So you want to learn Arabic? Why? What do you want to be able to do with it when you’re done?
If you don’t know where you want to go, how will you get there? If you just have a general sense of, for example, “It would be nice to learn Arabic,” or “My wife’s family speaks Arabic, so I want to learn it,” or “I have always wanted to learn Arabic,” then you may struggle with two things:
- Knowing what kind of Arabic you should be focusing on.
- Making steady, direct, focused progress in the direction of your purpose for learning Arabic.
Arabic is vast and includes many local dialects, formal registers for written discourse, and particular educated spoken varieties. So you need ask yourself, “Why do I want to learn Arabic?” and, “What is it that I envision myself doing with Arabic once I learn it?” These questions set the context for what track–i.e. what kind of Arabic–you should follow to achieve your purpose. So what are some common purposes that learners of Arabic have?
If your primary purpose is to speak Arabic–so you can travel to the Arab world, make friends, buy things and haggle, attempt to blend in and not get ripped off, then learning colloquial Arabic (Ammiyah) is the way to go. The reality is that in the Arab world the majority of locals speak neither MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) nor Classical Arabic. They might understand it, but you’d be limiting your interactions and responses by speaking in MSA or Classical Arabic. So you need to decide what part of the Arab world you want to travel to and then see what the most common regional dialect is in that area. For example, if you’re planning to travel to Amman, then it’s a good idea to learn Levantine Colloquial (Shami Ammiyah).
If you plan to use Arabic in primarily formal settings, then MSA is the way to go. Modern Standard Arabic is the modern counterpart of Classical Arabic. It is grammatically much more detailed than colloquial Arabic. Most printed material in the Arab World—including books, newspapers, magazines, official documents, and reading primers for small children—is written in MSA. It is also spoken in formal settings such as news broadcasting.
Classical Arabic, also known as Quranic Arabic, is studied when your purpose is to access classical religious literature or poetry. Classical Arabic is the formal version that was used in the Arab world 1500 years ago. The Quran was revealed in Classical Arabic, and Arab linguists wanted to preserve the Arabic that was utilized in that period making it the main driving force behind its preservation throughout the centuries.Throughout Islamic history Classical Arabic has been the language of royal and princely courts, the bureaucracy, and the learned. Literary expression was conducted mainly in Classical Arabic. Arabic Islamic literature is written in Classical Arabic, and anyone wanting to access such literature needs a firm grounding in it.
The Purpose of Purpose
Having clear purpose keeps you from getting distracted by what does not serve you and keeps you on course when times get tough–which ultimately accelerates your progress dramatically. We had a student, for example, who always thought he had to speak Arabic to know Arabic. However, it turned out that the student really only wanted to read and listen to modern Arabic news for its political content. His focus on speaking actually delayed his reading proficiency.
So grab a notepad and pen. Make a list of your reasons for learning Arabic. Make a plan and seek counsel on how you can achieve your purpose. And then identify one action, no matter how small, that you can take immediately. Then commit to taking one small action every single day. Do that consistently, and after a few days, weeks, months and years, you’ll be at the result you set for yourself.