Introduction to Arabic for the Non Arabic Speaker
How hard is Arabic? That depends on a lot of things, like what your native language is; for example, if you're a Hebrew speaker, Arabic will be easier for you than it would be if you were a native speaker of Spanish. But for native English speakers, Arabic is objectively a difficult langauge, largely because it's just so different from English. The State Department's Foreign Service Insitute ranks it as a "category 3" language ("exceptionally difficult for native English speakers"), along with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Depending on your native language, how much experience you have with learning languages, and so forth, Arabic can definitely be a difficult language. But the important thing is motivation -- if you really want to learn it and are willing to work at it, you can do it. You have to invest a lot more time and effort into learning Arabic than you would with Indo-European languages, so many people give up early. But like I said, if you have the desire to learn, that'll make everything else easier.
The Arabic alphabet does seem intimidating at first -- all those squiggles, and it goes from right to left! And then there are all those letters like ح ,ج, and خ that are the same except for the dots. But if you just sit down, focus, and go through it systematically, it's easy to learn in just a few days. (And you can comfort yourself with the fact that at least Arabic does have an alphabet, unlike, say, Chinese!) Pronunciation can be difficult for a native English speaker -- letters like ع ,ح, and غ may be hard to produce at first. But that sort of stuff will get easier with practice.
What complicates things a bit is the fact that short vowels are usually not indicated in writing outside of the Qur'an and children's books. This is makes things pretty difficult when you're just starting out and have no way of knowing, just from unvoweled text, the correct pronunciation for words you're unfamiliar with. For example, looking at the word فلفل, you would see "f-l-f-l" and not know what vowels come in between those letters. The good news is, this gets easier with time and practice. And if you memorize the verb forms (more on them below), that really helps in figuring out the correct pronunciations for lots of words.
As far as vocabulary goes, there are only a tiny number of cognates, which does make it harder to pick up a newspaper and immediately recognize words (as you could with, say, French). Also, the vocabulary is very rich; there are many synonyms and words with similar general meanings but different usages/connotations. The really hard part of Arabic is the grammar -- it's systematic but complex, and the case endings can be difficult to handle, particularly if you're not already used to a language like Russian or Latin. Also, one irritating thing is the broken plurals; while some nouns take regular plurals, many have completely irregular plurals. However, there are patterns of broken plurals, and if you memorize enough words with their plurals, you can eventually internalize the patterns just through the practice, and be able to guess plurals intuitively.
Stylistically Arabic is also complicated; it's quite common for sentences to go on for a paragraph, so that by the time you reach the end you have to remind yourself what the original subject of the sentence was! The Arabic writing style is also a lot more "flowery" than the way English is usually written. So writing in Arabic is quite different from writing in English, and it takes a lot of practice to write in a smooth, natural style.
And then there's the diglossia issue: the divide between the standard Arabic that's written and the Arabic people actually speak, which varies from place to place. You can think of the different dialects in terms of American, British, and Australian English, albeit with more differences. You can read more on the dialects below.
Any tips on learning Arabic?
I'll focus on giving advice about learning Arabic specifically -- there's plenty out there about language-learning in general. First of all, if you want to learn the alphabet, focus on learning it from the beginning and try and have it down as quickly as you can, without starting to rely on transliteration. Not only is transliteration inexact (although textbooks should use a more systematic system, if they use transliteration at all), it can be a crutch if you use it too much; learning the alphabet from the very start is much better.
From the very beginning, memorize the plural for every noun. Don't memorize a noun without its plural! You don't want to end up a few months or years later in a conversation where there's an embarrassing pause while you realize you don't know the plural for some really basic word, like "uncle." Just pair each noun with its plural in your mind, so when you think of the singular you automatically think of the plural, and vice versa.
Also memorize every verb along with any preposition that goes with it. As with any foreign language, a lot of the time Arabic uses prepositions where English doesn't, or uses different prepositions from the one we'd use in English. And it's important to remember prepositions, because they can change the meaning of a verb completely. For example, حذر means "to be careful," and حذر من means "to warn."
