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What do you know about Arabic?

Arabic is a Semitic language spoken by as many as 422 million speakers – as their first or second language – in the Arab world or within the Arab diaspora, widely across North Africa, Western Asia and the Horn of Africa. Arabic became the Quran language and the liturgical language of Islam when the religion was introduced in the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th century. It was firstly spoken by Arabs and by non-Arab people thereafter, and eventually became one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It is nowadays the official language in 26 states and is one of the six languages of the United Nations.

One or several languages?

People who learn Arabic have to face very rapidly some difficulties. The written language is radically different from the numerous dialects spoken throughout the Arabic world. It can translate into differences in syntax, vocabulary, pronunciation and verb system. This is called a diglossia, namely the coexistence of two languages amongst a certain population, one of which is considered as less prestigious and unsuitable for a formal use. There is on one hand Literary Arabic, mainly written, which includes Classical Arabic (CA) and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), and there are on the other hand dialects, mainly spoken, which are varieties of Arabic peculiar to regions and countries. Unfortunately, most of dialects are mutually unintelligible and the result is for example that Moroccans are completely foreign to Levantine Arabic, while Iraqi variant can be a puzzle for Egyptians.

If you set about studying Arabic, it is likely that you are taught Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), because it is mainly used in formal contexts: administration, television, newspapers, media, etc. It is however recommended that the most ambitious and hard-working Arabic students study a regional variant at the same time so as to be able to use the language in all social situations. Then, which dialect should you learn? Several factors can influence your choice such as pronunciation or even history. For instance, Levantine dialects – spoken in Palestine, Israel, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon – borrows from Aramaic languages, while Moroccan Arabic have Berber elements.

How does Arabic work?

Arabic is a right-to-left language using the Arabic alphabet, or more precisely an impure abjad – like Hebrew, Persian and Urdu – where consonants and long vowels are represented while consonant length and short vowels are not generally indicated in the writing system. To put it simply, the abjad is made up of 28 letters, amongst which 25 of them are consonants and 3 of them are either consonants or long vowels. Remember that the short vowels – [a], [i], [ou] – are not part of the alphabet as there are actually diacritics instead of letters. Also, each letter is written in a different way depending on its place within the word and the result is that four writing ways are possible: isolated, initial (at the beginning of the word), medial (in the midst of the word) and final (at the end of the word) forms.

As mentioned above, the alphabet is almost exclusively composed of consonants, which makes any new Arabic learner confused about how to read a text if no vowels, except long vowels, are written. In daily life, vocalisation is rarely indicated and is exclusively used in order to avoid any ambiguity, help with reading, or within a religious or pedagogical framework. But no worries, Arabic is fortunately a very logical language since it operates according to patterns, while Arabic words are shaped following an abstract root – a three-letter root in most cases. Knowing both the patterns and roots are therefore essential to read a word and understand its meaning.

If you are about to embark on a language learning journey, I suggest that you study Arabic. Either for your own pleasure or your career to come, the language is to grow within the very next years. Remember to study both the Modern Standard Arabic and a dialect so that you can use the language in all social environments, especially as all people do not understand MSA. Reading or watching news can be an efficient way to improve your MSA level while films or musics are good for your dialect since they are mainly dubbed or sung in varieties of Arabic. Combining business with pleasure is the key to success. Have fun!

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