Saudi Arabia: How Did American Bedu Learn Arabic


I recently received a query from a regular American Bedu follower on how I learned my Arabic and whether I had advice for individuals who wish to learn Arabic.  Remembering my initially foray in to the Arabic language world brings a happy smile to my face.  When I was getting to know Abdullah during the days when we were both in our respective diplomatic positions we would at times be together and his friends would converse in Arabic.  I slowly began to recognize by ear some of the general expressions of greeting.  At that time Arabic sounded harsh and exotic to my untrained ear.  However once we had married I realized that Arabic was a language I needed to learn, especially since my Mother-in-law and most of my sister-in-law’s did not speak any English.

Although our initial meetings and courtship spanned for several years across different countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East region, we began our life together as a married couple in Washington, DC.  Shortly after setting up house I enrolled in an Arabic Language class at a local college.  It was through the class that I mastered the Arabic alphabet and received my initial introduction of Classic Egyptian Arabic.  Abdullah was not going to settle having his American wife speak Arabic with an Egyptian dialect since our future home was to be in Saudi Arabia and among his extended family.

My Arabic lessons continued with Abdullah as my taskmaster teacher (stated in jest and with a warm smile).  He would bring home some of the Arabic newspapers he received daily through his position at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.  First of all he had me start with the weather page in reading out the names of the cities around the world and the daily temperature to reinforce my recognition of cities and numbers.  After that, he would have me read the headlines out loud to him, ensuring that I pronounced the words correctly.  After it was ascertained that I not only had spoken the words correctly and understood the headline, then he would have me read the article out loud, again correcting my grammar and pronunciation as needed.  He then expected me to tell him (in Arabic) what the article was about.  While we had our interaction discussion I would have a small lap size dry-erase board in my lap which would be used for him to write down words I may not have understood or for him to give me spelling and writing tests.  Eventually I “graduated” to Arabic work books and Saudi children’s books which Abdullah obtained for me. His diligent and patient teachings provided me with a decent baseline of understanding by the time we arrived in Saudi Arabia.  By this time Arabic sounded poetic and gentle to my ear.

My truest teachings (not that Abdullah wasn’t sincere or that I did learn…) came with Mama Moudy, my Saudi mother-in-law.  She spoke no English but each of us were eager to get to know the other.  She would take me in to her kitchen where she would teach me how to prepare her eldest’s son’s favorite dishes.  From her loving and patient manner I learned so many more of the important “Saudi Arabic” words.  Her teachings gave me additional confidence that I could go to local markets and return with the correct spices and types of bread I wished to serve.  Mama Moudy and I bonded together during that special time of teaching.  As we prepared dishes I learned more about my husband and his adventures as a young boy growing up in a home with many sisters.  Abdullah would be both pleased and surprised when I would ask him about his childhood times after my special sessions with Mama Moudy.  He had forgotten about some of his childhood experiences until I was asking him for more details!

To this day I am far from fluent in Arabic and fear that each day away from where it is spoken and heard regularly I am falling behind on the strongholds which I had gained in the language.  Yet I will still attempt to read the Arabic papers (at least the headlines!) online and follow occasional (Saudi) Arabic videos.

For an individual who wishes to learn Arabic, my advice is to be serious and fastidious of study.  If you really wish to learn the language, do not look upon it as a game or a fad.  Practice at all available opportunities.  If you are not regularly around Arab speakers listen to videos where Arabic is spoken or join a local Arabic meetup group for opportunities to practice and converse with others.



14 Responses

  1. Are there any specific books or websites that you would recommend? I want to learn Arabic partly to better understand the boys I homestay and the students I teach. (The other part is because I believe I’ll be a better EFL teacher if I’m learning a foreign language myself.) I’ve tried to find books but they always turn out to be the wrong dialect.

  2. I love Arabic too. Likewise, at first Arabic sounds harsh but it is a beautiful language. I too have forgotton a lot Arabic and will lose more as I am not allowed to speak Arabic as it is ileigal for ‘non-believers’ in the country where I am.
    A good resource is Yusef Este, espeically for the written Arabic. You can find his videos on Youtube.

  3. Carol, you are more and more blessed in your marriage with Abdullah! I have never heard of an Arab husband taking an active role in teaching has Western wife Arabic. Most of them merely tolerate her studying, and occasionally, you hear of one like mine, who actively discourages her.

    Mine tolerated my study of of Qur’anic Arabic, but his continued refusal to help or encourage me put a big strain on our marriage, and contributed to our divorce. He had good reasons for me not to learn too much.

    After ten years of being away from Arabic, I couldn’t stand it any more. I poked around on the web and discovered Natrual Arabic,

    This is a wonderful site. You should look, if you haven’t already. It will energize you and bring you back to the language in a, well, “natural” way.

  4. i really enjoyed this post.. i would like to read about your experience of learning other foreign languages as well)))

  5. I have to recommend the Michel Thomas system of learning Arabic. It’s Egyptian, like almost all of the Arabic language courses but I find the conversational way of learning to be rather good. Its an audio course and I’m barely through the basics but I have picked up a lot without really trying.

    I can still in no way converse in Arabic however.. need to keep up with the lessons.

  6. I am currently taking ‘one on one’ lessons with an Iraqi women – recent immigrant to Canada – who was a teacher in Iraq. I also have some books that are very helpful one of which is called Arabic in 10 minutes a day which has been a great help.

  7. I found the software program ‘Rosetta Stone’ useful

  8. I remember taking an Arabic course that was based on Egyptian dialect…and after almost every lesson taught our teach would qualify it with “but we don’t speak that way here”…which sort of defeated the whole purpose of learning Arabic. You want to speak like the natives of where your at…not some place your not (Egypt).

  9. LOL! I have heard those words from every Arabic teacher I’ve ever had. No matter what dialect you study, “…it’s not the one that’s spoken here.”

    In fact, if you are in Saudi Arabia, you will hear all the dialects of Arabic; you will find Arabic teachers from all over the place.

    Everyone says, “Stick with Fussha, Classical Arabic, because everyone understands it.” Well, everyone understands it, sure enough, but no one speaks it, so you have to wonder whether people are laughing at you for trying to speak Fussha in colloquial settings.

    On the other end of the continuum, some of us learn a few Arabic words from our uneducated mother-in-laws, and find ourselves laughing-stocks when we use vulgar words in polite company, thinking we are speaking properly.

  10. Carol,
    Thanks for the uplift! Just what I needed! I got up this morning and started translating the headlines of the local Arabic paper! This is something I can manage even with a baby on my knee!

  11. Hey all!
    As far as studying Arabic, I came across this one site that gave reviews on a variety of books, programs, etc. to help one learn Arabic and I found the site informative:

  12. Thanks, Strange One, for posting this reference. The author’s experience echos my own!

  13. Thank you, StrangeOne! I’m glad we can have new and helpful links!

  14. This is a nice site to learn how to speak Arabic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: