You’ve been doing your research to sign up for the right class that matches how you want to learn to speak Arabic – considering language schools, university, intensive immersion courses, or private classes at home - you begin to get lost in all the names for the different forms of Arabic.
Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, literary Arabic, spoken Arabic, Arabic dialects, Quran Arabic…don’t panic! We’ll explain all the different terms in this article. But as a starting point, Classical Arabic is the language of Allah and the Muslim-Arabic world, and it is a language that has contributed to modern society in ways that many people don't even know.
When you first sign up for an Arabic class, it seems like a lot of work to learn the Arabic alphabet, then learn how to read the Arabic script, and finally, work on your Arabic pronunciation and writing.
Here are a few of our top tips for learning Classical Arabic, from the pros at SuperProf.
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What is Classical Arabic?
First of all, let’s clear something up - Arabic is a bit of an umbrella language. Modern Standard Arabic is a common language for all the different Arabic dialects.
All of the different Arabic speaking countries have their own dialects, and are so geographically dispersed that there dialects have diverged so much that they need a lingua franca.
Classical Arabic, or Modern Standard Arabic, therefore fills this role. The language is so old and far flung that it has evolved differently in different places. Therefore, we’ve ended up in a situation where there’s a difference between spoken and written Arabic.
For a Chadian to understand an Egyptian, or for a Moroccan to speak to a Syrian, they’ll need to use Modern Standard Arabic.
That’s the version of Arabic that can be understood in any Arabic speaking country. All the different dialects spoken across the Arab world are different again to written Arabic.
Classical Arabic is the same thing as Ancient Literary Arabic, which is well documented in history through books, publications, and of course, the Quran.
Classical Arabic is the root of all the different versions of Arabic you find today, and is essentially the same as its modern version created in the 1800s, Modern Standard Arabic.
It’s a bit like the difference between the English of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and today.
Some people think of Classical Arabic as the true, real language of the Arabs, and that this modern distinction between Classical Arabic and modern Arabic is nonsense. But others claim that the ancient form of the language no longer makes sense for life in the 21st century. It’s difficult to judge who’s right and who’s wrong.
According to Ralph Stehly, and Professor of Religious History at the University of Strasbourg, just 20-25% of the Muslims on the planet are also Arab.
It’s important to understand the distinction between Arab and Islam, because Arabic speakers are also commonly Christian or Jewish. To be Arab doesn’t automatically make you Muslim. There are Muslims in Indonesia, India, China, Bangladesh, Turkey, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania, few of whom speak Arabic.
Therefore, Arabic writing and pronunciation only concerns about 20-25% of the Muslims on the planet.
Another thing - you can distinguish between pre-Islamic Arabic, Classical Arabic as used in the Quran, and Classical Arabic post Mohammed. From a historical point of view, the oldest record of pre-Islamic Arabic comes from 328AD.
Classical Quranic Arabic describes the historical version of Arabic used in the 7th century AD. And the post-Mohammed Classical Arabic is the version of Arabic in use during the Middle Ages, by the Umayyad and Abyssinian caliphates.
Nonetheless, the root of all these different versions is still the same. It’s just some of the Arabic vocabulary which has changed to adjust to modern usage. In order to learn the Arabic language, you’ll also need to learn Arabic pronunciation and script.
How Can I Improve My Arabic Pronunciation?
So you’ve mastered all 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet - congratulations!
However, it’s important to know that each letter of Arabic has three forms, depending on if it’s at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence. It’s important to do some studying, because while there may only be 28 letters, there’s 112 different shapes to learn.
One of the easiest strategies is to book more time with your Arabic teacher to perfect your pronunciation.
The Unique Pronunciation of Arabic
Arabic pronunciation can often seem challenging. Learning a new language is always a feat, and this one has a rich use of consonants and low levels of vocalization.
