Though difficult for English speakers to master, fluency in Arabic has great rewards. With Arabic-speaking countries stretching from Iraq to Morocco and Syria to Sudan, knowing this language can break down barriers in two dozen countries. And whether you plan to work in the Gulf, travel through Egypt or study in the Levant, knowledge of Arabic can give you a unique glimpse into the heart of a beautiful and fascinating region.
MSA vs. Colloquial Dialects
Determine which type of Arabic language you are interested in learning. Although Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the most commonly understood, used on TV and radio channels and studied across the Arabic-speaking world, it is not commonly used among Arabic-speaking people in everyday situations, where colloquial dialects take precedence. To learn a certain Arabic dialect that will be understood on the streets, you'll have to focus on one or more regions. Colloquial dialects within the Arabic family vary widely among the regions of the Gulf, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa and Morocco. Recently, more and more students of Arabic are attempting to combine their study of MSA and colloquial dialects.
In order to string together words and look them up in an Arabic dictionary, getting a grip on the unique letters of the Arabic alphabet and memorizing their order is crucial. A number of good texts and Web sites teach Arabic letters in their initial, medial, final and solitary (or isolated) forms -- all of which refer to the letter's placement at the beginning, middle or end of a word, or if the letter stands alone. Study from one or more of these resources and practice writing each letter. When you can write the entire alphabet in order, first with each letter connected to another and then with each letter solitary, you are ready to move on.
Arabic grammar is often the most challenging obstacle for English-speaking learners to overcome. In order to progress, you'll need a resource that presents each new grammar rule clearly and concisely with well-chosen examples of their usage. A solid text that offers just this is called "Al-Kitaab" by Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal and Abbas Al-Tonsi (see link below). The most effective way to learn grammar is a combination of private study and enrollment in Arabic classes. This allows for the Arabic grammar to be privately absorbed, orally explained and publicly practiced with a classroom partner or group.
As in all languages, building a vocabulary base is crucial. However, in Arabic, mastery of the alphabet and grammar will go hand in hand with your vocabulary learning and greatly expand your base of familiar words. For instance, knowledge of the Arabic alphabet will help you to recognize and look up new words in an Arabic-to-English dictionary using their "masdars," or roots. When you learn a new word by these roots, you can also learn a cluster of related words with the same roots, enabling you to speed up your vocabulary-learning process and recognize more new words in your Arabic reading and listening practice. Likewise, your conjugation knowledge will multiply your base of Arabic verbs.
There is no shortage of Arabic media to be studied, skimmed, watched or downloaded by motivated learners. Newspapers offer the best resource for learning MSA, with daily updated content that is authentic and generally well-proofread. Colloquial Arabic media may be harder to come by in written form, although movies, songs, podcasts and radio stations in various versions of colloquial Arabic abound and serve as great listening practice. Availability of colloquial media will also depend on which type you choose to study. With Cairo as the Middle East's closest thing to Hollywood, many types of Egyptian colloquial tools are abundant, while tools for learning the dialects of Tunisia or Syria may require more research.
Although motivated students can come a long way in Arabic completely through personal and classroom study, proficiency is extremely difficult without real-life contact with Arabic speakers in everyday situations. Whether traveling to the Middle East to enroll in an Arabic course or finding an Arabic-speaking language partner, getting out of the library or off the computer and diving into the Arabic-speaking world can round out your Arabic skills as nothing else can.