Arabic is well known to be one of the more difficult languages you can learn, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Despite the challenges facing many Arabic students – like learning a new script, grappling with different dialects, and struggling to find the opportunity to practice – becoming confident and even fluent in Arabic is 100% achievable.
Yet so many Arabic students waste time, energy and money making simple and easily avoidable mistakes, sometimes leading them to give up on the language altogether. Whether you’re just starting out on your Arabic journey or you’re somewhere down the line struggling to keep going, here are 10 mistakes to avoid so you can get on your way to speaking Arabic like a local!
1. Not getting clear on WHY you’re learning
This is possibly the most important mistake to avoid, and yet it’s a trap that SO many people fall into. Achieving a high level of Arabic requires dedication, commitment, perseverance and sheer will. If you’re not absolutely clear on what’s driving you, you’ll inevitably fall off the wagon when things get hard.
Take time to get crystal clear on what’s motivating you to learn. It might be a lifelong desire to visit a particular Arabic-speaking country, or it could be because your work relates to the Middle East so learning Arabic will benefit your career. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to discovering your reason for learning – it’s inherently personal and unique to you, and truly connecting to it will give you the sense of purpose you need to keep going when things get tough.
2. Setting unachievable goals
Another thing that trips many Arabic learners up is setting goals that are unrealistic or unachievable. Think very carefully about the time, energy and resources you have at your disposal before committing to something you may not be able to achieve. Now we’re not saying you shouldn’t be ambitious, but you’re way more likely to succeed – and maybe even exceed your expectations – if you’re realistic and SMART about your goals.
For more on how effective goal-setting can help you learn Arabic, check out our step-by-step guide here.
3. Choosing the wrong dialect
One of the biggest frustrations about learning Arabic is that local dialects differ widely across the region. It’s also important to understand the differences between spoken Arabic – which can vary greatly from place to place – and Modern Standard Arabic, also known as MSA or fusha, which is found in written texts, the media and the Qur’an. You’ll need to go back to number 1 on this list and make sure you’re absolutely clear on WHY you’re learning in order to ensure you choose the right variety of Arabic for you.
For example, if you don’t know exactly where in the region you want to focus, you may want to start learning MSA. This will give you the foundations of written Arabic and grammar, and you can then focus on a specific dialect further down the line. However, if you’re planning on moving to a particular country in the region and you want to be able to converse with the locals, you may want to skip straight to learning to speak and understand the local Arabic dialect.
4. Spending a fortune on classes and not making the most of free resources
Never before have we had so many resources – many of them FREE – at our disposal to help us learn languages, and Arabic is no exception! Now we’re not saying you shouldn’t hire a tutor or enrol in a course if you can afford it. In fact, we highly recommend having lessons if you can, at least to begin with, but don’t underestimate what you can achieve at home (or anywhere for that matter!) without paying a penny.
In 2020, anyone with access to a laptop or smartphone can use modern technology to stay immersed in the Arabic language every day – whether it be a daily dose of a language learning app, listening to Arabic music, or following Arab influencers on Instagram. If you’re learning at home, there are literally dozens of things you can do to keep improving your Arabic skills, even without a teacher! And if you are taking classes, harnessing all of the resources and opportunities the internet has to offer is a great way to accelerate your learning and ensure you’re getting bang for your buck.
5. Studying abroad – in the wrong place
Studying Arabic in the Middle East – sounds like the best way to learn, right? Yes, HOWEVER, if you pick the wrong place to study, you may not end up improving as much as you hope. First off, make sure that you’re clear on whether you’re learning Modern Standard Arabic or a local dialect (see mistake number 3!), as the use of each will vary widely across the region.
Second, bear in mind that English and other European languages like French and Spanish are widely spoken in some Arab countries, which may affect where you decide to go if you’re looking for truly immersive experience. For example, most people in the Gulf speak English and a large proportion of the populations of Lebanon and Morocco speak French. This can be detrimental to your Arabic, particularly if you’re living with other students who speak your native language.
