April 23, 2007 12:29 AM   Subscribe

Polyglotfilter: Okay, so I am trying to learn Arabic. Sometimes I hit big, ginormous walls with it, but I'm determined to not give up. Just the lack of a good dictionary is frustrating. So... any helpful tips?

My goal is to go to Egypt in December and be able to communicate and understand at least a little. I've taken Intro to Arabic, Elementary Reading Comprehension, and I'm currently taking MSA 1 & Arabic Calligraphy. After this my goals are (depending on time) to take MSA 2 & 3, Egyptian 1 and a verb class or two. (Here's the school's course list. I'm open to suggestions if you see other classes that you think I should consider instead.) I also own the Rosetta Stone software which I do look at once in a while. I'm told that for a beginner my pronunciation isn't too bad so that's promising, but I know I've got a looooong way to go.

I've learned the alphabet, so I can read & write it okay (although since I'm a beginner, obviously the unwritten vowels on unfamiliar words still throw me), but I have to reread a word over & over to remember what it is (and by then I've forgotten what it means half the time). My teacher tells me not to write Roman words next to the arabic words I'm learning... but if I don't, I totally forget what things mean. The textbook is okay, although the lesson plans seem to teach things in different orders than when I've taken other languages. For example, not many verbs so far. Also, it will list a bunch of arabic words and say "Add these to your vocabulary!" but sometimes there won't be a Roman definition next to them.

I've taken some Spanish and German classes before, but because they use the Roman alphabet this is a new experience. I'm having issues with retention because I have a photographic memory and due to the alphabet being less familiar, sometimes things aren't always sticking in my brain the way I want them to, seems as though things are just flying out of my brain as soon as I put them in. Sometimes I feel –pardon the phrase – totally retarded & like I'm just never going to get anywhere with it. Yes, I know that's normal, but I get frustrated. I've come far enough that I don't want to quit though.

Moral of the story, I'm open to all suggestions/advice/tips/ideas & please feel free to also pass on any good resources you know that might be helpful in general. I've found that there are far fewer good tools available for learning Arabic than other languages... strikes me as odd since it's the fourth most spoken language in the world, but whatever.* It's a challenge, and I'd like to find a way to be up to it.

Thanks in advance for the kickass support. You rock! Yes, I'm talking to you.

*BTW, I would like to request that we not make this a political post, okay? I've already heard "Why are you learning Arabic, are you going to join the CIA or become a terrorist?" more than enough. Not so funny. Sorry.
posted by miss lynnster to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
How about getting a conversation partner? That always helps me get up to speed on my getting-around-town sense of a language.

Also, paging Deathalicious!
posted by k8t at 1:13 AM on April 23, 2007

Response by poster: I have great friends in Egypt that I talk to in English, but I'm not good enough or familiar enough with the Egyptian dialect to really speak with them in Arabic yet. Otherwise the people I could speak with would mostly just be people in school who are struggling the same way I am. We do try tho.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:23 AM on April 23, 2007

How long are you going to be in Egypt and where?

Best advise I could pass along would be to spend and extended period of time living there (as opposed to just passing through.

Get yourself a flat in one of the local neighbourhoods of pretty much any city, and learn by immersion.

I've spent about two months living in Cairo, don't speak Arabic 'cause I never studied the language, however this approach surely worked for me when I lived in Frankfurt, Germany.

sadly, my German has gone downhilll since as I've been living in London for ten years and learning ENGLISH now...
posted by Mutant at 3:33 AM on April 23, 2007

It sounds like you need to become much more comfortable with the alphabet. Here's an idea: try using it for English too. Make yourself sit down a few times a day and write about how your day's been going, but using Arabic transcriptions (i.e. "I" would be أى (with hamza), etc. Obviously there'll be some complications, but be creative. You can use ص instead of س for words like "solve" or "saw," and so on. You should include vowels too. Try writing this way as much as possible, and after a few weeks the alphabet will feel much more familiar. It's also a fun way to kill time. Basically, this will force you to invest a lot more in the alphabet than you would if you just used it for classwork.

