The Arabic Language
Arabic ranks sixth in the world's languages, with an estimated 186 million native speakers. As the language of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, it is also widely used throughout the Muslim world as a second language. There are many Arabic dialects: classical Arabic – the language of the Qur'an – was originally the dialect of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. An adapted form of this, known as Modern Standard Arabic, is used in print and broadcast media, in the mosques, and in conversation between educated Arabs from different countries (for example at international conferences). For general purposes it's best to focus on learning Modern Standard Arabic, for which numerous courses and textbooks are available. There are also many local dialects, the major ones being Egyptian, Gulf, Iraqi, Levantine and Maghrebi (North African). They vary to the extent that a Moroccan might have difficulty understanding an Iraqi, even though they speak the same language. If you want to master one of the local dialects the only really effective way is to spend a few years in the place of your choice.
Learning to read Arabic is very easy, since it is a phonetic language, perhaps the only one. There are 28 consonants, some of which are unique to Arabic and difficult for foreigners to pronounce exactly. There are also three vowels – a, i, u – which can be short or long, depending on the diacritical marks above the letters. These marks indicate the pronunciation and stress of the syllables, resulting in a phonetic language that can be mastered rather quickly. However, although you may learn to read in a matter of hours, understanding what you have read is a different story!
Learning spoken Arabic takes much more time and practice, but it is less complicated than Latin or German since there are not many irregularities in the grammar. Arabic follows a root system, which is an unfamiliar to native speakers of European languages. Arabic words are constructed from three-letter "roots" which convey a basic idea. For example, k-t-b conveys the idea of writing, such as kataba (he wrote). The addition of other letters before, between and after the root letters produces many associated words, for example: ki-TAA-bun (book), KAA-ti-bun (writer), MAK-ta-bun (desk), ma-KAA-ti-bun (desks), mak-TA-ba-tun (library), KA-ta-buu (they wrote), ka-ta-BUU-hu (they wrote it), ka-TA-ba-taa (they (dual, fem) wrote), ka-TAB-tu (I wrote).
The normal word order of a sentence is verb/subject/object. The function of nouns in a sentence can also be distinguished by case-endings (marks above the last letter of a word) but these are usually found only in the Qur'an or school textbooks. Arabic has very few irregular verbs and does not use "is" or "are" at all in the present tense: "the king good" means "the king is good". Subtle alterations in the basic meaning of a verb are made by adding to the root. These changes follow regular rules, giving ten possible "verb forms" (though in practice only three or four exist for most verbs. For example, the root k-s-r produces: form I kasara, (he broke), form II kassara, (he smashed to bits) and form VII inkasara, (it was broken).
If you decide to learn Arabic, consider the following recommendations:
1- Start by learning how to write and pronounce the alphabet in the Arabic script. Becoming familiar with the Arabic alphabet, written and oral, is a very solid first step towards learning basic vocabulary and phrases.
2- After learning the basics of reading and writing the alphabet, learn simple greetings and small talk either in classical or colloquial Arabic. With some commitment and determination, phrases and sentences to express yourself in daily interactions can also be mastered.
3- Expand your vocabulary by learning words based on a three letter root. Unlike most European languages, Arabic does not have many words that resemble those in English, making learning slow at first. But it becomes easier once you have memorized a few roots and their forms.
4- Watch TV, listen to the radio, and read as much as you can to increase understanding, vocabulary and proficiency in pronunciation.
The rewards of learning Arabic are worth the effort as you will be able to experience firsthand the polite, positive and poetic manner of speaking and writing that is typical of Arabs. The definitive goal worth striving for, however, is to experience the eloquence of the classical Arabic language, whose zenith is in the unparalleled majesty of the Holy Quran.