My journey with learning Arabic started at a primary school in Egypt. It was the second foreign language I learnt to fluency. At the time, I was in the 3rd grade and only knew a handful of words, like “el naharda” – meaning today in the Egyptian dialect. I remember feeling so anxious on my first day of school and wondering how I’d deal with the language barrier. That day and many more went by, without me understanding anything being said in the classroom. Things were very different for my older brother who made friends with locals and started to pick up the language much faster than I did. I was very eager to learn, but the school had exempted me from all classes taught in Arabic.
Fortunately, my mother hired an Arabic tutor to help me catch up with school.
Learning Arabic from a native speaker:
Learning Arabic from someone who only knew Arabic made all the difference. I had no choice but to try my best to understand my tutor, as she sat with me for several hours every week conversing purely in Arabic. There was no Google Translate. I started to pick up new vocabulary to form sentences and familiarised myself with the correct pronunciation of words – just through listening to my tutor. Slowly, but surely my Arabic started to noticeably improve. I remember so vividly, how much I enjoyed learning Arabic with my tutor. She helped me build a solid foundation that would prove beneficial for years to come.
Watching Arabic TV:
As for any child growing up, cartoons were a huge part of my childhood. I regularly watched Spacetoon – the Disney channel of the Arab world. I also watched a lot of debates and conversational TV shows. It helped reinforce the classical Arabic I was being taught at school and adding the visual aspect to language learning undoubtedly helped ingrain it all into my brain. My fascination with the language grew as my Arabic progressed. I’d established a connection with Arabic that I hadn’t with any other.
Where it went downhill:
The following year I travelled to Malaysia, where I continued my Arabic studies. I was delving further into the language, learning about sarf and balagha, etc. I’d write poems and read the news in formal Arabic pretending I was a news anchor – the days when I had plans of becoming a journalist. Eventually, my time in Malaysia was cut short and I returned to London. It was here that I looked like an expert in Arabic, and it was also here that my Arabic started to go downhill. There was simply no improvement on my part. At school, we were learning basic vocabulary. I was not learning anything new or building on anything I’d already learnt. Nevertheless, I felt Arabic was “ingrained” in my memory – retrievable if I just got back to it.
What I found to be helpful in the retrieving and relearning process, was immersing myself in the cultural aspects of the Arabic language. I made a conscious choice to mend the disconnection by watching Egyptian news and TV shows. I used social media to retrace my vocabulary by following a lot of Arabic speakers, YouTubers and started listening to poetry and memorising it. Once again, Arabic flowed back into my brain and rolled off my tongue so easily – just like it did for the first time all those years ago.
Here’s what I learnt:
When I look back at how I learnt Arabic, I think I had it easy – learnt the slang from the locals and the classical Arabic at school. The challenge for many of those who want to learn Arabic is that they have to decide between learning the Arabic everyone speaks vs the classical Arabic (fus-ha). This is a choice you don’t necessarily make when it comes to learning English. You learn standard English, with minor spelling differences and pronunciations between dialects. The majority of English speakers in the world would still understand you. Is this the case for someone who learns just classical Arabic? I’d argue that it would be difficult, to say the least.
Dialects vs. Classical Arabic:
I think it truly depends on how you intend to use Arabic. A person who plans to engage with Islamic sciences or literature, in general, would certainly find greater benefit in learning classical Arabic. However, if a person’s aim is to be able to communicate with people in almost any part of the Arab world, it’s probably best they pick a dialect. It’s still possible to speak classical Arabic to people, but it’s not always understood everywhere and even when it is, you might encounter surprised faces or mocking laughter. Learning the two together is possible, but it might feel like you’re learning two different languages, simultaneously – especially if you have no foundation in either. It’s important to know your purpose in learning Arabic from the start to avoid any disappointments.
Over the years I’ve acquainted myself with several different dialects including Gulf, Levantine and Sudanese. In my daily life, it’s just that much easier to speak to people in a dialect we both understand. I find myself naturally switching to whatever dialect I hear a person speak in. Although I love the Arabic language in its most formal form, I can’t help but appreciate all the beautiful variations in speech – depending on what part of the Arab world you go to. I merely wish there was a little more focus on classical Arabic and for people to not completely let go of it post-school.
Alhamdulilah, I feel immense gratitude to my parents knowing that they made an unconventional move for my greater benefit. They say that not knowing Arabic makes you a tourist in your own religion. I’d definitely say that Arabic made learning the deen much easier and it has played a key role in shaping me as a person today. It’s also given me greater access in terms of my work and social life – more languages bring more opportunities.
Although I’ve currently occupied myself with learning Turkish, I really wish to get back to refining and improving my Arabic soon. I think the best way to explain my relationship with Arabic is that you can’t miss something you’re unaware that you lack in the first place. But I know that without Arabic, I would have probably felt very lost.