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Learning Arabic as an English Speaker

Five Surprising Things I Learned When I Tried to Study Arabic


Apart from being able to count to ten in Arabic and recite the recording that you get when you unsuccessfully call a du or Etisalat phone number, my knowledge of Arabic is non-existent. English is my native tongue and the only language I speak (thanks, American public school system), but I live in Dubai and I have Arabic-speaking friends, and I want to, while I'm here, make an effort to pick up a bit of the local language.

For my birthday a few months ago, I joined two friends to try to learn to write our three names in Arabic calligraphy. The problem was that they both spoke Arabic, and I, of course, did not. The result? A complete disaster, and enough to convince me to do a bit of research before diving into this fascinating, complicated language. Here's what surprised me most, and what helped me form the base I need to start my Arabic language journey!

Guess which one the American wrote?

1. There are a number of English words with Arabic origins.

Some examples include: cotton, (قطن; pronunciation: koton); lemon (ليمون; pronunciation: laymoon); and sugar (سكر; pronunciation: sukkar).

2. Verbs come first in Arabic

Unlike in Western languages, the verb comes before the subject in Arabic. So "the boy eats the apple" becomes "eat the boy the apple." Additionally, the BBC's Arabic Language guide points out that adjectives also come after the noun, so that "the red car" becomes "the car red," or السيارة الحمراء (assayara alhamra'a).

3. Letters in the alphabet

There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, which includes 25 consonants and three vowels. Further, Arabic letters are representative of sounds rather than of individual letters. For example, the English letter "G" can be written differently depending upon the pronunciation of the word.

4. Where is Arabic spoken?

Arabic is the official language of the 22 countries which make up the Arab League, and it's the native language of approximately 200 million people who live in the Arab World. Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin, Spanish, English, and Hindi. Arabic is also one of the six official languages of the UN.



5. Arabic is one of the hardest languages to learn

According to the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, an English speaker needs approximately 1.69 years (88 weeks, or 2,200 learning hours)to achieve proficiency. This makes Arabic one of the most difficult languages to pick up, along with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. What makes Arabic so difficult? According to the Foreign Service Institute, Arabic has very few words that resemble those of European languages. Additionally, Arabic uses fewer vowels, which makes it more difficult to read.

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