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What’s the best way to learn Modern Standard Arabic?

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Arabic > Why Learn Modern Standard Arabic

Right now you can’t even say ‘My name is’ in Arabic, but you’re determined and willing to do the work. However, people keep speaking to you about the differences between Modern Standard Arabic and spoken dialects.

So what’s the difference between the two? And what exactly is Modern Standard Arabic?

When you learn Arabic, you’ll also learn about the rich history of the language, stretching back over millennia, which is deeply entwined with Islam and the Quran.

So for those who are trying to work out the best way to tackle the Arabic language, here are a few tips and tricks to help you in learning Modern Standard Arabic.

What is Modern Standard Arabic?

Should you learn classical Arabic or written Arabic?

Let’s get the confusion out of the way at the beginning. It’s likely that while googling about Arabic lessons, you’ve seen a lot of talk about Modern Standard Arabic and classical Arabic.

So what’s the difference between the two? Nothing, Modern Standard Arabic and classical Arabic are exactly the same thing.

Arabic is the 5th most spoken language in the world.

From Europe to Indonesia, North Africa to the Middle East, countless people speak Arabic.

The exact numbers vary depending on where you look, but there’s an estimated 250-300 million Arabic speakers in the world. For the thousands of Muslims in the world, Arabic is also considered a sacred religious language. And if we’re talking about the number of people who use Arabic regularly every day, Arabic is the 5th most spoken language in the world.

Therefore the ability to speak Arabic will put you in great stead when it comes to jobs in a variety of sectors, such as trade, technology and tourism.

Classical Arabic or spoken Arabic

However, within the millions of Arabic speakers, there’s a big difference between the kind of Arabic you read, and Arabic that you speak. Written Arabic is essentially classical Arabic, or Modern Standard Arabic.

Spoken Arabic is generally a mix of classical Arabic and regional dialects. So, for example, you’ll often hear people talking about Moroccan Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Tunisian, Libyan, or Egyptian Arabic. Pretty much every country across North Africa and the Middle East will have their own Arabic dialect.

However, it can sometimes be difficult to find classes for the different spoken Arabic dialects, whether you go to a language school or a mosque. Especially for Muslims, the written standard Arabic is much more important as it allows them to read their sacred text, the Quran.

The history of literary Arabic

Arabic has a long and rich history that dates back thousands and thousands of years. During this time, the legacy left by Arabic has been invaluable for the entire world.

It’s commonly said that Arabic is part of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The other main Afro-Asiatic language still in use today besides Arabic is Hebrew.

There’s an interesting article by one Samir Abu-Absi, a professor at the University of Toledo (Ohio), which is available online on the History of Islam website. In it, Abu-Absi says that the first record of the Arabic language is an inscription in the Syrian Desert from the 4th century BC. And that’s the beginning of Arabic!

Much of our more confirmed history of the Arabic language comes from the ways it’s been used by pre-Islamic tribes, especially through their poetry. The language may have started off spoken, but bit by bit, evidence of script emerges. So really, Arabic is a language of poets and writing. (Which is where the name literary Arabic comes from).

But while it may have begun with poets, today you can’t really separate the Arabic language from the Muslim religion and the Quran. It’s said that the prophet Mohammed received messages in Arabic from God via the Angel Gabriel during a 23 year period between 610 and 632 AD.

Classical Arabic has been made sacred by the Quran

Initially the Quran was memorized and passed down orally, and the text had several versions before it was standardized by the 3rd Caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan in the 7th century. From that point forward, Islam began to spread rapidly and many non-Arabs converted.

It’s therefore difficult to separate the spread of Islam from increased use of the Arabic language. Thanks to the religion, classical written Arabic has taken on an almost sacred status as a purveyor of poetry, literature, and religion.

It’s thanks to the expansion of the Islamic Empire throughout the 8th century that the Arabic language reached new pinnacles geographically as well. During this time, Arabic and Islam quickly spread to countries like Spain, Persia, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa. The territorial conquests were followed quickly by a linguistic one, as the conquered people quickly adopted the Arabic language.