That textbook has some good points, though I personally don't like it much (the fact that Maha and her cousin are both borderline depressive doesn't help :) The reason you haven't seen much about verbs yet is that they're a much broader subject in Arabic than they are in indo-european languages. It's not that they're complicated so much as that there are a *lot* of different patterns, each with their own sets of conjugations (like -ar, -er, and -ir verbs in Spanish, except raised to a few degrees.) Also, the way it works is that these patterns aren't arbitrary, like in Spanish. They actually carry meaning. Arabic is based on three-letter roots, and plugging those three letters into different verb patterns can give you different verbs that are all related to the root. (For example, you can get passive, reflexive, transitive, etc. verbs from a single root using different patterns.)

Sorry if you knew all of this already -- the main point is to prepare for a lot of memorization, because these patterns are basically a foundation of the language, and you really have to internalize them. This is why they're usually introduced very slowly.

A good thing to do at this point is to pay a lot of attention to the words you come across. Do they seem to have the same roots? (That is, the consonants are the same [sometimes with added تs or نs or مs] but the vowels are different.) If so, their meaning is usually related, and they'll have to do with different verb patterns as well. For example, there's kitaab (book), maktab (office), kaatib (author), katabtu (I wrote), maktoob (written), etc. Pay attention (a) because it helps in building vocabulary and (b) because you'll slowly build some sensitivity to the sound patterns now, and that will be a huge help later.

Once you start learning some interesting patterns, take words you already know, figure out their three-letter roots, and plug them into these patterns. Try to guess what the results mean. Then look them up to see if what you've created are real words (they usually will be) and if they mean what you thought they would.

Summary: Roots are the key to everything.

Finally: Don't get frustrated; go slowly; look forward to details; Maha's an ass. Make your teacher give you the correct vowelling for any new word you come across that doesn't have it. And amazon has a bunch of resources (sorry I don't have recommendations.)
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 4:26 AM on April 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, if the goal is to communicate in Egypt then focus more on the dialect classes than on MSA ones. Besides everything else, it'll probably be more fun (MSA classes always tend to emphasize political vocabulary over nice, happy, useful words.)
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 5:11 AM on April 23, 2007

Hans Wehr is really your best bet for an MSA dictionary. It takes getting used to, but once you start studying verb patterns and roots, it will make much more sense. I strongly recommend you familiarize yourself with it because it will figure prominently in your studies later on down the road. If you want an Arabic-English/English-Arabic dictionary, I think Al-Mawrid is your best bet. It's not as good as Hans Wehr because, as you will come to see, the translations it offers are sometimes a bit off. It's great for checking spelling though!

Another suggestion I have would be to start listening to Arabic radio programs (or watch Arabic tv if you can get to it). This is something I waited too long to incorporate into my studies and I'm still paying the price for my laziness. If you can, listen to the BBC in Arabic every day for 20-30 minutes. It makes a huge difference.

As to your textbook, Al-Kitaab is certainly a flawed series, but it's really the best of what's available. Moreover, it's used by most Arabic programs (although some schools in Egypt may not use it - when I was at ILI in Mohandeseen they had their own textbooks).

As for Egypt, as others have pointed out, you can easily live there without speaking any Arabic - I regret to say that I did so successfully for a year. Force yourself to use Arabic as much as possible - with taxi drivers, shopkeepers and especially friends!

Good luck.
posted by anonymous78 at 6:14 AM on April 23, 2007

You sound a lot like me when I was studying russian, and later, arabic. Lullabyofbirdland's advice is spot-on, you should really know the alphabet phonetically pretty cold (I had the most trouble with some of the similar sounds like tuh and TOH) an knowing the roots helps you to realize what the short vowels that aren't being written are.

Sadly, at least for me and my experience with non-roman alphabets, getting the hang of the letterfoms is probably the easiest part of trying to get somewhere with the language. seriously, if you can memorize roots and have a basic conception of conjugation and prepositional phrases, you will basically have conversational arabic down (this is the hard part for me).
posted by tjenks at 6:17 AM on April 23, 2007

Maha is an ass - but also a hottie, making learning Arabic have some serious sex appeal. Of course she talks fast and sometimes not clearly... but those eyes...

I agree with Lullabyofbirdland - You have to rock the Arabic alphabet or your life will be rough. I really recommend just writing them all until you have that pat.

Then get a digital voice recorder (50 bucks, one that downloads to a CPU through USB - I own Olympus VN3100pc) - record the teacher or 'pro' saying each sound in each vowel form. Download, stick in MP3 player, play, repeat. Repeat out loud after them. Have each sound go three times with a more then enough pause (1-2 count ) between them. Make each sound is a separate file, so you can hit as you mess up a trillion times.

