Saudi Arabia: Is It Really That Hard to Learn Arabic?

At first blush the Arabic language can sound harsh and appear intimidating.  Many of the sounds are guttural and to the untrained ear it may seem like Saudis are routinely shouting at one another when speaking.  Then the appearance of the language is foreign too comprised of unusual scrolling which is somehow read from right to left.  Yet I can state from personal experience that once the alphabet is memorized, learning Arabic falls into place and is not as complicated as it might appear.  Unlike many other languages and especially the English language, what you see is what you get!  There is no worry about words sounding the same but spelled differently or how some vowels are silent.

Should an expatriate make an effort to learn Arabic before arrival to Saudi Arabia?  Absolutely!  Even if an expatriate is working in a position where English may be widely spoken or living on a compound where English is the primary language, never forget that the national language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic.  It is not only a sign of respect to have a minimal understanding of the host country language but beneficial for an individual’s safety and security to recognize what is being said.

Although a recent article in Arab News indicates that fewer expatriates are making an initiative to learn Arabic, citing that it is either not necessary or there are a lack of institutions which provide Arabic language lessons, I stand by my own view that learning Arabic is warranted.  There are also opportunities to learn Arabic in Saudi Arabia.  Many of the local universities have Arabic language classes; Islamic centres have Arabic language classes; Berlitz language institutes have Arabic language classes; the company, Novartis, is known for its Arabic language classes.  Additionally large employers in the Kingdom such as King Faisal Specialist Hospital, National Guard Health Affairs and Aramco will offer Arabic language classes.  Last but not least, the majority of compounds will have individuals offering Arabic language classes either with group classes or private one-on-one tutoring.  Arabic speaking friends and colleagues are usually honored if asked to provide lessons.

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29 Responses

  1. good to be bilingual ..good on the resume..also for non arab moslems, better understanding of the Holy Koran!

  2. Yes, Arabic is really hard to learn. Anyone, however, can master the introductory social phrases that make life more comfortable for an expatriate in the Kingdom.

    As you say, once you know the alphabet, and how each letter changes according to the letters on either side of it, you can read. That’s the easy part.

    Even the basic structure of the language is not that hard– once you know it, you can identify parts of speech, and who is talking to whom, etc.

    Meaning, however, can get lost amongst the vast vocabulary coupled with the ways in which verbs become nouns and vice-versa. The classes of verbs can get overwhelming, and the ways in which words combine to make meaning do not suggest themselves intuitively.

    The language is so beautiful, however, that once I started studying it, I could not give up, even though I’ve never become fluent, and I haven’t lived in the Kingdom since 1998.

  3. Reading and writing it are actually the easier parts of learning Arabic…wrapping your tongue and throat around some of those sounds are frustrating. Giggling Arabs don’t help. 🙂

    I find it rather odd though that when I struggled to pronounce words and phrases…very few Bahrainis would take the time to correct me. They would exclaim over my desire to learn but never really lend a hand in facilitating pronunciations etc. They might also resort to speaking in Arabic assuming since I “knew” a little they could carry on as such.

    I find this interesting because I find myself always correcting those who struggle to learn English. Even though I admire them greatly for taking the time…I feel it’s my duty to lend a hand when I can to correct mistakes early on.

  4. I learned the alphabet and how to write each in their different ways a year or two ago,however, I found I could never read it online because the font was so tiny and you had to figure out those dots, loops and all…eh, it was too hard. Now if everything were written like the above script I might have succeeded! 😉

  5. This is funny. I tried taking Arabic and failed miserably. It did not help that the professor and I clashed big time.
    I do not have an affinity for languages outside of my own. Boo on that. I wish I did.

  6. I could understand if someone didn’t bother to take the time to formally learn the language if they are just visiting a country to work for a couple years or so and living and working with people who spoke English. However, I do NOT understand the people that come to this country and make this their permanent residence (perhaps even become naturalized citizens) and even after 30 years they do not ever try to learn the language. THAT is odd.