Don't get sloppy with the second short vowel in the imperfect of form 1 verbs. Since it's irregular, you have to look it up in the dictionary and then memorize it. Do it for every form 1 verb. You derive stuff like commands and the future from the imperfect conjugations of verbs, so if you don't know the right pronunciation for some verb, you won't be able to come up with the right command for it. Also memorize the maSdar for every verb, focusing on the unpredicatable form 1 maSdars.
And memorize the verb forms as soon as you can. It does come in very useful, and if you really focus on learning them, it's not hard to do. Just get a whiteboard and write out form 1 again and again until you know it, then add form 2 and write both forms 1 and 2 until you have them both down, then add form 3, and so forth.
Basically, make sure you establish a strong foundation as you start learning Arabic so you don't have to go back later to correct mistakes and fill in the gaps in your knowledge. As with any language, what you learn as you go along builds on what you've learned before, so make sure you have a strong base from the very start.
What is the best place to study Arabic?
This is another question there's no single "right answer" for. It depends on your goals, what dialect you're learning (if you're learning a dialect at all), etc. etc. However, I can personally strongly recommend the AUC's Arabic Language Institute. The program is well-established and organized, with excellent teachers, and offers a wide range of options -- you can focus on standard Arabic or learn both fuSHa and Egyptian 3ammiyya, and at the higher levels there are electives. The ALI also hosts the CASA (Center for Arabic Study Abroad) program, which is probably the most prestigious Arabic program (open to advanced students only, and it's also recently established another branch in Damascus). And in general Egypt, especially Cairo, has many Arabic programs to pick from (if you want something a bit cheaper than the AUC, I've heard Kalimat is good, but if you're in school you probably won't get credit hours from it). However, most young upper-middle class Egyptians speak English, which can impede the learning process, especially since even people who don't speak much English still want to practice it.
That's a problem in many major cities like Cairo, Amman, Beirut, and so on. But I've heard that Syria is a great place to go for Arabic study; Damascus is less Westernized than other Arab capitals, the people are friendly, and it's easier to get practice talking to them in Arabic. Damascus University has an Arabic Language Center that mainly focuses on standard Arabic (apparently it's not too hard to get tutors to help pick up the local dialect).
Of course, in Lebanon there's the AUB (which focuses on fuSHa) and the LAU (which also focuses on MSA but includes the Lebanese dialect in its curriculum). However, I don't know too much about either program. Ditto for the ALIF program in Fez and Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.
It's worth mentioning the Middlebury intensive summer Arabic program in the U.S., which is unique because it requires all students to sign a pledge promising to use only Arabic 24/7 the whole summer. I've only heard good things about this program; if you do apply, though, do it well in advance before space runs out!
Those are the main programs I know of, but here's an excellent list of intensive Arabic programs in the U.S. and Middle East that should give you lots of ideas on different possible choices.
What are some good books in Arabic I could read to practice?
The books I'm listing are mainly modern literature, particularly novels and some short stories, but if you want a good overview of Arabic literature, including many different time periods and forms of literature, I recommend Bassam K. Frangieh's Anthology of Arabic Literature, Culture, and Thought from Pre-Islamic Times to the Present. Obviously it's not totally comprehensive, as that would be impossible, but it's a good introduction to Arabic literature. And it's designed for the Arabic learner, as each selection is followed by a list of vocabulary.
