بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, and peace and blessings on the most honorable Messenger.
This post is about Arabic learning among Muslims who aren’t native speakers of the language, along with some personal reflections and experiences with Arabic, with tips and techniques added along the way. I hope you share this post with anyone you know who has been trying to learn Arabic, and leave your own thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
Note that I’m skipping justifying the need for us to learn Arabic. This post is already too long, so I’d direct you to this khutbah by Dr. Sohaib Saeed which does a good job with that.
Arabic Curriculums In Focus
The first thing we need to do is identify the purpose behind someone wanting to learn Arabic, and then tailor the educational program to that purpose. There are at least 3 broad purposes for learning Arabic:
- As a prerequisite for becoming an Islamic scholar.
- To understand, at least at a cursory level, the Quran in its original form.
- To communicate with Arabs in their native tongue.
The majority of Muslims learning Arabic are in category 2, and this is followed by 3 and 1. However, the educational programs are mostly designed for category 1, with some (e.g. secular university courses) being designed for 3. Category 2 gets overlooked.
In practice, what it means is that some average layman Muslim will sign up for an Arabic class and get bombarded with the intricacies of Arabic grammar. Feeling overwhelmed, they give up and say it’s too hard or they’re just incapable of learning. I’m not saying that the intricacies of Arabic grammar aren’t important. Of course, if someone is studying to become an Islamic scholar, they need to learn this, in order to understand how rulings are extracted from texts based on the language contained in the text. It’s extremely important stuff.
However, it’s not necessary for someone who wants to just understand the Quran at a cursory level, so they don’t fall asleep during Taraweeh. But when the same textbooks and curriculums are used regardless of the student’s purpose, the students end up feeling like it’s too hard.
If a student can already read and write Arabic, and wants to understand it at a cursory level, they need 2 things:
- Extremely basic grammar. Stuff like hadha/hadhihi along with the basics of how a root changes.
- Vocab. And the amount of vocab root words in the Quran is small.
The curriculum of such a course should be different from if one is learning to be an Islamic scholar. Obviously, it should be made clear to the students that they’re not qualified to extract legal rulings from the text just cause they can understand the original Arabic in a cursory way.
If we can have more people learn Arabic this way, it will have a very positive impact. Right now, on both an individual and community level, we’re very far from the Quran. Being able to understand the Quranic Arabic causes one to appreciate and love its beauty, and In Sha Allah will bring one closer to Allah. On a personal level, I can confirm that it’s absolutely life-changing and I think I’d be a totally different person if I didn’t know Arabic. Of course, knowing Arabic does not guarantee that someone will have high Iman/Taqwa or be a good Muslim. Abu Jahl knew better Arabic than many of the awliyaa from among the non-Arabs.
My Journey Towards Arabic Proficiency
People often ask me how I learned Arabic, and the answer is somewhat of a long story, so I’ll summarize it here. I first learned some Arabic while living in Saudi Arabia, between the ages of 11 and 13. It was a short stint but enough for me to pick up the absolute basics, along with some of the conversational Saudi dialect which I’ve since forgotten.
One of my strongest memories is of Taraweeh during the last Ramadan we were there. I had learned enough that I could understand around half of what was being recited – a big difference from before, when it was all totally a foreign language to me. I felt inspired to be connected with Allah’s book, and every night I wished the imam would just keep reciting and not stop. I would beg my dad for us to go every day, whereas before I hadn’t even cared about Taraweeh and considered it a chore. Around this time I also started to join the internet sphere. I discovered the website HaramainRecordings and spent way too many hours on there.
My friend and next door neighbor was becoming a hafiz and he encouraged me as well, giving me names of qari’s to check out. I also got involved in the YouTube and blogging world, and made a YouTube channel where I would upload videos of recitations (https://youtube.com/jushyosaha604).
A few years passed and then the Arab Spring happened. I started following events in Egypt and Syria very closely, mostly because I had friends from the local masjid who were from those countries. I didn’t like or trust the English language media so I would watch Arabic language news, or, preferably, find on-the-ground activists and reporters to follow and learn the news from. It would involve a lot of using Google translate, guessing based on context clues and using services like Almaany. But the constant high level of exposure was great for me, I got better and better at it despite time passing since my Saudi days. My parents and siblings forgot what little Arabic they had learned in Saudi, but I got even better at it.
Later on my sister took the Zaytuna Arabic summer program and my mom took some of the Bayyinah Arabic courses. Neither learned much in the end, despite being smart and hard-working students. Even I, when I saw their course material, was confused by all the intricate rules and terminology. They would ask me for help and I would be unable to help them! What’s weird was, they were trying to learn Arabic to try to get to where I was, but they were learning stuff I didn’t even know at all.
The Key: Exposure
The number one factor that has helped me learn and improve my Arabic is exposure. Following the news from the Middle East has been part of that, but I’ve also kept up with some TV programs online, such as Khawater by Ahmed Shugairi. In addition, I sometimes watch or listen to Arabic-language Islamic lectures – this series by Tareq Suwaidan about the sahabi Abdullah ibn az-Zubair and the events surrounding him is an excellent place to start if you’re curious.
When gaining exposure, it’s important to keep two things in mind. Firstly, you should gain exposure proportional to the level that you’re at. If you’ve just started learning hadha/hadhihi and the basic grammatical constructs, listening to Islamic lectures in Arabic will be a waste of time because everything will go over your head. Rather, get to a decent level with the basics first and then use exposure to keep learning at a steady pace.
Secondly, it’s important to be active rather than passive when gaining exposure. Some examples include:
- If the video has English subtitles available (as seasons 10 and 11 of Khawater do), try turning them off, and noting down what you think he’s saying. Then watch it again with subtitles on, and compare that against your notes. This process will be filled with many “Aha!” moments where you realize how close you were here and there, and one word you didn’t know threw you off. This is how learning happens.
- If the video or audio doesn’t have subtitles, keep a record of words you don’t understand. Then use services such as Google Translate or Almaany to try to learn these words. After that, watch or listen to the video again in order to solidify your understanding.
Areas Where I Need To Improve
I’m barely halfway through in my journey of learning Arabic. Currently, my biggest weaknesses are in speaking and in the dialects. Right now I can understand written and spoken Arabic decently well, I can write somewhat, but if I speak I have to think before each sentence otherwise it comes out awkward or with grammatical mistakes.
I’ve identified one technique that can help improve speaking. Find something written in easy and simple English, for example a children’s book. Read it and translate it out loud sentence by sentence. It’s going to be cringeworthy and embarrassing at times as you struggle to get through it, but in the end your speaking will improve dramatically.
For the dialects, I’ve found some online resources which help with the basics, such as this ebook on how to learn the Levantine dialect if you already know fus’ha.
Note that you’re going to have to get familiar with some grammar if you want to become a proficient speaker, otherwise you will make many mistakes, such as using the wrong vowel. Like I said earlier, if you just want to understand the Quran at a cursory level and don’t care about speaking, most grammar is not necessary.
There’s one common theme in all of the tools, tips and techniques I’ve mentioned in this post. They all require an investment of time and commitment. Pace yourself, keep at it, and don’t give up whatever you do. In Sha Allah, you’ll get to where you want to be in no time.
2 April 2019