For more on where to study in the region, including variations in local dialects, check out our guides on the best cities to study Arabic in the Middle East.
6. Approaching Arabic like a European language
So you speak French, Spanish, German, Italian… Learning another one should be a doddle, right? Not necessarily. The grammatical structure and vocabulary of the Arabic language is very different to most other languages, including European ones. So while you might find it easier to learn Spanish if you already speak French, the same rule does not apply for Arabic.
In fact, if you approach learning Arabic with European languages in mind, this can actually confuse you even more and be an impediment to your learning, particularly when it comes to grammar. On the flip side, if you’ve always struggled with languages or if you’ve never learned a foreign language at all, you might find this works to your advantage – you won’t be trying to draw comparisons with other languages or find grammar rules that don’t exist! The best way to approach learning Arabic is to keep an open mind.
7. Underestimating the power of reading
This might sound like an obvious one, but reading really is the best way to learn Arabic. Yes, we are spoiled for choice with all of the tools and resources we have available to us – YouTube channels, vocabulary apps, Facebook groups – but there is nothing more powerful (or simple) than reading in Arabic to level up your skills. Reading exposes you to common phrases and grammatical structures, gets you comfortable with the Arabic script, and helps you understand new vocabulary in context. Reading aloud is also a wonderful way to improve your speaking skills if you don’t have many opportunities to practice.
If you do one thing consistently to improve your Arabic, read something – anything! – in Arabic every day. It could be a chapter of a book, a news article, or even just a couple of sentences! It will make more of a difference than you think.
8. Not having a vocabulary strategy
You learn a new word in Arabic; You write it in your journal; It disappears into the void never to be seen again. A month later you see the word again; Rinse; Repeat. We’ve ALL been there – and we get it, vocabulary can be one of the most intimidating parts of learning a new language because, well, there are just SO. MANY. WORDS. But learning Arabic vocabulary doesn’t have to be this hard – all you need is a clear, consistent strategy that works for you.
Having a vocab diary is great, but only if you use it right. Make sure you review new words at least 5 times (yes, that’s right, 5!) over a period of days to ensure they actually stick in your mind over time. Test yourself by translating new vocabulary both from English (or your native language) into Arabic, and vice versa. Practice reading new words aloud and writing them too (if you can) to help them stick. It can also be helpful to set yourself a target of a certain number of new words to learn every week. Get clear on what your strategy is and stick to it!
9. Not being consistent
Like any other skill, in order to make consistent progress with Arabic it’s important to build a habit around it. This doesn’t mean you need to spend hours and hours every day learning – in fact it’s arguably much better to spend 10 minutes a day reading in Arabic or learning some new vocabulary than to spend an hour a week doing it all in one go.
If you build it into your daily routine, you’ll familiarise yourself with the language more quickly by keeping it fresh in your mind instead of forgetting everything and having to relearn it all week to week! It may sound cliché, but when it comes to learning a language – and particularly a difficult one like Arabic – consistency really is key.
10. Going it alone
Today more than ever, it’s so easy to connect with other language learners in your geographical area and around the world using social media and the internet – there’s no need to go it alone! If you’re taking a class or course, why not invite a friend or classmate for a coffee (or Zoom) date to practice speaking? Or if you’re teaching yourself, you could join a Facebook group for Arabic students to connect with people who are in the same boat. It really is that easy to find people who are on this journey with you.
And it doesn’t even matter if you and your study buddy are at different levels: what’s important is that you have somebody to hold you accountable and help you stick to your goals. In fact, even someone who’s miles ahead of you on their Arabic journey can be incredibly helpful to have around – they’ll likely be able to point you in the direction of useful resources and will remind you what’s possible if you just keep going!
We hope this post has made you feel more confident about learning Arabic now you know the fundamental mistakes and pitfalls to avoid. We’d love to know, what have been your biggest struggles with learning the language so far, and what’s helped you the most to overcome them? Leave us a comment below and let us know!
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