a teacher, I learn Arabic unsupervised.
I picked a learning method which is built around reading and listening to real texts/videos like newspaper articles or Aljazeera news, and I spend almost no time learning the grammar. The main idea of this approach is to mimick the way how an infant learns a language, assuming that those grammar rules which are important do emerge naturally from the consumed texts.
I already employed this method successfully in the past when I learned Russian. My native language is Slovak, which is a Slavic language (as well as Russian), so the whole process was quite easy. The only task which required bit more effort was to learn properly Азбука (cyrillic script), as Slovak language is written in latin script.
It took me about one year of reading newspapers, listening to Russian information radios, watching YouTube documentary videos and reading books on daily basis to fluently consume content in Russian language and after another year I started to feel that listening in Russian takes even less cognitive effort than listening to English. I paid no effort to learn how to write or speak, as that was not my intention.
Based on this positive experience I started to learn myself Standard Modern Arabic. I knew this task would be harder. I set myself a goal – in two years I want to be able to read newspapers, and in another year I want to understand TV news – considering that I will spend on average 30 minutes every day learning.
I picked Modern Standard Arabic and decided not to pay any attention to dialects.
When I began learning Arabic, I spent first three days trying to memorize all the various Arabic characters, and after then I jumped to reading newspapers.
To learn Arabic script is easy. The fact that Arabic is written from right–to–left does not adds any additional cognitive load, it comes naturally. The Arabic script seems like an alien for Europeans who spend their whole life in latin, but to learn Arabic alphabet is not harder than to learn Азбука (cyrillic script) or georgian alphabet. For a comparison:
There are 28 letter in Arabic alphabet. There is no lower and uppercase. However, each letter can appear in four shapes, depending whether a letter is at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a word, or standing on its own. This gives us
28 x 4 = 112 symbols to learn, but the four shapes of a single letter are usually similar to each other, for example here are four shapes of letter B:
- B on its own: ب
- B at beginning of a word: بـ
- B in the middle of a word: ـبـ
- B at the end of a word: ـب
On the other hand, cyrillic script has 33 letters, each letter has lower and upper case, and moreover, there is also handwritten form (also in lower and uppercase), thought the handwritten form can be learned on later stage.
If we take all these forms into account we get similar number of symbols to learn than in Arabic:
33 x 4.
In the beginning I landed on BBC Arabic and picked single theme – armed conflicts. For the first three months I was reading articles only within this topic (it is easy to determine such articles thanks to the accompanying photos). After two months my vocabulary became wide enough and I was able to understand general direction of an article and slowly started to include more topics (weather, elections in the US, recipes, …).
I use Mate Translate plugin for Google Chrome. This plugin allows to select text and to use keyboard shortcut to quickly show a popup with translation and “Listen” button. The later is important, because what makes Arabic hard is that casual texts like newspapers articles don’t include vowels. Only consonants are written, and though there do exist symbols for vowels, they are usually omitted, so a text looks like this:
txt lks lk ths.
Just by reading a word, a newbie cannot figure out how is a word supposed to sound. The voice behind the Listen button is Google Translate robotic voice, but I find it’s ability to emulate the language satisfactory.
After two years, my ability to understand written text is following:
Here is a part of a news article about war in Syria (I read about it daily), orange color higlights words I failed to understand:
Here is part of article on Internation Space Station, a topic I am occasionally interested in, I read maybe one space–related article per week:
When reading a text, I memorize new words using associations. Finding good associations is challenging, but it can be fun, for example:
- Bribe is رشوة (“rashua”), and there is a corruption-suspect politician in Slovakia who’s surname is Raši (“rashi”).
- Against is ضد (“d–dh”). The word is composed of two “D” letters, so these two D’s stand against each other.
What helps a lot in the beginning is to know as many other languages as possible, to increase the likelihood that some new Arabic word will resonate by sounding similar to a word in other language and this is enough to trigger an association.
