Why Is Learning Arabic So Hard?

I’ve been working on a piece about the various languages I’ve encountered throughout Africa over the past three months.  But before I finish that, I thought it might be fun to post something I wrote seven years ago when I was studying Arabic in Cairo.  Here’s a piece about why Arabic is such a difficult – but wonderful – language for English speakers to study:

My bathroom is leaking. It’s not a big deal, nothing a new valve on the toilet couldn’t fix, but I haven’t spoken to my landlord about it yet. The problem? I’m in Cairo, and my landlord only speaks Arabic. Though I have been studying the language intensively for over a month, basic conversation is still difficult and I’m not yet prepared to delve into vocabulary that confuses me even in English.

There seems to be unanimous agreement that Arabic is a hard language. The Defence Language Institute rates Arabic as a Category IV language, the most difficult category, along with Korean, Japanese and Chinese. After 63 weeks of intensive study, the DLI estimates that someone who is adept at learning languages could communicate in Arabic with only minimum working proficiency (a 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is fluency equivalent to a native speaker).

imageSo what makes it so hard? Unlike Japanese and Chinese, Arabic has just one alphabet with 28 letters to learn, which isn’t nearly as bad as all those thousands of characters. True, Arabic is written right to left (so you feel like you’re opening your book backwards) and each letter has four different forms depending on whether it appears independently or in the beginning, middle, or end of a word. But familiarity with the alphabet comes much more quickly than it would first appear.

If it’s not the foreign alphabet, then what? One problem is that like other Semitic languages (Hebrew, for instance), Arabic does not write out all the vowels. Long vowels, yes, but the short ones are usually dropped from non-religious texts. Though there are a limited number of options, “rdng wtht vwls s vry dffclt.”

Then there are the sounds. Several are foreign, though two have achieved special infamy for English speakers. The glottal stop, “hamza,” is not actually terribly difficult to produce (it’s the hyphen in “uh-oh”) but feels funny to stick in the middle of words. More troublesome is the “ayn,” a sound which one of my textbooks describes first as “one of the most beautiful and distinctive sounds of the Arabic language” before suggesting that producing it should “sound a bit like someone’s strangling you.” I still don’t understand how Arabic speakers maintain conversation during meals – talking with your mouth full is not just impolite, it’s hazardous to your health.

Next comes the grammar. Though the Arabic system is incredibly organized (in fact, I’ve met many mathematicians who became addicted to Arabic), it’s also incredibly complex (they were pretty smart mathematicians). There are two features especially that tend to make English speakers grind their teeth together. The first is the nominal sentence, or a sentence that doesn’t have a verb. This weird sounding for Americans. It rather bizarre. Like the previous two sentences, many Arabic sentences lack the verb “to be.” Making a complete sentence therefore relies on rules about definiteness and indefiniteness that are not necessarily intuitive.

Another feature is the use of the dual. In English, we have pronouns for singular and plural (I versus we, he versus they, etc.). In Arabic, there is a third category that refers to a group of two people. Nouns and adjectives take a special ending whenever there are two of something, and verbs must be conjugated accordingly. For those used to the frustrations of six different conjugation forms in languages like French, Spanish, and German, just imagine 13 different forms! Though the dual seems excessive to English speakers, its use poses interesting questions. Just as we might ask, why do you need a separate form to refer to two things?, an impartial observer might ask an English speaker why we feel the need to differentiate between “he” and “she.”

Interestingly, both the nominal sentence and the use of the dual are not unique to Arabic. In fact, if we trust the good people at Wikipedia, the majority of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken in the world today manifest one of these two features.

Besides the dual and the nominal sentence, Arabic has many idiosyncracies to drive you batty. There are nonsensical rules involving numbers, such that the gender of the number is usually the opposite of the gender of the noun. Meanwhile, a group of three or more non-human objects takes a feminine singular adjective such that one might say, “The houses, she is big.” By the time our professor embarks on a discussion about negating the past tense with a present tense form of the verb, we’ve all jumped out the window.

imageBut let’s pretend that you’ve familiarized yourself with the alphabet, mastered the basic grammar, and learned some vocabulary. You’re ready to barter down the price of that shiny new sheesha pipe you saw in the bazaar, right? Think again. If you proudly take your newfound Arabic skills into the streets, you will be greeted with puzzled looks. What gives? The problem is that there really isn’t any such thing as Arabic. In fact, no one speaks the language you are learning in class as a first language; rather, it is merely one standardized version of a collection of dialects that are as diverse as French and Portuguese. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of the media and is essential for understanding Arabic newspapers and broadcasts. However, as most Arabs learn this version of their language in school, the degree of familiarity possessed by the average person you meet in the streets varies wildly. They will probably understand you, but it will sound a bit like you’re ordering your hummus with a line from “Macbeth.”

Thus, learning Arabic fully is really a study of two languages: one to read, and one to speak. The vocabulary is different, the vowels change, and the verbs follow different rules. To make matters worse, a lot of spoken Arabic is a mixture of the two styles: Arabic speakers shift between different registers depending on how formal the situation is. Plus, you have to decide which colloquial version to learn. Do you want to be understood in Morocco, the Levant, or the Gulf? Many Arabic programs in the States solve this dilemma by avoiding it entirely, but that can create a big problem when someone who is “fluent” in Arabic is sent to Baghdad and can’t understand anyone.

So what’s the point? With such a huge time commitment required just to gain a minimum level of proficiency, is there really any use in taking an Arabic course? The answer, of course, is yes. Even within a few weeks, studying Arabic opens doors into interesting perspectives on a culture and history that has been routinely misunderstood by foreigners, often with disastrous results. Considering the importance of the region in terms of current events, a few small steps toward bridging the language divide can go a long way. Most of the Egyptians I have met are well aware of how difficult their language is and seem extremely appreciative of even the smallest attempt to use it. Just a few words can turn a grouchy cab driver into a fount of advice and information. So go ahead and enroll in that class you’ve been thinking about – you never know when you might end up in an Arab metropolis with a flooded bathroom.

Posted in North Africa, Travel Blog.


  1. Lol… prizes for guessing who didn’t get past the Arabic alphabet!
    Safe riding. Not long to go now.

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