Specific novels: Authors in general: الزيني بركات (جمال الغيطاني) أليفة رفعت ذات, اللجنة (صنع الله ابراهيم) سلوى بكر عمارة يعقوبيان (علاء الأسواني) ايميلي نصرالله الصبار (سحر خليفة) ابراهيم الكوني باب الشمس, يالو (إلياس خوري) ادوار الخراط مدن الملح (عبد الرحمن منيف) نجيب محفوظ ذاكرة الجسد (أحلام مستغاني) يوسف ادريس الخبز الحافي (محمد شكري) احسان عبد القدوس مزامير من ورق (نداء أبو علي) غسان كنفاني وكالة عطية (خيري شلبي)
Another note: if you're looking for literature in colloquial Arabic, you won't find much. Your best bet is reading plays, as those are all written in dialect. You could try Madraset el-Mušaaġibiin by Ali Salem, a very well-known play that starred famous actors like Adel Imam and Ahmed Zaki at the beginning of their careers. Some novels do include dialogue in 3ammiyya, like those of Ihsan Abdel Quddous and Yusuf Idris. I only know of one novel entirely written in 3ammiyya (قنطرة الذي كفر - محمد مصطفى مشرفة). As for poetry, you could try someone like Ahmed Fu'ad Negm. I want to learn Arabic on my own. What are the best textbooks to use?
First of all, I'll just say that learning Arabic, especially starting out with it, is difficult enough in a class environment; if you're learning on your own, you should do your best to find a tutor or at least a native speaker who can help you out occasionally. For teaching yourself the alphabet, there's Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud al-Batal, and Abbas al-Tonsi, which also teaches some basic vocabulary, and The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read and Write It. After you have the alphabet down, there are a number of textbook options. The most frequently used textbook in U.S. Arabic classes is Al-Kitaab fi Ta'allum al-'Arabiyya, by Brustad et al. The Al-Kitaab program is very well-developed, and the books all include CDs with video and audio clips. However, many people complain about the organization of the books; complaints I've seen include the somewhat random grammar coverage, and the randomness of vocabulary (and the fact that words taught at the beginning are often not the most basic, useful words many people would like to know). But compared with the other books out there, it's pretty user-friendly and probably one of the best options for learning Arabic outside of a class setting.
Peter Abboud's Elementary Modern Standard Arabic is another widely-used textbook. From what I understand, its coverage of grammar is very thorough (albeit dry), but it's very lacking in vocabulary and would be difficult for a beginner to use without a teacher's guidance. I would definitely not recommend the textbook I used when starting out with Arabic, Al-Kitaab al-Asaasi by El-Said Mohamed Badawi, unless you're already at an intermediate or advanced level. The book is well-organized and is pretty decent, but it is written entirely in Arabic, and would be virtually impossible for a beginner to get through outside of a class environment.
For the beginning student, after you're learned the alphabet and are looking for other books to supplement Al-Kitaab or whatever textbook you've chosen, Your First 100 Words in Arabic can help you start learning vocabulary. Easy Arabic Grammar is a good choice to learn the basics of Arabic grammar; it's not totally comprehensive, but it gives a relatively engaging and easy to understand framework of Arabic grammar.
If you're at an intermediate high/advanced level and are looking for a reference grammar, there are quite a few options. It seems to me that Karin Ryding's A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic would be a good place to start; it's clear and concise, but still quite thorough (and relatively cheap too). Haywood's A New Arabic Grammar of the Written Language is supposedly very stilted and dry, but an excellent reference with clear, thorough explanations of grammar. Modern Written Arabic: A Comprehensive Grammar by Adrian Gully, unlike Haywood, focuses on modern standard Arabic without including the classical variety, and is also very thorough (albeit littered with typos). Wright's A Grammar of the Arabic Language is a standard work, but covers classical Arabic, so if you want to just focus on MSA, Haywood might be better. If you're at an advanced level and want to work on your writing, there are several books that can help. The Connectors in Modern Standard Arabic by Nariman Naili al-Warraki et al. is an excellent way to learn all those pesky connectors (you know, أما, فـ, لذلك, and so on) so you can make your writing flow better. And it will help your overall understanding of Arabic sentences and how they fit together. Mahdi Alosh's Using Arabic: A Guide to Contemporary Usage covers both vocabulary and grammar from a practical point of view, and is well worth checking out. Waheed Samy's Al-Kitaba wa-l-Uslub is a style guide that can help your writing stylistically, but since it's entirely in Arabic, it's for the advanced student only. And if you're overwhelmed by Arabic's multitude of synonyms, Using Arabic Synonyms by Dilworth Parkinson will definitely come in useful. It lists synonyms in groups along with several sentences using each word so you can see the context the words are used in. If you're working on Arabic used in the news media, Media Arabic Volume One by Nariman Naili Al-Warraki et al. is a good place to start; it has little excerpts from various articles (all of them pretty dry), along with vocabulary used in the excerpts. If you supplant it with your own reading, it's pretty helpful.