THEN make logical word lists (or webs)-words about dinner, Food, Travel, Location, Job... things that logically tie into each other - but don't be brilliant. Make sure they are all correct, make a list - and then record each of them. Play Repeat.

Then repeat with sentences, then imaginary dialogues. That Digital recorder will be worth every penny.

I had the exact same problem when learning the language and I would commit hours to memorizing the words. My best success was hearing and repeating the words enough that I knew them. Then reading became a process of sounding out the words. Grammar became an extension of reading - though infinitely easier and very logical.
posted by mrgreyisyelling at 6:18 AM on April 23, 2007

I'm a fan of flash cards for learning vocab. To deal with the script issue, you could fold the flash card, put the Arabic script on one side, the Roman transcription on the other side, and the meaning on the inside (or if you didn't want to bother with folding, put the meaning in a regular place and just hold your finger over it if you need to).

I really like this flash card website, but it's not clear to me if they allow you to enter things using the Arabic script, so I'm not sure how useful it would be for you.
posted by carmen at 6:45 AM on April 23, 2007

I second the call to put more focus on dialect classes (ie, plan to take Egyptian 1 next, and try to make time for any other dialect classes you can). You will be amazed at how different the dialect is from MSA -- and if your goal is verbal communication and comprehension, you'll need it.

Good luck!
posted by ourobouros at 7:24 AM on April 23, 2007

Response by poster: Great advice so far!!! I was laughing out loud because... poor Maha is talking again about how she is so very very lonely? WHATEVER! SHUT UP, YA WHINY BRAT! My teacher is especially horrified by her choice of home decor... that checked couch and patterned carpet combination is simply horrifying. ;)

I do own the Green Bible. I haven't used it much yet because I get frustrated looking things up everything is by the root instead of alphabetically. At times it just takes a lot longer to find something than I want it to so I give up.

I would really like it best if I could just take a pill and wake up fluent.

Anyhow, please keep pouring on the advice, it's great! I really appreciate the support.

BTW, one side benefit is that after struggling with Arabic I now find German easier in comparison. When I tried to read some things in German yesterday I felt like I was suddenly rocking through the language. I used to be semi-fluent but have forgotten it all, so it was really cool to realize I still have a lot of that language retained. Made me want to refresh that language when I'm ready to take a break from kicking myself in the head with this one.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:19 AM on April 23, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, and I'm not sure how long I'm going yet or where exactly. A lot of it depends on money & my work. Originally we were just going to go there for 2 weeks. Probably show my friends a lot of the sights I've already seen and then spend some time in Sinai. If I get some decent work coming in & I can afford it, I'd like to extend that & spend at least a few weeks in a language school. I'm really not sure that I want to live in Cairo, but I have two good friends there & that's where most of the language schools are.

If anyone has any recommendations or experience with short term language schools in Cairo, I'd like to hear about that too.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:23 AM on April 23, 2007

i took four levels of arabic at my local university, which helped me somewhat, but for me using the rosetta stone computer program was more helpful in a lot of ways. there are two levels available, so it gets fairly advanced, and it teaches you the grammer in an intuitive, game-like way. being a fairly analytical person i need to combine this with something else, so here is my overall suggestion:

practice the writing until you know it inside out. meanwhile, start using the rosetta stone program as much as possible. also get an arabic grammer book, and when you come across constructions that completely baffle you, look them up in the book and try to understand them (but don't overthink it too much-- if you still don't get it, try to go back to the program anyway). supplement your vocabulary by making lists of words that you are interested in, maybe on flashcards, picture books or stickers around your house or something. practice conversation when you can, try to read things in arabic when you can (there are some pretty good foreign language web groups where you can read posts in other languages and also people will probably explain things and answer your questions in english as necessary), and definitely at least get a phrasebook of egyptian dialect and memorize some useful phrases word for word. finally, keep practicing as long as you want to be able to use the language. i learned recently while travelling that the french i studied in elementary school has stuck with me better than the (much more advanced) arabic that i learned in college, probably because the language is so foreign. good luck!

(tangentially, i was a maniac about learning arabic until several years in i discovered what i really wanted to be studying was farsi-- i just didn't realize when i started that not all languages in arabic script are arabic. i've got some farsi books now, but somehow i'm finding it harder to get motivated)
posted by lgyre at 9:25 AM on April 23, 2007

I second Hans Wehr—it's the best easily available dictionary. (Unfortunately, the copy I got has crappy binding and split in half early on, but maybe newer ones are better made.) As others have said, concentrate on Egyptian Arabic; Arabs tend to want you to study the classical language rather than what they perceive as degenerate "dialects," but that's just silly. And watch as many Egyptian movies as you can rent, and if you can find a local restaurant that has Egyptian TV playing, start hanging out there. Immersion, immersion, immersion.
posted by languagehat at 11:18 AM on April 23, 2007

Oh, I forgot about the Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic—it costs an arm and a leg and you're probably not going to get it for a two-week stay, but it's superb, and if you can find it at a library you'll want to make friends with it. (I used to spend my lunch hours at the ridiculously overpriced Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center poring through their reference books, and I was really pissed off when some asshole stole the Egyptian dictionary. Not as pissed off as the manager, though. Boy, I heard some interesting French that day.)
posted by languagehat at 11:24 AM on April 23, 2007

Wow. I have opinions on this topic, I do. I'll try to address a few of your points and then give you my own 1-2-3.

First, al-kitaab has won a deep place in my heart, largely because it breaks all the rules for teaching a language. It can feel like it's meandering, especially in the early chapters, when it doesn't seem to be getting to the point, and the parts featuring Maha are laughable. But it works, I promise you.

What Al-K is trying to do is get you into a mode where you're functioning in the language without realizing it. Al-Tonsi, Brustad, and Abbas tell you not to write down translations next to the word because they're not trying to get you to learn new words, exactly. Instead, they want you to get to a point where you read for context, and where you're not put off by a page of dense script. They'd like you to recognize words in their proper setting, and they want you do this alone.(1) This is quite a bit different than the older pedagogical methods, and Arabic instructors like to get together at faculty meetings and tear at each other with rusty hooks over the respective advantages and disadvantages of Al-K versus the Orange Book. Al-K takes a very different approach to case endings, for example, and many teachers who were raised on jussives, indicatives, and subjunctives try to unite their educational methods with the ones they've been assigned to teach their students, with often negative results.

What I mean to say is, keep at it with Al-Kitaab, and rest assured that there's a method to Maha.

Now, from what I can see, no course you've taken will do you much good in Egypt. Arabic is really two distinct languages, and there's not a lot of overlap between regional colloquials and MSA. The grammar and terminology are different, though you'll find your ability to read will help you quite a bit. Going to Egypt and taking classes there will be your best bet, though I can't rule out taking a beginner's Egyptian class stateside, having never done it that way myself.

My own method for Al-Kitaab's vocabulary was to go through the entire chapter and memorize, memorize, memorize before I continued. When you get to the later chapters, and then on to the next levels, Al-K hurls page after page of vocab at you and expects you to know it as a basic first step. It's only then that they allow you to read the texts they give you, since the methodology doesn't call for using a dictionary the first time around. (2)

Try doing this. Collect all the words in the chapter and write them down on a single sheet of paper. Copy those words onto another sheet of paper with English and Arabic side-by-side. Cover up half the sheet, so you're only displaying one language, and practice writing down both the word and its translation. This is important. Also, if you can't get a word, just keep going, even if you can only get one term out of twenty. Do this until you know each word, and repeat the process for all the words. Even if you've gotten nineteen out of twenty, go back and write them all over again until you have them all.

My understanding is that you're still a beginner, so this isn't going to be an easy topic. My knowledge of English grammar shot up once I had to keep track of all the subjects, objects, and predicates in Arabic. If you're planning to get to Egypt in December, that means you've got a year of time ahead of you. I promise that you'll get more accomplished, and feel more confident after one month of living in Egypt than all the time you've spent memorizing verb charts up until that point. I wish you the best of luck!

(1) One example is the psychology-of-teaching concept of "colocation," where two words are often connected together. (Think "achieve" and "goal.) Even today, I still connect the word تَخَرّّجتُ, I graduated, with من الجامعة, from university, thanks to Brustad and Co.

(2) Again: the idea of reading for understanding. This absolutely confounded a teacher I had in Jerusalem, who demanded strict casing on all verbs before you even thought about the meaning of the words. Damn him.
posted by awenner at 12:37 AM on April 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

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