How Difficult Is It to Learn Arabic?

According to the British Council, Arabic is on its way up. Although it has long been a favourite among students looking to get a hang of a more exotic language, learning Arabic has been becoming more popular over the recent years. This is understandable – in addition to packing some serious cultural and historical punch, Arabic is also the language spoken in oil-rich Gulf countries, and in parts of Africa that are quickly becoming the world’s quickest expanding markets. All of this provides great economic incentives for learning this beautiful, yet puzzling language.

For those of us contemplating jumping head first into studying Arabic, we’ve compiled this guide to provide some overview and insight into the process.

Introduction to Arabic

Arabic is a notoriously difficult language to categorise. The widely held belief is that it actually comprises of a wide-ranging group of dialects pulled together under this one category. The fact that, linguistically speaking, it is impossible to determine which separates a language from a dialect, makes “Arabic” a somewhat loose term. In addition to the dozens of spoken dialects, Arabic also refers to the Modern Standard Arabic – this is the “official” form which is used in literature and formal speech, although thanks to its relations to the ancient Classic Arabic, MSA sounds a bit archaic and artificial by now.

The differences in understanding what makes Arabic, well, Arabic is also the reason why it’s difficult to determine its number of speakers. If all different spoken dialects of Arabic are pulled under this one umbrella term, the estimates are that there can be around 422 million native and non-native speakers, making it one of the five most widely spoken languages. In addition, Arabic is also the de facto religious language for the 1.6 billion Muslims.

Why Arabic Is Considered Difficult

Arabic is a frequent visitor on lists about the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. The language learning communities are filled with anxious Arabic learners venting about the tough task of becoming fluent in Arabic. The Foreign Service Institute estimates about 2,200 hours (or 88 weeks or almost 2 years) of study time to achieve general proficiency.

The most often-cited reasons for labelling Arabic as difficult is simply because it contains rather little in common with the European language families. Belonging to the Afroasiatic language family, Arabic has had a path of development distinctly different from the big European languages. Although, since Arabic was the language of science during the Middle Ages, there are words that have crossed over to the global speak from that era.

The aspects of Arabic that can seem the most foreign to native English speakers are the fact that reading and writing happens from right to left – the opposite direction to English, the existence of a completely different alphabet and its rather unusual sounds which have no equivalent in English. To further complicate things, vowels are omitted from written Arabic (I mean, srsly?!) which can complicate understanding when first learning the language.

But It’s Not All Bad

Although Arabic does definitely present some rather unique difficulties, it still isn’t the most difficult language on the planet. Mostly because there is no such thing. The trick to learning any language is to start making your own connections to what you’re learning and simply enjoy the process.

Since Arabic differs so much from location to location, it might benefit to also change your approach to learning it depending on your goal. If you simply want to pick up some conversational Arabic for your trip, simply start by learning some colloquial Arabic of your destination country. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive overview – start by learning Modern Standard Arabic and widening your understanding of the local dialects from there. Dr. Aaron Ralby argues that learning Arabic should be viewed as not learning one, but several related languages – much like studying French, Spanish, and Portuguese which all stem from the same origins. This might also put the task in better perspective.

Although learning Arabic has been thought to be incredibly difficult, this notoriety comes down to being, at worst, based on myth or, at best, over exaggerated. In the end, it’s your own attitude and context that make the most difference in learning a language.

If you’re still doubting, this page will give you some reasons why learning Arabic is a great idea.