For Egyptian Arabic, the best books I've come across are Lonely Planet's Egyptian Arabic Phrasebook, and A Comprehensive Study of Egyptian Arabic by Ernest T. Abdel-Massih et al. I know it seems ridiculous to recommend a travel phrasebook, but it really is an excellent little book, and includes a large amount of useful vocabulary, not limited to just making hotel reservations and so forth. It also includes a decent amount of well laid out, clearly explained grammar info (although perhaps not enough to use by itself; some knowledge of MSA would help). And it has everything in both Arabic script and English transliteration (although I've noticed that sometimes what's written in Arabic is standard, while the transliteration is colloquial Arabic).
A Comprehensive Study of Egyptian Arabic is perfect if you're at an intermediate or advanced level. Volume One consists of passages dealing with cultural topics (which would perhaps be more useful in a class setting, but is still good). Volume Two is a compilation of many, many proverbs (arranged thematically) and idioms, and is a really useful way to learn expressions that make your speech sound more "native." Volume Three is a grammar book, with detailed explanations of many aspects of Egyptian Arabic grammar, and Volume Four is a great lexicon, with many vocabulary lists arranged by theme (the first half of the book is Arabic-English, the second half is English-Arabic). You can order these books directly from the University of Michigan press, which is what I did (it seems to be impossible to find them elsewhere, although you could try your local university library).
The Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary is without a doubt essential for any serious student of Arabic. It's arranged by root instead of alphabetically, which can take a while to get used to, but once you get used to the system, it's quite user-friendly, and it makes it even more useful to have all the words from a single root together. For Egyptian Arabic, the Martin Hinds dictionary is excellent; also arranged by root, it includes sample sentences, proverbs, and so on to demonstrate usage of the words, which is really, really helpful. It's pricey but worth every penny.
And finally, if you work through T.F. Mitchell's Writing Arabic: A Practical Introduction to Ruq'ah Script, you should end up with handwriting that's at least a decent facsimile of native speakers' writing. Most Arabic students start off writing in the naskh style, which is simple and easy to read but looks sort of like elementary school kids' print writing to Arabs. The ruq3a script is what's used in native speakers' everyday handwriting, so it's worthwhile to try and write like that if you can.
The Arabic Language
What's the root system?
Most Arabic words are derived from a three-letter root that connotes a general meaning. (There are some four-letter roots, but they're quite rare.) The usual example given is d-r-s, which has to do with studying. So the form 1 verb درس darasa means "to study," while the form 2 verb درّس darrasa means "to teach"; درس dars means "lesson," مدرسة madrasa means "school," and مدرّس mudarris means "teacher." And so forth; you can derive tons of words with related meanings from a single root. It's really quite helpful; if you come across an unfamiliar word in an article but recognize the root, you can use that knowledge to make a good guess at the meaning.
What are the verb forms?