Thanks to its literary chops, Arabic was also frequently used to translate documents that had originally been written in Persian or other languages. Researchers in domains like mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and science also typically used Arabic as a universal language to translate and publish.

What are the main differences between Modern Standard Arabic and spoken Arabic dialects?

The National Institute for Oriental Civilization and Languages in Paris classify Arabic dialects as the spoken version of Arabic, used for immediate communication.

Classical, or Modern Standard Arabic sits in sharp contrast to the spoken and immediate form of Arabic dialects. Written Arabic is the domain of classical Arabic, and is used for the centuries of Arabic poetry and culture, as well as the Quran.

Classical Arabic is therefore something that can bring together, and be understood by, any Arabic speaker in the world, as well as most Muslims. In addition to poetry, literature, and religion, Modern Standard Arabic is also used for newspapers, magazines, and websites. Thanks to the arrival of the worldwide web and increased education levels, Arabic is well on its way to becoming a truly global language.

Essentially, classical Arabic is a timeless form of Arabic which allows you to communicate across time and borders in the written form.

Where can you learn classical Arabic in the US?

Here are a few ideas for learning Arabic when you’re starting from scratch.

Now that you know a bit more about the Arabic language, our guess is you want to start your study with Modern Standard Arabic. But is it difficult to learn Arabic? The short answer, for an English speaker, is yes. Arabic uses a very different script and alphabet, with long, drawn out pronunciations.

But there are many different options if you want to quickly learn Arabic in America…

Take private lessons in classical Arabic

If you want to learn Modern Standard Arabic as quickly as possible, there’s a quick and easy way to find a tutor for your own private Arabic classes, in any of the 50 states.

Private teachers are becoming easier and easier to find, and there are currently over one million Arabic speakers in the USA. Whether you’re in New York, Boston, DC, Chicago, Seattle, or LA, you can find your future classical Arabic teacher online at Superprof.

Thanks to our large database of private teachers, you can easily find an Arabic teacher near your home. Having a private teacher is a great way to improve at Arabic, with a teacher to yourself, the freedom to study at home and not feel embarrassed in front of a class, and a total focus.

Learn Arabic online

If a private teacher isn’t for you or it is too expensive, then you could also go for a free option – learn Arabic online.

We won’t lie to you – trying to learn Arabic on your own, without a tutor, and from scratch just using online materials will be pretty difficult. But it’s not impossible!

There’s a couple apps and websites that we’d recommend to help beginners learn classical Arabic. One good one is Madinah Arabic, which despite the slightly basic looking website, is chock full of guided lessons on reading and writing Arabic.

The site also includes videos, quizzes, and flashcards to help make online learning a bit more fun and interactive, but at its base the end goal of this site (if you can’t tell from the name) is to help you read the Quran in the original Arabic.

A quite different resource, partially funded by the European Union’s Lifelong Learning program is arabiconline.eu. There’s a mix of paid and free classes on the site, but if you’re starting fresh you’re in luck – a free taster course will guide you through US State Department Level 1 of Modern Standard Arabic.

Using the lessons, you will start off with transliterated text before tackling the Arabic script, and you will learn:

  • meet and greet people and introduce yourself
  • thank people and respond positively
  • reply to some basic questions
  • say where you are from

The lessons include plenty of writing and speaking practice, and incorporate Arabic vocabulary, grammar, interactive role play, and an introduction to the Arabic alphabet.

Learn to speak and write Arabic at a Mosque

If you’re in a city, you can probably find Modern Standard Arabic lessons at your local mosque

If you’re lucky enough to live in a town with a mosque, it’s definitely worth visiting them to see if they offer classes in classical Arabic.

As you know by now, classical Arabic is also the language of the Quran, so any Arabic classes you can find at the mosque will probably include religious elements. However, you’ll be able to learn about Arabic history and culture at the same time as you learn the language. Maybe you’ll even start learning Arabic numbers!

Arabic classes at mosques generally follow the academic calendar, so if you’ve missed signing up in the fall you may need to wait for the next session of Arabic classes London.