  7. I live in Tabuk. It has taken me 8 years to find someone who would teach me Arabic. There is no place in town to learn, especially since I am a Western female. I had to find a private tutor.
    I lived in a small US town before coming here. There was no place close to learn. Using programs like Rosetta Stone can be challenging.
    So yes, for some of us, learning Arabic IS that difficult.

  8. I found an interesting video on ways in which to read arabic. Those who have studied musical notes and see a similarity to arabic script.
    I find Yusef Estes has a simplified but creative techniques teaching arabic.

  9. I took one semester of Arabic in college last year and I loved it. It came very easy to me because I’m bilingual in English and Spanish. There are so many words in Arabic (I believe well over 300) that are cognates in the Spanish language ever since the Moors settled in Spain from 711-1492. I am trying to keep my Arabic up around my Saudi and Egyptian friends and hope someday I can go abroad and learn this beautiful language fluently.

  10. I am studying Arabic. I can read the word at the top. :-)) It may take a long time, but I intend to persevere.

  11. Really good post! I totally agree. Being an expatriate living in KSA I see how important it is to know the language and also how it makes life much easier and enjoyable. Even if it may be possible to live without learning Arabic…Most importantly, for Muslims its the language of the Quraan.

    I have a little question though. I have some friends who really want to learn Arabic. Do you know of any places in Jeddah that teach Arabic and are cost effective too?

  12. For those who are in the western world and working on arabic, you may want to investigate http://www.meetup.com and search for an arabic meeting group where you can find others with whom to converse and practice.

    In Saudi Arabia, do not be shy or reticent to make it known you are wishing to learn Arabic. I always had many Saudis or other Arab speakers willing to work with me.

  13. I might also add that when you do take the time to learn arabic…the look of surprise on the faces of those speaking about you in arabic right in front of you…assuming you don’t know what they are saying..is always well worth the effort.

  14. I agree Coolred!

  15. I learned the very basics with Arabic for Dummies CDs and books. I have now found an Arabic teacher and will start weekly classes with her. I am looking forward to really being able to converse with family and friends in Africa and KSA! I don’t know how much I’ll learn in a year but I’ll certainly know more than I do now. With the Dummies program I was just learning from sound and phonetics but now I am going to learn from the alphabet up!

  16. I have been working in Jeddah for the past 6 months and have been learning Arabic with the help of http://www.ArabicPod.net. They have 100s of audio lessons that can be downloaded to any mp3 player. It’s a great method for learning

  17. I think part of the problem with foreigners attempting to learn arabic (and I’m referring now to those living in the middle east) is that a lot of their socialization tends to be with fellow expats. This seems to be especially prevalent with western converts. The number of blogs I’ve read written by western (read white) people who converted, moved to the middle east and then live in areas populated by other westerners I really find puzzling. They move to the middle east and then still insist in living surrounded by other foreigners all the while spending large amounts of money on arabic classes.
    My mother is white and father is arab. It her less than a year to learn not only how to read and write arabic but speak it fluently. (And i’m not talking about just being able to ask the price of bread or something at a market).
    According to her, living in an area populated entirely by the local population, most of whom don’t speak english made it much easier to learn to speak/read/write. She told me that the reason why people find it so difficult to learn arabic is because they continue to have relatively minimal interaction with local arabs and many insist on trying to learn everything in a classroom which is next to impossible. The only way for non native speakers to become completely fluent is to actually surround themselves with arabs and keep their conversations in english to a minimum (which based on the number of blogs I’ve read by western converts in the middle east, seems to be a rather undesirable prospect)

  18. I agree, anon, that immersion makes such a significant difference when learning a language, including Arabic. I was fortunate to arrive as part of a large Saudi family which made a big difference in my ability…and motivation…to learn.

  19. I recently moved to Riyadh about two and a half months ago. I’m really looking for a good arabic program or teacher. I have some friends here who also want to learn. Does any one have any recommendations for female tutors or any really good program in the city with contacts? I’m at a loss of where to look, and desperately want to start my Arabic learning journey. Thanks in advance.

  20. My first two years in Bahrain were spent in my MIL house where the only proficient English speaker was my ex…and he was gone a lot…so I was immersed in Arabic whether I liked it or not. It was learn or be even more isolated.