Every trilateral Arabic root can (theoretically) be transformed into one of fifteen possible verb forms (أوزان awzaan). (Forms 11 through 15 are very rare, so people usually just focus on forms 1 through 10, although 9 is also pretty rare). Each form has a basic meaning associated with the general meaning of the root being used. Here's a more detailed breakdown, using فعل (fa3ala, to do) as an example (this is all taken from old handouts I got at the AUC, so it's not my original work or anything):
Form 1 - فعل (fa3ala) Expresses the general verbal meaning of the root in question خ ر ج (x-r-j) - leaving, departing خرج (xaraja) - to leave, go out ج م ع (j-m-3) - joining, uniting جمع (jama3a) - to gather, collect ع م ل (3-m-l) - doing, making عمل (3amala) - to work, to do, to make ق ط ع (q-T-3) - cutting قطع (qaTa3a) - to cut, cut off ب ع د (b-3-d) - separating, distance بعد (ba3ada) - to be far fromForm 2 - فعّل (fa33ala) Built on form 1 by doubling the middle radical of the form 1 verb (adding a shadda to it) Often is a causative version of the form 1 verb - Ex. خرج (xaraja) means "to go out"; خرّج (xarraja) means "to make (s.o.) go out; to graduate (s.o.) Often an intensive version of the form 1 verb (especially if the form 1 verb is transitive) - Ex. جمع (jama3a) means "to collect, gather"; جمّع (jamma3a) means "to amass, to accummulate" Form 3 - فاعل (faa3ala) Built on form 1 by adding an alif between the first and second radicals of the form 1 verb Usually gives an associative meaning to the form 1 verb; describes someone doing the act in question to or with someone else - Ex. عمل (3amala) means "to work"; عامل (3aamala) means "to treat or deal with (s.o.)" Form 4 - أفعل (af3ala) Built on form 1 by prefixing an alif to the form 1 verb and putting a sukuun over the first radical Similar to form 2 in that it is usually a causative version of the form 1 verb - Ex. خرج (xaraja) means "to go out"; خرّج (xarraja) means "to graduate (s.o.)"; أخرج (axraja) means "to expel, to evict; to produce" Form 5 - تفعّل (tafa33ala) Built on form 2 by adding the prefix تـ to the form 2 verb Often a reflexive version of the form 2 verb - Ex. خرّج (xarraja) means "to graduate (s.o.)"; تخرج (taxarraja) means "to graduate" (Note: form 5 is usually intransitive) Sometimes an intensive version of a form 1 verb - Ex. جمع (jama3a) means "to collect, gather"; تجمّع (tajamma3a) means "to congregate, to flock together" Form 6 - تفاعل (tafaa3ala) Built on form 3 by adding the prefix تـ to the form 3 verb Usually a reflexive version of the form 3 verb - Ex. عامل (3aamala) means "to treat or deal with (s.o.)"; تعامل (ta3aamala) means "to deal with each other" (Form 6 is usually intransitive) Form 7 - انفعل (infa3ala) Built on form 1 by adding the prefix انـ to the form 1 verb Usually a reflexive and/or passive version of the form 1 verb - Ex. قطع (qaTa3a) means "to cut, to cut off"; انقطع (inqaTa3a) means "to be cut off (from); to abstain (from)" Form 8 - افتعل (ifta3ala) Built on form 1 by adding the prefix ا to the form 1 verb and placing a sukuun must be placed over its first radical Often a reflexive version of the form 1 verb - Ex. جمع (jama3a) means "to collect, gather"; اجتمع (ijtama3a) means "to meet; to agree (on)" Sometimes has a specially derived meaning relative to a form 1 verb - Ex. بعد (ba3ada) means "to be far away"; ابتعد (ibta3ada) means "to avoid" Form 9 - افعلّ (if3alla) Built on form 1 by adding the prefix ا to the form 1 verb, placing a sukuun over its first radical, and adding a shadda to the last radical Relates to colors - Ex. ح م ر (H-m-r) relates to "redness"; احمرّ (iHmarra) means "to become or turn red" Form 10 - استفعل (istaf3ala) Built on form 1 by adding the prefix استـ to the form 1 verb and inserting a ت between the first and second radicals; a sukuun must be placed over the first radical Often a considerative version of the form 1 verb; means "to consider or to deem someone to have the quality" of the form 1 verb in question - Ex. بعد (ba3ada) means "to be far away"; استبعد (istab3ada) means "to consider s.o. or s.t. remote or unlikely" Often a requestive version of a form 1 verb; means "to request or to seek something" for oneself - عمل (3amala) means "to make; to do"; استعمل (ista3mala) means "to use, to put into operation" (that is, to seek to make something work for oneself)
And here's a table of all the verb forms, including their perfect and imperfect conjugations (الماضي والمضارع), active and passive participles (اسم الفاعل واسم المفعول), and verbal nouns (المصدر). Because they're all regular and predictable (with the exception of form 1 - the second vowel in the imperfect and perfect conjugations, and the verbal noun), if you just memorize them, you'll know them for almost every verb there is. So if you're learning Arabic, I suggest you memorize all the verb forms along with their associated meanings as soon as you can; it'll really come in handy.
