بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم
Many Muslims are keen to learn the Arabic language. It is, after all, the key to unlocking the doors of the knowledge of Qur’an and Sunnah. However, most people unfortunately give up soon after starting.
While this is often attributed to laziness or a lack of motivation, a lot of the time most people simply do not know how to learn a new language. As someone who taught English as a foreign language for 6 years, I wish to give some practical tips in how you can learn the Arabic language – whether you are starting with the alphabet & learning the basics of reciting the Qur’an or trying to reach the level of understanding spoken and written classical Arabic. What I present here are techniques and strategies based on contemporary standards and studies of foreign/second language teaching.
I would 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.
Change how you think about learning Arabic (or any language for that matter)
When many people hear about learning Arabic, they are usually told about classical texts written for grammar study. But these were written for students who already know how to read and speak Arabic, so instead think of it the following way:
Learning the Arabic language comprises of two stages:
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 just wants to be able to understand classical spoken and written Arabic for the purposes of communication.
Both stages can be radically different in the strategies needed by both teachers and students. Understanding this difference is the key to success. This article only deals with the first stage. For the second stage I have written a separate article you can refer to and implement with the help of a proficient teacher.
The first major mistake most learners make
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. You may not notice that your language skills in Arabic have improved considerably until you are a few months into your study.
Think consistency, practice, and persistence over a long duration of time, not studying long days and long nights for a few months. You will get more out of studying an hour everyday for a few years rather than 6 months of intensive learning followed by nothing.
The second major mistake most learners make
You’re struggling in your study of Arabic. Everyday feels like a chore, but that elusive goal of finally understanding the Qur’an – seems to be getting closer. Or is it? You hear someone talk about how it is much easier for children to learn languages than adults. Many adults, they say, are simply too old to learn new language well.
So you give up, thinking that perhaps you are too old for this and it might be smarter to focus on getting your children educated in Arabic.
Research does not show this however. While it is true that there might be a critical age for learning our first language, this is not the case for learning a 2nd language. In fact adults and children seem to both be equal in their ability to learn a 2nd language. What significantly differs between both groups however, is that children are able to dedicate much more time to learning a second language (and be more consistent because of education systems etc), than adults can. However adults can easily circumvent this by planning their time better and putting more focus on their language studies – even if they are working full time and have family to look after.
In fact, adults can actually be better than children at learning a second language, especially if they are motivated. They are able to plan their study timetables more effectively, have greater access to learning resources and references, and able to comprehend more difficult concepts and words.
How do I acquire communicative language skills?
As mentioned, practice and consistency are 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, an 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
If you are learning by yourself, the skills to focus on are Reading and Listening. The skills of production (speaking and writing) often require a teacher to assess your production, but are still important, so finding a teacher is highly recommended. I don’t talk about them here but keep in mind that practising 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.
Since most people reading this article probably don’t have a teacher, Reading and Listening skills are your bread and butter. Your goal is to improve comprehension. Understanding is more important for Reading and Listening than being able to write and speak. If you don’t practice reading and listening consistently you won’t improve, it’s that simple. 30 minutes or an hour every day are 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 – although this applies to the older 3 volume set rather than the newer 4 volume one) and ‘Studying Arabic from the Islamic Texts’ by Syed Iqbal Zaheer for integrated grammar and reading practice. I highly recommend this latter book for self-study and independent learning. It systematically combines grammar and reading practice together. I would prefer you buy the book to support the author, but unfortunately it is literally impossible to find his books (and those of his publisher) outside of Jarir Bookstore in Saudi Arabia. The Madinah and Imam Saud University textbooks 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) Having a teacher on hand to teach you a few quick lessons on foundational grammar here would be extremely helpful. The books mentioned previously will have grammar in them, especially the later volumes. However, make it a goal to eventually try studying an Arabic grammar text for beginners likeالنحو الواضح which has practice exercises too. Please note that there is a more advanced text with the same name so don’t get discouraged if you find the wrong one. At some stage, it will be worth it to try studying a text like Al-Ajrumiyyah with a teacher. Use this opportunity to also memorize Sarf tables.
3) Read as much as you can. Some books in Arabic have been written specifically for Arabic learners. A famous series of books were written by Sh. Abu Hasan Ali Al-Nadwi, and the first (and easiest) book in the series is قصص النبيين للأطفال. The rest of the series features titles like القراءة الراشدة and a Sirah book (not to be confused with his longer & more scholarly work), and vary in their difficulty level. You may have difficulty finding these books, but the effort is worth it.
Another book that I like is صور من حياة الصحابة. The benefit of this book as compared to the previous one is that it ramps up the difficulty of vocabulary and style, but still has the harakāt or vowel marks visible for those who need help with their reading and grammar practice. The same author also has books on the female Sahabah and the Tabi’in (followers). See if you can find them.
These books mentioned so far 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.
When reading, focus on translating sentences, understanding meaning accurately and building vocabulary. I strongly advise using a mobile dictionary app – especially the maany website and their mobile apps. I am not sure if the Arabic to English version is worth it, but I have bought the Arabic-Arabic version and it is indispensable. There used to be a more comprehensive app version of the Mawrid dictionary but only a basic version remains. The Hans Wehr dictionary also has a mobile app version with search functionality, and is also available on this website. Use apps instead of physical dictionaries, you will save a lot of valuable time doing so.
4) Slowly add more listening exercises into your study sessions. The best are basic talks about topics you already have some background knowledge about. This way you can focus purely on practising 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. 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 possible, find a good Arabic program or teacher online. What I usually advise people is to find a private tutor, preferably one trained in the Arabic language and experienced in teaching foreign learners. There are plenty such tutors in Egypt who teach online. This is the best option, but you have to ask around to find one. There are other programs from institutes like Shariahprogram.ca, Bayyinah, Al-Kauthar, Cambridge Islamic College and others who offer Arabic courses for English speakers. Please keep in mind that I have not used any of these programs myself, and therefore cannot validate their quality or lack thereof.
Keep it challenging but not too difficult
As you progress you should be able to determine your own ability a bit more accurately. Add more readings and listenings, but never material that is too diffuclt. The best is what is just challenging enough for it to not feel like a chore, but for it to still be interesting and feel like you are learning and progressing. Take the odd opportunity to listen to and read easier samples and take much-needed breaks so you can feel good about having some fluency and skill. Try to search for & implement more ‘fun’ learning strategies like using the Duolingo app, which now has an Arabic language option.
Try to books on topics that you enjoy by contemporary authors. Be wary of becoming overconfident and trying to read older books by major scholars – their Arabic is often very difficult and the language they use can be loaded with technical terms. I highly recommend basic books in Arabic by Dr. Al-Sallabi, Salman Al-Awdah, and Muhammad al-Nablusi.
If you are itching for tafsir, try التفسير الميسر. Other tafsirs that are written for beginners like تفسير الصابوني will probably be too difficult. For hadith try a simple, non-technical text like Imam al-Nawawi’s رياض الصالحين.
Beyond basic language study
If you’ve followed the steps thoroughly with a teacher to help you, you’re probably ready at this point for beginning classical language 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 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.