Many English speakers are hesitant to study more unique languages like Arabic. This not surprising, because it is a lot different from European languages in terms of writing system, sounds and grammar. Whenever we are faced with something different we tend to assume that its gonna be difficult. However is it actually true? Is Arabic difficult to learn for English speakers?
Is Arabic Difficult to Learn?
The answer to this question can depend on your foreign language knowledge. For English speakers who are learning Arabic as a second language, it is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Based on FSI categorization, Arabic is assigned to 5-th category. The same category includes languages like Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. It is estimated that in order to achieve S3 (speaking) and R3 (reading) level in Arabic, English speaker would need to spend up to 22 weeks or 2200 hours studying.
In comparison the same level in foreign language category I could be achieved with 24 weeks (600 hours) of studying. Hence English speaker would be able to learn Spanish, Portuguese, French and etc. 3.6 times faster. You could also say that with the same amount of studying time you could learn Arabic or three foreign languages from category I.
Of course, these estimates by The Foreign Service Institute are only approximate. Also not all Arabic learners or language experts would agree on them. Furthermore it is important to keep in mind that they are meant for English speakers who are studying their second language. Hence faster learners or students with other foreign language knowledge might find Arabic not so challenging. So if you have a good reason to study Arabic, you should do it regardless of its difficulty.
What Makes Learning Arabic Hard?
Most learners might find Arabic pronunciation quite challenging. This is because the sounds are totally different from Germanic and Romance languages. Also there are at least three sounds that don’t exist in European languages. Since English speakers are not familiar with them, learning to pronounce them correctly is a real challenge. These particular sounds are written by using numbers three, seven and nine. One of these sounds is -qu-, which is created from the back of the throat. There is also -h- sound, which is pronounced roughly. Also the same -h- sound can be pronounced vocalized, which is similar to the sound – ai. So as you can see pronunciation has some unique guttural sounds that are formed differently than in other languages.
When it comes to sentence structure, there are differences between English language as well. In English we use so called verbal sentences only. In Arabic it is possible to verbal sentences and also nominal sentences. Whenever creating verbal sentence in Arabic, you would use a verb first. So for example if you want to say “A man bought a boat” you would say it “Bought a man a boat” in Arabic. Nominal sentences in Arabic doesn’t have verbs. Instead they can have two nouns and they are still grammatically correct.
When compared with English, Arabic has one unique aspect about their verbs. The ending of Arabic verbs depends on the gender. This means that a female speaker would use one verb ending to describe what she is doing. Consequently a male speaker would use a different verb ending to describe the same action. Hence English speakers need to remember this unique aspect about Arabic verbs as it is not present in their language.
Learners who are familiar with a few foreign languages, often find similar and recognizable vocabulary in a new language. Words that have these kind of similarities are called cognates. When it comes to English and Arabic, they are not related historically. For this reason there is no related vocabulary between these languages. The only exception is borrowed loan words. For instance in Arabic you can find recognizable vocabulary like shibsi (chips) or teliifoon (telephone). Hence when English speakers begin to study Arabic, their need to learn new vocabulary from scratch.
What Makes Learning Arabic Easy?
When compared with most European languages, Arabic grammar is way simpler. You will find just two verb tenses and also verbs are regular in conjugation. Neuter gender is absent in Arabic, so you will only need to use two of them. When it comes to nouns, there are three of them – nominative, genitive, and accusative.
In comparison to Chinese or Japanese, Arabic writing can be considered as quite easy. The alphabet is different from Latin, but still there are just 28 letters in it. It sounds way easier than thousands of unique characters. What most learners find challenging is that writing in Arabic is done from right to left (instead of left-right). Hence English speakers need some time to get used to this.
Arabic reading can be considered both easy and difficult. Once you will learn the alphabet, you will be able to read without too much trouble. As it is phonetically written language, you will find words spelled the same way as they sound. Syllables in Arabic are also stressed equally, so you will not need to learn any intonations. The difficult part about reading is that the alphabet doesn’t have much vowels and it mostly consists of consonants. For instance, instead of a word ‘difficult‘, you would likely come across to something similar like ‘dffclt‘ in Arabic. Hence reading and pronouncing Arabic words is not easy for complete beginners.
One aspect of Arabic language makes learning its vocabulary significantly easier. Quite a lot of words in this foreign language have 2-4 letter stems. What it means is that vocabulary related in meaning might have same letter roots. One possible example of this could be words kitaab (book), maktab (office), kaatib (writer) and kataba (he wrote). As you can see all these words are related in their meaning and they share the same stems. In the beginning this feature of Arabic might be not so evident. Nevertheless after advancing more in Arabic, learners are likely to notice stems and even be able to guess the meaning of new vocabulary.
Similarities With Other Foreign Languages.
Arabic is a Semitic language. Due to this there are quite a lot of similarities with Hebrew and Aramaic languages. Consequently learners who are familiar with these languages would be able to learn Arabic way easier. The same would apply to Arabic students who intent to study one of Semitic languages.
Arabic shares the same alphabet with languages such as Urdu, Persian and Kurdish. These means that Arabic students would be able to read in these mentioned foreign languages. Of course it doesn’t necessary mean they would be able to understand everything.