The Best Way to Learn Arabic From Scratch, From Someone Who Did it for 4 Years

By Ngoc Nguyen

Four years ago, I found myself arriving alone in Qatar, a country that I barely knew existed. I got there just four months after stumbling on a university that offers Arabic language courses through a Google search.

Doha, Quatar

Studying Arabic was one of the best decisions of my life. Not only did it open up a whole world of culture and history, but it also helped me connect with with like-minded travelers.

Nevertheless, Arabic-learning has its own set of challenges. It's certainly tough to find out how and where to learn Arabic nowadays with such a whirlwind of information online. With all the trials and errors I went through, I'm offering seven tips that all new Arabic learners should follow.

1. You don't need to know how to say "The United Nations" in Arabic

I used to think a university course was the best way to study a language, and boy was I wrong. My school was notorious for producing American diplomats and CIA agents. This means that during the first week of my Arabic course, one of the vocabulary words I had to memorize was "United Nations". I've never used it in the past three years.

Before you pay hundreds and thousands for an Arabic course, learn from my mistake and look at your syllabus. I had zero idea how to say 'arm', or 'bananas', or "I love you" during my years taking university courses.

Make sure you learn the casual before learning the technicals. Some cult favorite courses are Madinah Arabic for learning how to read, and TalkinArabic.com for dialects.

In terms of books, I recommend Your First 100 Words in Arabic as your beginner's guide, which explains the alphabet in an approachable way. It also incorporates daily vocabularies that helps you get around town, order food, and ask for direction. If you're taking a course, you will probably use the Al Kitaab book series as an English speaker learning Arabic. However, I only recommend using them at the intermediate level, because they don't cover the basics enough to get you speaking and writing quickly.

If courses aren't for you, there are many Arabic tutors online on sites like italki, Preply, and Teacheron. They provide effective lessons at only a fraction of the cost of universities. In the past few months, I've found a private tutor who's filling in all the gaps in my education. She's taught Arabic at many schools, so not only can she cover the bases, she can tailor the lessons based on my need.

2. Learn the alphabet, in all its three forms

I'm not kidding when I say your world will expand if you learn the Arabic alphabet early on. Even in English-speaking cities like Doha or Dubai, traffic signals and contracts are only written in Arabic. I personally take pride in being able to read every Arabic sign on the street, and that I won't get lost if dropped in any Arab city.

In the Arab world, Arabic writing is considered a mode of artistic expression. Writing Arabic is both therapeutic and a good exercise for mental discipline. Arabic calligraphy is one of the most popular and profitable art form in the Middle East.

Unlike the Latin alphabet, Arabic is written from left to write, with specific rules for word connections. Each letter has three different forms, for when it's written in the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Take the letter ب (ba) for instance, and its three forms:

Each time you learn a letter, create a table and memorize it in three different forms. This table from Madinah Arabic is a perfect resource for reference.

3. Choose a dialect, and stick with it!

If you speak FusHa (literary Arabic) in public in the Arab world, people will think you're crazy. Each Arabic-speaking country has its own dialect that people speak, and FusHa was only a recent invention to help everybody in the region communicate.

My university only tested students' proficiency in FusHa, so for my first two years of Arabic study I learned zero practical speaking skill!

If you're eager to speak Arabic, I recommend learning one of these two popular dialects early on. They are easily understood all over the Arab world and are the closest to FusHa. Can't decide? Just choose based on which country you want to visit first:

People from Egypt and the Levant live all over the Middle East and the rest of the world. This means it's easy to find a tutor or a speaking partner from wherever you are.

4. Know what Arabic language media to consume

Surprise surprise! People in the Arab world actually watch the same things that we watched growing up. In fact, Sesame Street and all the Disney shows all have their Arabic versions. A Qatari friend actually handed me a stack of Arabic Disney comics she read as a child after she found out I was trying to learn Arabic.

Below are a few Arabic shows and book that are universally known across the Arab world. Some of them are children's shows with relatively simple language that can help beginners learn:

  1. Classic Disney movies and comics with Arabic translation.

  2. Classic Egyptian cinema works like Hayat au Maut "Life or Death", Al-ard "The Land", or El Kit Kat "The Kit Kat" (Egypt was the media capital of the Arab world in the 20th century, and is still influential now).

  3. Fawazeer Ramadan "Riddles", a famous Ramadan musical variety show by actress Sherihan. The fashion she wore on the show inspired the like of Madonna and Lady Gaga.