- 7 oral stops (also known as plosives, or occlusive)
- 4 emphatic consonants
- 11 fricative consonants
- 2 nasal consonants
- 2 liquid consonants
- 2 approximant (vowel-like) consonants
Consonants are particularly difficult to pronounce because at the same time they’re said, you must also move your tongue forwards or backwards in order to create the proper sound without changing the meaning of the words in Arabic.
However, the vocal system is much simpler in Arabic.
Improve Your Arabic Pronunciation With a Private Teacher
When you take Arabic classes for beginners, learning the language often seems like an insurmountable task at first.
But this isn’t true. That happened to me during my Arabic classes in university.
As you study, and learn all the forms of each Arabic letter, the effort you put in begins to pay off, and once you’ve passed the first hurdle of learning the script, you begin to be able to read Arabic and begin to speak the language.
During your Arabic lessons, sound each syllable out out loud with your teacher. In this way, you will begin to learn the proper sounds for the Arabic vowels and consonants.
At the Arabic class, your professor can help you and adapt their style of teaching to the way in which you learn best. Whether you’re taking private lessons, or studying Arabic at school, your teacher will probably give you written documents to read.
In high school, the use of a projector for Arabic classes will be a great help to the students, and allow them to read for themselves in a way that is efficient and quick.
One good technique is having each student repeat each form of each letter (each letter has three forms).
First the teacher - normally someone who’s originally from an Arabic speaking country, or someone might have been born in another country but raised bilingually - will pronounce the sound in a way that the students can hear and memorize its nuances.
Study Abroad in an Arabic Speaking Country
In our opinion, the best way to perfect your Arabic pronunciation and everything else, is to spend some time living in an Arabic country.
There, you can explore Arabic libraries, mosques, and cultural centres in Morocco or Egypt, in order to really appreciate the post-Quranic literary renaissance that took place during the Middle Ages.
Signing up for an intensive Arabic immersion course can be a good way to dive head first into a linguistic and cultural experience in a country like Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco.
Can you say a few words? Now it’s time to learn how to write them.
Find out all there is to know about the history of the Arabic language…
How to Learn Classical Arabic
As you leave your first Arabic course, you’ll understand that as well as learning the Arabic alphabet with all of its vowels and consonants, you will also need quite a bit of artistic talent to write the Arabic script!
Yes, we might be exaggerating a bit, but Arabic writing looks like a style of calligraphy.
Learning to write in Arabic also means learning to read a different way from our modern Latin alphabet - Arabic is written from right to left.
In order to learn to write Arabic letters and words, there are several ways to get help:
- Private Arabic lessons at home
- Arabic classes at a local language school
- Online Arabic classes
- YouTube videos and tutorials
- Helpful websites for learning Arabic as a beginner
- Smartphone apps
- Motivation and determination - studying and working hard is the key to learning quickly.
- Buy an English Arabic dictionary
Your private Arabic teacher will be guiding you and correcting your miswritten letters as you learn the Arabic script. They’ll also stop you from picking up any bad habits. The Arabic letters alif, ba, ta, fa, lam, mim, hamza, etc, will all be your new best friends.
When I signed up for a semester of Arabic classes at university, my professor used two teaching methods - He had us work through simply dialogues (Things like, “Hello, how are you?” “I’m good thank you, and you?” “My name is…” “I’m American, and you are?”)
This exercise will help you work on your Arabic listening and comprehension, at the same time as your brain begins to grasp the precision needed to write everything down in the Arabic script.
The second method our professor used was to have us rewrite short texts that he put up on the projector. Although a more academic method, this did help us recognize the different letters and do a bit of memorization. It is useful to write down all unknown words and phrases as this will develop both your skills on how to read and write Arabic simultaneously.
Thanks to the internet and social media, there are tons of different computer tools you can use to improve your level of Arabic today. Getting an Arabic keyboard, learning numbers in Arabic, classical Arabic grammar, writing, and even working on your pronunciation are all available for anyone trying to learn online.
It’s now even possible to sign up for online Arabic classes, and occasionally to learn Arabic online for free!
All the different websites are a great asset to help as you learn Arabic, and can give you different exercises to do.