بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم
Many Muslims are keen to learn the Arabic language as it is the key to unlocking the doors of the knowledge of Qur’an and Sunnah.
Most unfortunately give up soon after starting. While this is often attributed to laziness or a lack of motivation, a lot of the time most Muslims simply do not know how to learn a new language. As a foreign language teacher in his 6th year, I wish to give some practical tips in how you can learn the Arabic language – from the alphabet or just reciting the Qur’an to being able to understand spoken and written classical Arabic. How? By using modern techniques from the science of foreign/second language teaching.
I usually give similar tips to my English language students, obviously without the added context of the Arabic language and possible texts you can learn from.
The first and biggest mistake most learners make
It all starts from here: you’re all excited to learn and study for hours using a dedicated timetable/schedule. You start, and after a few weeks, you realize you’re getting nowhere. You try to push through but eventually stop, picking up half a dozen months later when something motivates you again.
Does that cycle sound familiar?
The key that most learners are unaware of is that learning a new language does not occur via ‘studying’. That is what you do for other courses at school like Biology, Chemistry, Math, Literature and Political Science.
Instead, think of the Arabic language as a skill, not a subject. A skill is not something you study to get at, it is something that you learn once and then practice, practice and practice over and over again until it becomes second nature. That is the mindset you need to have from the beginning.
Thus learning the Arabic language comprises of two steps:
1) Acquiring Communicative Language skills – reading, listening, speaking and writing
2) Theoretical Arabic studies – studying the sciences of nahw, sarf, balagha and adab.
For most Muslims 1) is sufficient and enough to understand the basic meanings of the Qur’an. Many think studying or teaching Arabic is only about 2) – but these sciences are for those who wish to become scholars of Islamic law or the Arabic language, not for the one who merely wants to be able to understand classical spoken and written Arabic for the purposes of communication.
Both steps are radically different in their study and teaching, and understanding this difference is the key to success.
How do I acquire communicative language skills?
As mentioned, practice is the key. The more you listen, read, speak and write Arabic the more Arabic language skills you will acquire. It is not sufficient to simply study and memorize Arabic grammar and vocabulary at an early stage, you must use them and practice them in order to progress.
If the learner chooses to study more, the in-depth study of Arabic grammar (nahw), morphology (sarf), prose/style (balagha) and literature (adab) comes after these language communication skills have been acquired at least at an intermediate level. Obviously, there is a little overlap as some nahw and sarf is required in order to acquire communicative skills and correctly form basic words and sentences, but it should be kept minimal at best
The more you practice and use your acquired language (grammar and vocabulary) the faster your progress will be.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Arabic Language Skills
The skills to focus on are Reading and Listening. The skills of production (speaking and writing) often require a teacher to assess your production.
So for most people reading this, Reading and Listening skills are your bread and butter. Your goal is to improve fluency in comprehension. If you don’t practice them consistently you won’t improve, it’s that simple. 30 minutes every day is light years better than 2 hours once a week.
The following process is possible in self-study but having a teacher is much better for when you get stuck (which you will) or need a push:
1) Start off with Arabic learning texts for foreign learners. The best I have used are اللغة العربية بين يديك (esp. for its listening lessons – learners often find it useful to repeat the 2nd volume) and ‘Studying Arabic from the Islamic Texts’ by Syed Iqbal Zaheer for integrated grammar and reading practice. Having a teacher on hand to teach you a few quick lessons on foundational grammar here would be extremely helpful. The Madinah and Imam Saud University books are also good. There are also Egyptian books that I have heard of but don’t know much about. The more you do at this stage, the better.
2) Then start النحو الواضح, a simple and practical textbook for Arabic grammar, and start memorizing some Sarf conjugation tables, alongside with active reading practice from:
– قصص النبيين للأطفال
– صور من حياة الصحابة
Both books have tashkīl (vowel marks) and are interesting/fun to read. Others have also found reading classical introductory Fiqh works like مختصر القدوري or متن الغاية التقريب helpful.
Focus on understanding meaning accurately and building vocabulary. I strongly advise using a mobile dictionary app (the Mawrid variants are the best) to save precious time and energy. The Hans-Wehr dictionary is also available by the name of ‘Arabic Almanac’.
3) Slowly add more listening into your practice sessions. The best are basic talks about topics you already have some background knowledge about. This way you can focus purely on practicing listening and acquiring language as opposed to trying to understand the topic as well.
This will vary from person to person, and often YouTube will be the best resource. Easy and quick da’wah lectures on Sīrah, Fiqh etc can be very helpful.
4) I strongly recommend the structure mentioned in 1) – 3). After this you should be able to determine your own ability a bit more accurately. Add more readings and listenings, but never material that is too hard. The best is what is just challenging enough for it to not feel like a chore. Listen and read easier samples to take much-needed breaks and to feel good about having fluency.
Read books on topics that you enjoy by contemporary authors. Be wary of becoming overconfident and trying to read older books by big scholars – their Arabic is often very difficult. I highly recommend basic books in Arabic by Dr. Al-Sallabi, Salman Al-Awdah, and Muhammad al-Nablusi.
The صور من حياة الصحابة also comes in other editions – of the تابعين and the صحابيات. Those are good practice as well.
Some have found تفسير الصابوني helpful as well. The introduction is a good read, but don’t try to read the entire book from cover to cover. You can read parts of it at a time. That takes a lot of discipline for someone fluent in Arabic, let alone a beginner student.
For listening, try to waste your time on Arabic YouTube instead of English. You may be surprised at the level of immersion you can achieve this way. BBC Arabic is also an excellent outlet to listen to. Their Arabic is often much easier and formal than other news networks.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t understand everything in a listening piece. An 80% comprehension level is quite an achievement. Fluency takes time to develop so be patient with it. Learning a 2nd language is like learning a skill so it takes years to master, not days, weeks or months. If you know someone who has done it in that time, they are an exception not the rule.
5) If you’ve followed the steps thoroughly with a teacher to help you, you’re probably ready at this point for beginning some advanced language studies – studying old texts in nahw, sarf and balagha. The process of study for these subjects is not the focus of this article.
It is important to build your language skills before getting into these sciences. The eagerness of a student is appreciated but don’t rush things. Commit yourself to the procedure and to steady improvement and you’ll be on your way to what you want to learn before you know it.
I didn’t mention writing and speaking, but remember that they are still very important. Practicing writing and speaking can dramatically improve your reading and listening strength. Unfortunately it is impossible to practice them without a teacher, or someone qualified to check your work.
I wrote this article in a hurry but I hope this helps in creating a study plan for Arabic learners. I understand finding a qualified teacher is difficult but it’s very important to have someone to ask questions to. You will never find someone who has relied extensively on self-study except that he has very serious gaps in ability and understanding.