As its name indicates, Arabic originated on the Arabian peninsula in the Middle East.
It's a term shared by a group of Semitic languages (Hebrew and Aramaic are others).
Its speakers number 300 million around the world, mostly in the Arab world of course, and it is the 5th most spoken language worldwide.
The Arabic language arouses a certain curiosity due to its particular sounds, phonetics, and speech patterns, but even more so for the multiple forms that it takes, and its extensive vocabulary.
However what can be quite confusing for beginners is that Arabic speaking and Arabic writing are substantially different.
Literary Arabic, also commonly known as modern standard Arabic (Msa), is the form that the written language takes. It has special significance in the Islamic world as it is the language that the God used to reveal the words of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.
This form differs to spoken Arabic. Each country in the Middle East and North Africa has its own dialect. This means that Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Lebanese Arabic, and Palestinian Arabic are all markedly different. This is not just the case in terms of pronunciation and colloquial phrases, but in terms of the Arabic grammar, words and phrases used.
So if you want to speak Arabic, you need to research which dialect suits your needs best.
For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on Literary Arabic, used in the Quran, and leave the dialectal forms of the Bedouins and Sub-Saharan Africans to other linguists!
Arabic for Kids
In recent years, Arabic language learning has seen a steady increase due to a more widespread desire to understand other cultures, and work collectively internationally.
After all Arabic is widely spoken, and is an official language in 26 countries worldwide, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria but to name a few.
Today, Arabic can even be chosen as a foreign language for primary school students just as easily as one of the European languages, or even Chinese.
But this opportunity is still a rare chance, given that it is taught nowhere near as much as Spanish.
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However, linguists and other experts know very well that learning a foreign language is easier for children than it is for adults.
Hence the interest in Arabic classes for children from parents who want their children to learn Arabic as a second language.
So unless the child lives in an Arab-speaking home (at least partially), the instruction of the language must be entrusted to a third party.
When schools can't fulfil this role, parents need to rely on private educational resources, perhaps free from friends, but more likely with a cost, with private Arabic lessons from an Msa tutor. You can trawl the Internet to find out where you can learn Arabic London.
Ideally, you'll be able to find two things in this teacher:
- Someone who doesn't ask too much of a young student,
- And someone who has an equal mastery of English so the student isn't swapping one language for the other.
With these conditions, it's never too early to have your child start learning Arabic, just as it's possible to have two mother tongues, as demonstrated by some marriages. It's the best path to becoming bilingual in Arabic and English.
In order to avoid making a young student turn against Arabic language learning, make sure to track down supplemental educational materials that are fun and interactive, even for doing exercises and evaluations.
Modern technologies obviously help in this regard, often without any associated cost: a quick Google search returns dozens of Arabic cartoons, like The Arabian Nights, for example.
A more classical tool is music which is invaluable in terms of imparting basic linguistic know-how to young children, especially with singing.
Like any language, Arabic boasts a great number of fun nursery rhymes:
- "Mama Zamanha Gaya"
- "Doha Ya Doha"
- "Barboori Rye Harye A"
You should also be able to find Arabic board games, video games, and other applications in Arabic... But be careful introducing electronic screens to young ones, because it's not always advised.
How to Learn the Arabic Alphabet
A language is an association between sounds and the written transcription of those sounds, so it cannot exist without some form of alphabet, at least in implicit nature.
Even before the invention of writing in Mesopotamia, the event that marked the transition from pre-historic times to our modern era, spoken language presupposed an alphabet.
The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters in total
Contemporary philologists unanimously agree that it's based on the Aramaic alphabet (more or less modern Syrian Arabic), which is itself based on the Phoenician alphabet, which was based on the Greek alphabet!
There are not, however, many similarities between these distant inspirations and Msa, to say the least.
To be more precise, it's actually the Nabataean language — a relative of Aramaic whose writings have been found dating back 2500 years — that gave birth to the Arabic alphabet in the 4th century.
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The oldest documented instance of Arabic writings dates to 512 with the inscription of Zabad.
With literary Arabic being the Arabic used in the Quran, it makes sense that its alphabet was created at roughly the same time in the 7th century, during Muhammad's era.
To express all of the possible nuances of spoken Arabic's sounds, the Arabic alphabet supplemented the 22 letters of the Aramaic alphabet: 6 new letters were added to create the modern Arabic alphabet.
These "new" letters, according to tradition, are marked by dots, so they can be differentiated by the "ancient" letters.
It was also at this time that the Arabic numerals became commonplace, with the invention of zero one of the many gifts to the western world given by Arabic culture.
Those wanting to master Arabic need to know that each letter also has three variations, according to these situations:
- Beginning of a word
- End of a word
- In the middle of a word
Sites like myeasyarabic.com, arabicquick.com, and madinaharabic.com offer lessons on these difficult concepts and the subtleties of the Arabic language.
Learning How to Write in Arabic
Even the Greek alphabet, which is a cousin to the Latin, is troubling for a native English speaker... never mind the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets!
These symbols can seem difficult, like hieroglyphics. But all forms of communication have their systems that make them clear as water — you just need to dive in.
Learning to write Arabic is definitely possible.
Before getting started, understand that this is among the most difficult languages in the world to transcribe. You'll need to work very hard to have good results.
Next, don't forget that Literary Arabic is even harder than dialectal Arabic. However, it's where you must start and is thus our focus here.
The Arabic used in the Quran is also used by scholars and government offices, and is still the sacred language of the Muslim world. So it's guaranteed to be understood — verbally as well as in writing — in any of the Arab countries.
Without frightening you, you should know that you'll need more than 2000 hours of Arab lessons (private lessons are more efficient, because they're personalized, but you could also try online courses) before you'll truly be able to write in Arabic without any problem.
So you'll need to be passionate and very motivated!
The main characteristics of written Arabic, beyond the fact that it has an alphabet of 28 letters, are:
- It reads from right to left
- It's written in a cursive style (like many ancient languages, in which letters within words are connected to each other)
- Vowels are largely omitted (just like traditional Hebrew)
- There are no letter cases (like Latin long ago)
These various elements make reading Arabic much more complex for a neophyte. It seems, at first glance, that Arabic calligraphy, a little like Japanese or Chines pictographs, is an art in its own right.
Fortunately, there are lots of educational manuals and exercise notebooks for Arabic students to practice writing.
For those disinclined to those approaches, the Internet offers lots of other solutions, such as "Write with me in Arabic," not to mention a large number of online videos.
It's essential to practice: again, the Internet can be useful — or even a friend — to help you find a pen pal so you can read and write in Arabic.
This correspondence will also create a deeper immersive experience of Arab culture.
How to Pray in Islam
It's the reason that drives many people to take the steps to learn Arabic, because the Muslim faith can only truly blossom in an individual who's nourished by the language of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad.
Praying in the Arabic of the Quran is not easy for non-native Arab speakers, but even speakers of dialectic Arabic need to be careful to pay close attention to the gestures and prescribed traditions of the Muslim religion.
The 5 daily prayer sessions are one of the 5 pillars of Islam, which is followed by almost a billion people on the planet.
The rituals combine Arabic words and phrases (a necessary element) with different corporeal actions, beginning with ablutions (the ritual cleansing of the body done before praying).
The true sounds of the Arabic language are used to praise the Creator above all else, and for centuries it has occupied a place in our world unlike anything ever seen by Greek, Latin, or any other ancient language.