المصدر اسم المفعول اسم الفاعل المضارع الماضي ؟ مَفْعُول فاعِل يَفْعلُ فَعلَ 1 تَفْعِيل مُفَعَّل مُفَعِّل يُفَعِّلُ فَعَّلَ 2 مُفاعَلَة or فِعال مُفاعَل مُفاعِل يُفاعِلُ فاعَلَ 3 إفْعال مُفْعَل مُفْعِل يُفْعِلُ أفْعَلَ 4 تَفَعُّل مُتَفَعَّل مُتَفَعِّل يَتَفَعَّلُ تَفَعَّلَ 5 تَفاعُل مُتَفاعَل مُتَفاعِل يَتَفاعَلُ تَفاعَلَ 6 اِنْفِعال مُنْفَعَل مُنْفَعِل يَنْفَعِلُ اِنْفَعَلَ 7 اِفْتِعال مُفْتَعَل مُفْتَعِل يَفْتَعِلُ اِفْتَعَلَ 8 اِفْعِلال - مُفْعَلّ يَفْعَلُّ اِفْعَلَّ 9 اِسْتِفْعال مُسْتَفْعَل مُسْتَفْعِل يَسْتَفْعِلُ اِسْتَفْعَلَ 10
Are broken plurals completely unpredictable? Do they have any patterns?
First of all, an explanation of broken plurals for those who don't know: the majority of masculine nouns in Arabic have irregular plurals. Although there is a regular way to form plurals (adding ـون), most masculine nouns don't fall under this category. A significant number of feminine nouns don't either (the regular feminine plural ending is ـات). So many nouns have plurals that seem completely random at first (the plural of كتاب kitaab is كتب kutub; the plural of ولد walad is أولاد awlaad).
But broken plurals do indeed have patterns; you can see a list here. I don't really recommend memorizing the list, though; just memorize every plural for every noun, and you'll learn them intuitively and eventually be able to guess at the plurals of new nouns you learn.
How similar is Arabic to Persian? Persian does use the same alphabet, with a few additions and modifications (and significant pronunciation differences), and it has a good amount of Arabic loan words (about 30 to 50 percent of the Persian lexicon is derived from Arabic, although a lot of words have changed their meanings from the Arabic original). But since Arabic is an Afro-Asiatic language and Persian is an Indo-European language (like English), they are fundamentally different languages.
It would probably be safe to say that for a native English speaker, Persian would be easier to learn than Arabic. It has no grammatical gender, case endings, or noun-adjective agreement. It doesn't have a root system like Arabic, instead using affixation (prefixes and suffixes) in a similar way to English. There are no verb forms either, but verbs in Persian do present their own set of complications.
Persian uses the same script as Arabic, including all 28 Arabic letters plus four more. The emphatic consonants are used only in Arabic loanwords, and none are pronounced like they are in Arabic. For instance, the ع is pronounced like an ا, and ض, ظ, ذ, and ز are all pronounced "z" like ز. The letters ق and غ are both pronounced "gh," and و is pronounced "v." But knowing the correct vowels for Arabic words will definitely help you know how to pronounce the corresponding loanwords in Persian. For more details on the relationship between Arabic and Persian, check out this great article.