Learn Arabic using an app on your smartphone

Last but certainly not least, there are a number of brilliant developers who have created apps to make it easy to learn foreign languages.

There are many different apps out there, most of which can certainly help you learn classical Arabic, or improve your reading of the script. Here are some of our top pics:

  • Arabic by Nemo (available on iTunes & Google Play) will help you improve your vocabulary
  • Arabic dictionary (iTunes) works as an offline and online dictionary to help you translate new words and phrases
  • Mondly (iTunes) – declared the app of 2017 by Facebook, this language learning app offers Arabic as well as 33 other languages, and uses high tech voice recognition software to practice interactive conversations. The app will also take you through Arabic vocabulary and conjugations.

Why are we talking about Modern Standard Arabic without learning to read or write it?

Modern Standard Arabic is actually normally a second language in Arabic countries.

The topic is rarely spoken about in language learning materials, but generates lots of interest in linguistic forums…

Out of 355 million Arabic speakers, in countries where Arabic is an official language, it is estimated that only a few million speak classical Arabic. (If it still isn’t clear, classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and literary Arabic are all used more or less interchangeably.)

Literary Arabic is the preserve of the elite and is rarely used in daily life. Classical Arabic is the language of authors and philosophers like:

  • Abou el Kacem Chebbi,
  • Naguib Mahfouz (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988)
  • Or even Averroès.

Arabic is also an official language at several international organizations, including:

  • The United Nations
  • Africa Union
  • Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)

Frequently considered one of the hardest languages to learn in the world – alongside Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese – classical Arabic can be difficult for outsiders to access if they aren’t from an Arab or North African country.

The effects of migration on Arabic speakers

In student forums you’ll often see messages from 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant students who’ve learned one of the spoken Arabic dialects from their parents, but don’t know how to read or write classical Arabic.

They struggle with the Arabic script and the differences in grammar and conjugations.

Other blocks on mastering classical Arabic might be lower levels of learning among their parents, a focus on integration over preserving the culture of their country of origin, or a lack of exposure to the TV shows and newspapers where Modern Standard Arabic are used.

What books should you buy to learn classical Arabic?

In addition to classes in Modern Standard Arabic you can sign up for at mosques or local language schools, textbooks can also help you learn the language!

There are many different books available to help you learn Arabic, and it’s best to choose carefully as they aren’t all easy to use or appropriate for beginners.

Before you start madly filling up an amazon.com shopping cart in your enthusiasm for the language of the Quran and pre-Islamic poetry, it’s good to make a plan for how you’re going to learn Arabic.

First of all, each of the 28 Arabic letters should be learned, with a focus on syntax, lexis, and pronunciation.

Next, Arabic students should keep in mind that there’s a clear distinction between Arabic dialects and written Arabic. The ‘darjia’ Arabic spoken in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia is quite different from the Modern Standard Arabic that you can read in the newspapers or hear on TV!

The best Arabic-English dictionaries to learn classical Arabic

There’s been an explosion of interest in learning Arabic in recent years, and the language’s sudden popularity hasn’t always been met with the most well researched resources. There have been all kinds of sloppy translations for different words and vocabulary.

In order to make sure you have the best tools possible as you study Arabic, it’s best to stick to well-researched dictionaries.

What book or dictionary should you use to learn classical Arabic?

Basic Dictionaries

All the normal publishers for language learning have dictionaries – depending on your preference you could choose Merriam Webster, Oxford Arabic, or Collier.

Word Reference

A long term favorite of language learners the world over, Word Reference is the default online dictionary for any language they offer. Available online or via an app, their English-Arabic dictionary includes various words and phrases. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can pose a question in the forums and you can also help other learners by finding the right Arabic-English translation and contributing answers to their questions.

You should know though that Word Reference only provides Arabic words in Arabic script, without any transliteration, so you’ll need to be comfortable reading and sounding out Arabic before Word Reference can be of much help.