    Sad to say that once I left her house and moved in our own house…the Arabic quickly became rusty…it needs to be kept up and practiced to keep proficient at it. I can still manage though..but it’s more of a struggle now.

  21. If you’ll indulge me, Bedu, I’d like to offer a recommendation:

    http://www.naturalarabic.com/

    This site is interesting, versatile, aimed at adults, and supports all levels of learning, whether you know the alphabet or not.

    One of the issues I had learning Arabic was that elementary texts were always aimed at children or travelers. This web site satisfies adults, and challenges learners who are elementary as well as advanced.

  22. Thanks, Marahm for the recommendation.

    @Coolred, you are so right. My arabic was going well but since I’ve been back in the States it is deteriorating. ):

  23. So far, some book recommendations I can make are:
    By Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gaafar:
    Easy Arabic Script
    Easy Arabic Grammar

    By Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal, Abbas Al-Tonsi:
    Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds
    Al-Kitaab Series

    The main problem with a lot of the books is that they either teach MSA or Egyptian dialects. However, there are some that focus on teaching particular dialects. I found a few onlne via amazon that teach, for instance, the hijazi dialect. However, I have not tried to use any myself.

    Some other sources I have heard about include the following:
    GLOSS- Defense Language Institute: http://gloss.dliflc.edu/
    Free podcasts on iTunes

    Also, as far as using Rosetta Stone, I do not recommend the latest edition. From what I understand the latest edition teaches Classical Arabic rather than MSA or a particular dialect. From its competitors the one that seemed the best to me (according to my interpretation of notes I made a few months ago…that I still have yet to use…>_<) is Tell Me More. However, other ones that people have recommended include Transparent Language, Linguaphone, Living Language, and Berlitz programs.

    Obviously, the best way is to practice with a local. Outside of meetup.com, I would also recommend trying couchsurfing.org. Additionally, use your friends that know Arabic. See if any local places offer lessons in it. My goal is to learn it as well as I can before doing a language immersion program in an Arabic speaking country so that way I can make the most of the experience. I had a friend that studied in Tunisia, but I am not sure if this is the best option for everyone. I plan to ask around and see what people say.

    I feel very blessed in that my sweetheart promised to teach me Arabic, and he intends to keep that promise. 🙂

    AB,
    Have you thought about trying to teach others and/or looking for people locally that speak the language? There's also Skype…?

  24. Hi Strange One,

    No’ I’ve not considered trying to teach others but at some point I may consider joining a local meet up group to stay in practice.

    My husband was impressed with the Rosetta Stone style of teaching. The class I took used the Alif Baa series and much of the success with it will also depend on the teacher.

  25. AB,
    I also believe that the Rosetta Stone method is very good. The older editions teach MSA. However, my understanding is that the latest edition as of last summer was teaching classical arabic.

  26. AB,
    I also believe that the Rosetta Stone method is very good. The older editions teach MSA. However, my understanding is that the latest edition as of last summer was teaching classical arabic. At least, that is my understanding when I read reviews of it online. :/

  27. Here are some blog posts I made on learning Arabic:
    http://askwhy-livingcuriosity.blogspot.com/2011/09/learning-arabic-recommended-resources.html

    and

    http://askwhy-livingcuriosity.blogspot.com/2011/09/learning-arabic-recommended-book-for.html

    Constructive criticism is very much welcomed! This is a list I came up with during almost a year of attempting to learn the language. These are ones I’ve found useful for learning beginning Arabic. Now I have the material, I just need to learn it! >_< LOL.

  28. Here an Arabic Teacher for Non-Arab.

    Based in Jeddah

    please contact me through the e-mail address: near_lucky@yahoo.com

    Arabic Teacher for Non-Arab

  29. Its hard to learn arabic because there are so many version of it I was interested to learn arabic when I got here in Saudi but then I ended up confused the ones they use here are different from what I get from the internet… I think you need a specific Arabic Language of Saudi rather than in general one… now Im not so interested to learn

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