So what's all this about standard Arabic and the dialects? If I study standard Arabic, how much will it help me in the Middle East?
Standard Arabic (الفصحى al-fuSHa) is what is usually taught in Western universities. It's the formal variety used in the news media, literature and formal writing in general, and official occasions. If you mainly want to do research in Arabic, or understand Al-Jazeera, Al-Ahram, and Naguib Mahfouz books, standard Arabic is what you need to learn. But Arabs don't speak standard Arabic in their daily lives, nor is it anyone's native language. Arabs grow up speaking their own dialects and start to learn fuSHa only once they enter school, although they develop a passive understanding of it prior to that time via the media.
And after finishing their education, many Arabs lose a great deal of their active knowledge of fuSHa, particularly the details of grammar rules. They may still be able to feel out the correct grammar by intuition, but they won't be able to give an explanation of why it's correct. Of course this doesn't go for everyone, but I think it's safe to say it's true for most people who aren't particularly interested in the Arabic language -- and most people aren't really, just as the majority of native English speakers are not particularly interested in the finer points of the language. Outside of formal contexts in general, Arabs use their own dialects, which all diverge from standard Arabic in different ways. Colloquial Arabic (العامية al-3ammiyya) is used in songs, TV shows (musalsalaat) and talk shows, movies, and some literature (plays, a small amount of poetry, and some novels which include dialogue in 3ammiyya). Many Arabs don't consider 3ammiyya to be "real" Arabic, and view it as a low kind of slang, not a valid form of Arabic. Others, like Egyptian and Lebanese nationalists who reject an Arab identity, have tried to promote their local dialects while denigrating standard Arabic as outdated. There are many interesting socio-political aspects to the Arabic diglossia issue (diglossia refers to the divide between standard and colloquial Arabic).
The Arabic dialects can be classified into four categories: Maghrebi (spoken in Northern African countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), Egyptian, Levantine (spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan), and Gulf/Khaliiji (spoken in the Persian Gulf; Yemeni Arabic is sufficiently different from the other dialects spoken in the Gulf that it can be classified on its own, though). In each of these regions are various local sub-dialects (for example, in Egypt there's the Cairo, Alexandria, Upper Egypt, etc. dialects), but nevertheless they share enough common characteristics that they can be classified in one category, and people from different parts of the same region will have little trouble understanding each other.
If you only know standard Arabic and have no knowledge of any of the dialects, you can go to the Middle East and be understood when you speak to people (unless they're very, very uneducated), but you probably won't understand a whole lot when they speak to you. Among the more educated segment of the population, people generally can speak in fuSHa, but it feels unnatural and strange to them. They may use a more "elevated" dialect, mixing in some fuSHa with their dialect, but the base of what they speak is still colloquial. As for more uneducated people, they would have a lot more difficulty speaking in fuSHa.
Basically, if you only know fuSHa, you'll miss out on a huge part of Arab culture. You'll be unable to interact naturally with people (even if you get people to talk to you in fuSHa, it's not the norm for them), and you won't be able to enjoy any aspects of popular culture like music, TV (aside from news broadcasts etc.), or movies. Of course, if you only know 3ammiyya, you'll be shut out from a whole other chunk of Arab culture: literature and the media. That's why it's really best to learn both standard Arabic and a dialect. But if you don't have the time, consider your goals and choose which variety of Arabic to learn based on what you want to do with Arabic. If you want to travel in the Middle East, talk with Arab family or friends, and enjoy aspects of popular culture like movies, then focus on colloquial Arabic. If you're interested in Arabic for research purposes or want to focus on literature or the news media, learn standard Arabic.
Which dialect should I learn?
