Our guide to Arabic
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to Arabic

First published date October 30 2013 Amended date January 29 2015

Arabic is everywhere. It’s one of the six official UN languages. It’s the language of the Arab League and its 22 member countries, which span from Algeria in North Africa to the UAE on the Arabian Gulf. It’s also the language of worship for 1.6 billion Muslims as the tongue in which their holy book (the Qu’ran) was written.

Knowledge of the Arabic language is a much sought-after skill. Learn it, and you’ll increase your employability for a range of jobs. You’ll also gain insights into some of the world’s most complex, fascinating countries and societies. You’ll certainly be able to visit and get by in those places with greater ease than non-Arabic speakers.


Reasons to learn Arabic

It’s in demand. Recruiters from many different sectors and industries value English speakers who also have knowledge of Arabic. From the armed forces and the intelligence services to NGOs and charity or development work, knowing Arabic will open doors into a variety of exciting careers. It’s a good language to think about learning if you’re interested in law (Islamic finance is a boom area) and is considered one of the most useful languages for journalists.

Arabic is also one of the most widely spoken languages in the UK, so there may be local community groups and other organisations who would appreciate your skills.

Arabic is a Semitic language, so if you get on with it, you’ll find it easier to learn other languages from the same family, like Hebrew. Plus, languages like Urdu, Pashtu and Farsi use the Arabic alphabet – so you’d have a head start in those languages, too.


Wanted: fearless linguists

It’s best to be honest: learning Arabic isn’t for wimps. The grammar may feel very unfamiliar for native English speakers. Be prepared to expand your vocal horizons - spoken Arabic involves doing the most creative things imaginable with sounds made at the back of the throat! Good pronunciation can take a while to master, even for accomplished linguists. But if you’re up for a challenge and fancy learning a language that is ancient and scholarly but equally urgent and relevant (not to mention incredibly beautiful!), choose Arabic.


What’s your Arabic?

There is more than one kind of Arabic – in fact, when it comes to spoken Arabic, lots of different dialects exist. The Arabic spoken in Morocco, for example, will not be the same as the language spoken in the Palestinian territories – they are almost like separate languages. However, natives of any country where Arabic is an official language will be able to understand each other using Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This is a universal form of Arabic and it’s the language used on television, in politics and in newspapers. Egyptian Arabic is also commonly understood.

Most classes will teach Modern Standard Arabic, but it’s best to check exactly which lessons you’ve signed up for. Learning Classical Arabic is akin to learning Ancient Greek – you’ll be able to read scholarly works, but you won’t have much luck when it actually comes to speaking to anyone!  


What to expect

Classes will often be taught by native speakers who come from all over the Arab world. Individual and group tuition is available, as well as distance learning courses. Some Arabic language classes are geared towards practising Muslims. Other courses focus on business Arabic, or include opportunities to learn about and explore Arab history and culture. 


Interesting facts

There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet. The letters take on different forms depending on their position in a word – at the beginning, middle, or end.


Mind your dots – some letters look identical, but are only distinguishable through the position (and number) of dots.


There are no capital letters in Arabic.


Arabic is read from right to left and books open from what feels like the back (to Westerners).


In written Arabic, vowels are left out. You just have to get used to doing without them (It gets easier, honest).


If you speak German, you’ve got an advantage when it comes to pronunciation. Arabic uses a fricative ‘kh’ sound similar to the sound heard in words like ‘sprechen’ or ‘Bach’.


Even in secular contexts, God is everywhere in Arabic. You’ll quickly pick up expressions like insha’allah (which means ‘God willing’ but translates as ‘hopefully’). So you’ll hear things like, ‘The bus will be here in 10 minutes, insha’allah…’


Wonders of the Arabic-speaking world

Learn Arabic and be inspired to travel to these amazing sights:

·         Petra, Jordan – a city half-built and half-carved into rock; once an important crossroads for traders from Egypt, Syria and Arabia.

·         The Valley of the Kings, Egypt – an area containing the tombs of the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

·         The Atlas Mountains – a mountain range running through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, rich in flora and fauna.

·         The Burj Khalifa, Dubai – the world’s tallest building. 


By Kate Wilkins

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