DK Arabic-English Visual Picture Dictionary

King of the picture dictionaries, DK’s English-Arabic offering is a great starter book for children as they learn their first words in Arabic and begin to make sense of the language. If you’re a bit older, but find picture dictionaries helpful, a good alternative is the Oxford Picture dictionary for teens and adults. It’s worth noting that this dictionary is meant for Arabic speakers learning English, but the premise is still the same.

Good books for learning Modern Standard Arabic

The Arabic Alphabet – how to read and write it

This classic book for Arabic learners by Nicholas Awde will walk you through how to write Arabic script and write the letters, stroke by stroke. It also explains the pronunciation of each as you go, and is a nice, basic, and uncomplicated introduction to written Arabic.

Living Language Arabic

This isn’t so much a book as a complete multimedia pack with course books, a guide to writing the script, and several CDs which will walk you through Arabic vocabulary, dialogues, and audio exercises. You’ll also get access to the online portal which provides interactive language games, flashcards, and other activities. The pack can be a bit more expensive, but you can usually find it at a good discount.

Arabic Stories for Language Learners

This book of short stories also comes with a CD, and aims to give Arabic students a taste for the language’s rich cultural and literary history. Before each of the 66 short stories, new vocabulary and grammar are presented. The CD lets you work on your listening skills, at the same time as understanding the Arabic storytelling style.

Complete Arabic, by Frances Altorfer

Part of the Teach Yourself series, this book walks you through the Arabic language, from complete beginner to intermediate level. It uses realistic conversations to slowly introduce vocabulary and grammar. It also gives you culture notes, to bring the people who use the language to life as you learn. Finally, CDs are no longer included with the book, but you can download all the Arabic recordings from the website.

Arabic for dummies

This successful series of books doesn’t really need any introduction. Their book is basically an Arabic for beginners book designed for people just starting to learn the language. It covers:

  • Vocabulary
  • Basic Grammar
  • And phonetic transcriptions to help you learn at your own pace.

Easy to use, and very practical, you can find Arabic for Dummies online and in bookstores at a very reasonable price. It also comes with a CD-ROM full of real life conversations and people talking about their daily lives in Modern Standard Arabic.

Which countries speak Modern Standard Arabic?

Even though Modern Standard Arabic might be the official working language of many governments, you’ll often find that bureaucrats are still speaking local Arabic dialects amongst themselves.

On one hand it’s an incredibly diverse and constantly evolving language, but some forms of spoken Arabic (or العربية, al-ʿarabīyah) are also on the decline.

All of the many different local dialects are based on the same form of classical written Arabic. A common question among Arab-speakers themselves is who speaks the closest form of Arabic to Modern Standard Arabic?

Because almost no Arabic speakers ever speak Modern Standard Arabic as their mother tongue.

It’s a constant source of squabbles, disagreements, and teasing, but in a more serious vein there’s an earnest attempt to decide which country uses the most authentic version of spoken Arabic.

But just from the name ‘the most eloquent Arabic language’ you can tell that Modern Standard Arabic has a certain prestige from its history and associations with the classical Arabic of the Quran.

It’s written exactly the same in every Arabic speaking country, and bit like the standardization of Mandarin Chinese. Classical Arabic is the version of Arabic that is taught in religious and public schools as well as language classes.

You will see it in newspapers, books, academic articles, and in government administration in Arabic countries.

Modern Standard Arabic also serves as the intermediary language between many Arab countries. The spoken dialects aren’t too dissimilar, and the written form is the same in every country, so modern Arabic is often considered as more of an umbrella over many versions of the same language.

Most linguists would say that the further East you go across North Africa, the closer the spoken Arabic dialects become to written classical Arabic, although they remain a bit different.

In the countries where Arabic and its spoken dialects are the most common language, the first language of many citizens is fairly close to Modern Standard Arabic. In addition to Egypt, this also holds true in other countries like:

  • Syria
  • Iraq
  • Libya
  • Jordan
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Yemen
  • Kuwait
  • Qatar
  • Oman
  • Bahrain
  • The United Arab Emirates

The reasons for learning Arabic so what are you waiting for! Use the information that has been discussed to get you started

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