  4. Al Jazeera Arabic, a Qatar-based news channel with global coverage.

  5. Arabic reality competition shows: Who Wants to be a Millionaire (Arabic version), Master Chef Morocco, Arabs Got Talent, Million's Poet.

5. Where to study the Arabic language

My tutor always says that I have to "get used to the sound of Arabic" in order to learn it. What better way to do that than embarking on a language trip to the Middle East?

I highly suggest enrolling a language immersion program because it's too easy to get away with speaking English even if you travel to the Middle East. Immersion programs will have you sign a contract where you commit to speaking only Arabic for its duration, minus your daily phone call home. Most learners study FusHa at home, then go for a trip in the Middle East to reach fluency.

Not all trips are created equal. Based on conversation with dozens of learners, teachers, and professors, I highly recommend enrolling in the three institutions below:

Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan: Qasid is among the most renowned centers of classical and Modern Standard Arabic (FusHa). It offers courses year-round, ranging from group classes to private lessons. Being in Jordan, the center is also an ideal place to learn and practice the Shami dialect.

Hedayet Institute for Arabic Studies in Cairo Governorate, Egypt: Egypt has arguably shaped the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language as a field, and The Hedayet Institute is one such institution. It offers total immersion programs for both kids and adults. It has also partnered with many language centers in Europe, North America, and Asia to train Arabic teachers.

Qalam wa Lawh Center in Rabat, Morocco: The Qalam Center offers a language immersion experience that incorporates travel and the study of Arabic culture. This is the ideal program for anyone going to the Middle East for the first time. The Center also offers the highly competitive Ibn Battuta Merit Scholarship for Peace & Diplomacy for students who have studied Arabic for at least two years and demonstrate good results.

If you can't make the leap to travel to the Middle East, there are still plenty of Arabic language immersion programs at home. For instance, the Middlebury Institute offers semesterly immersion programs in Vermont, USA. In Europe, there are many Arabic centers like the Excellence Center in Halle, Germany, or Ibn Rushd University in the Netherlands.

6. Learning the culture will make the language tenfold easier

Ever noticed that you behave differently when speaking another language? That's because there are different cultural expectations that come with each language.

This can't be truer for Arabic learners. Arabic is the language of Islam, and Arab cultures are heavily influenced by the religion. Arabic speakers, whether religious or not, reference Allah (God) constantly as a sign of modesty and respect.

For instance, if you're trying to make future plans with an Arabic speaker, they will say ان شاء الله Inshallah "if God willing" instead of yes or no. It can get confusing because you don't know if you've agreed on something or not, so make sure to check back in to see if you're still on the same page.

Another example is giving compliments. Every time you offer a compliment, make sure to follow up with ماشاء الله Mashallah, which roughly translates to "God bless". You say this to show that you're not envious of what the other has, and to pray for them for protection against the "evil eye". You can also say Mashallah as a general way to respectfully praise someone.

Like Arab people, the Arabic language is also very affectionate. Arabic speakers may call you حبيبتي/ حبيبي Habibi (m)/Habeebti (f) "my love" when addressing you, especially among friends with the same sex. Think of it as similar to being called "Darling" or "Honey" by an English speaker.

7. Practice pronunciation and reading daily

Arabic is hard to read because you don't write out all the short vowels you need to pronounce in a word. This is why it's important to memorize all of a word's vowels, not just consonants, when you're learning spellings.

Take the word يتكلم Yatakalam "he speaks". In its full written form with all the short vowels, it looks more like يَتَكَلَّم. However, Arabic speakers don't write out all the small vowels to save time, and because they've already remembered how the word sounds over time. Vowels are typically written out in Arabic calligraphy.

Arabic also has a repertoire of sounds that aren't similar to any languages. Below are several Arabic letters that often stump beginners.

ع (A'yn) : This is arguably the most difficult sound in Arabic. You have to squeeze your throat to make the sound.

ط (Ta) : This is a hard T sound, which is different from the soft t ت. You pronounce it by rounding your mouth and stressing on the T sound.

ض (Dha) : An emphasized D, pronounced with the same logic as ط.

ص (Sa): An emphasized S, pronounced with the same logic as ط.

As you can see, putting stress on word creates brand new consonants and vowels in Arabic. You'll be switching constantly between words with stresses and words with relaxed pronunciation. This will become easier with practice, and most people can pronounce the alphabet correctly within a month.