Arabic language borrows (and also borrowed) many of words from/to other languages, and many Aarabic words are simply a transliteration of English/Latin words.
After cca first year of learning, as Arabic vocabulary grows, it becomes easier to associate new words because they can be associated against already learned Arabic words, for example:
Year is عام (“aem”), and flag is علم (“eulim”), shape of those two words is very similar.
When learning new words from newspaper texts, it is worth to be aware of semitic root grammar rule, which tells that there is a root inside a word (typically consists of three letters), and this stem is tweaked to it final shape by adding pre/suffixes, and/or by injecting a letter inside, but still somehow keeps the root recognizable, e.g.:
- نظم – organize
- تنظيم – organization
To keep myself motivated to pay attention to Arabic everyday I stopped consuming news in any other language, relying solely on Arabic news feeds to feed my information hunger.
Day–to–day progress is very slow, so it is good to create some reference points to track progress. For example, long before I started learning to listen to Arabic, I watched Aljazeera news for few minutes and made sure to “record” the feeling how strange the language appeared to me at the time. I wasn’t even able to distinguish where one word ends and another word starts. After few months, as I began feeling familiar with words I was listening to, it was refreshing to summon memories of the alien experience from the beginning.
What makes learning Arabic interesting is the ideological struggle. For example reading about some event related to the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis on a pro–Qatari news and also on some pro–Saudi newspaper and trying to spot the differences.
Almost every newspaper logo is a calligraphic one, and only after learning the script one can appreciate the art of squeezing a text into some awesome shape. Here is callligraphic development of Al Jazeera (الجزيرة) logo (source: Wikipedia):
I did not made sense to me to dive into spoken Arabic from the very beginning. First year I learned only to read, increased my vocabulary, but paid attention to how a word is supposed to “sound” using the Listen button in translate plugin in browser.
Only after one year of reading, I started watching the daily news on Al Jazeera. They speak fast, but keep clear pronunciation. Youtube allows to play the videos at slower speed, which was useful when I began watching the videos.
There are many newspapers available online, but lot of those sites do suffer when it comes to usability for a language newbie. Many web pages do break apart badly when font size is increased, while others automatically display some annoying “social/share” popup when piece of text is selected, fighting with the translate plugin mentioned above.
Here are my favourite sites when it comes to reading which not suffer from the problems above:
- BBC Arabic – news from the whole Arab world. Articles are easier to read when compared with articles from “hard–core” Arabic sites, because sentences are rather short.
- Sky News Arabic – another global news site with easy to read articles.
- Youm 7 – focused on Egypt. Criticism of current president Sisi does not seems to be allowed, he is presented as a mastermind who guides Egypt to bright future. I like this site because many news are local, so that one gets an insight on what are the problems of average Egyptian people.
- Safa – Palestinian news agency. A lot of fun while reading, articles are simple and straightforward, Israel is presented as evil.
- Annahar – Lebanese news. This one is harder to read, because some of the articles are opinions, thus use wider vocabulary. They have a section on recipes, which are easy to read and are perfect to learn names of all the food ingredients, fruits and vegetables.
It is possible to learn Arabic without a teacher. It took me two years, 30 minutes each day, to feel comfortable while reading Arabic newspapers, though I still feel I must pay cognitive effort while reading.
It will take me at least one more year to understand spoken TV news properly. Currently I understand general context and lot of individual words, but I fail to recognize cca 30% of spoken words – this is mostly because they speak quite fast in the TV news.
To learn to speak (and write) is completely different story and that is not my goal. I guess it doesn’t makes much sense to learn to speak without a teacher, and presumably it is way more useful to learn to speak in some dialect than in Modern Standard Arabic.
- I learned how to say “Yes” in Arabic after more than 12 months since I began learning. Word “Yes” is not used in newspapers at all, it emerged for the first time only when I started watching TV.
- Richard Stallman has interesting method to learn new languages (scroll to section Learning languages)