That really depends. If you have a special interest in a particular part of the Arab world, or if you have friends or family from a certain area, go ahead and learn that dialect -- although if you're interested in, say, Morocco or Algeria, it might be better to think twice! Unless you modify your speech significantly, no one will understand you outside the Maghreb. If you want to learn 3ammiyya but have no real leaning towards one variety or another, I would recommend Egyptian or Levantine Arabic. Egyptian is the most widely understood dialect, thanks to the well-established music, TV, and film industry there; Egyptian media is popular enough that no matter where you go in the Arab world, you'll keep hearing Egyptian Arabic on TV and the radio. If you learn Egyptian Arabic, people all over the Arab world will be able to understand you easily.
Levantine Arabic is probably the next most widely understood dialect after Egyptian. Thanks to the popularity of Lebanese music, Syrian musalsalaat, and so on, the Levantine dialect is pretty well-understood in the Arab world. Gulf Arabic is not very widely understood outside the Khaliij, though, and as for Maghrebi Arabic, forget about it! Of course native speakers of Maghrebi Arabic can make themselves understood in the Mashriq (eastern part of the Arab world) by modifying their speech, but that's more difficult for a foreigner to do, so if I were picking a dialect, I would go with one that's easily understood throughout the Arab world like Egyptian or Levantine.
How mutually intelligible are the dialects?
As I've said above, Maghrebi Arabic is definitely the hardest to understand for speakers of other dialects, since it's diverged from fuSHa so much (due to its Berber and French influences). But native speakers usually don't have much trouble with different dialects, since they generally modify their speech and speak in a more standardized version of their dialect when interacting with Arabs from different regions. Sometimes speakers of dialects that aren't widely understood will even switch to Egyptian Arabic and use that so people will understand them. (While people may incorporate fuSHa elements into their speech, they usually don't speak entirely in fuSHa; it would be more natural to use a dialect that may not be their own, like Egyptian, rather than use just standard Arabic.)
If you learn one dialect well and also have a good knowledge of standard Arabic, switching to another dialect shouldn't be too hard. For one thing, the dialects share a number of common characteristics across the board that will help you make sense of them. And if you have a good knowledge of fuSHa vocabulary, that'll help too, since a number of the different words used in different dialects come from fuSHa and just take on slightly different meanings. (For example, if you know that the word مناخير means "nostrils" in fuSHa, it won't be too hard to guess that in Egyptian Arabic it means "nose.") There may be a period of adjustment at first while you get used to the different pronunciation, rhythms of speech, vocabulary, and so on, but it won't be impossible by any means, and it gets easier with practice.
Which dialect is closest to standard Arabic?
None of them! Lots of Arabs say that their dialect is the closest to fuSHa, but the truth is that they've all diverged from standard Arabic in one way or another. One dialect may be more "standard" than another in some way, but then it will also be less standard in some other aspect, and so forth. It is safe to say, though, that Maghrebi Arabic is the farthest from fuSHa.
What are some of the characteristics of the different dialects?
Speaking generally, and mostly confining my remarks to Egyptian and Levantine Arabic (since those are the only two I have any real knowledge of):
Pronunciation: The ق (qaaf) is often pronounced as a glottal stop in many urban dialects, as a hard G in many parts of the Gulf and rural and Bedouin dialects, and as a K in some rural areas of Palestine. The ك (kaaf) is sometimes pronounced as a "ch" in parts of Iraq, rural Palestine, and the Gulf. In the Levant, the ta marbuuTa is often pronounced "-e" (Palestine/Jordan) or "-i" (Lebanon) instead of "-a." The ج (jiim) is pronounced as a hard G in urban Egyptian Arabic (and also parts of Yemen). In Egypt, the ث (th) is usually pronounced as an "s" or "t," the ذ (dh) becomes a "d" or "z," and the ظ (DH) is pronounced more like an emphatic "z," and sometimes becomes a ض.
Vocabulary: The dialects include a lot of loan words from different languages like French, Turkish, Greek, English, Persian, and Italian. Here are some examples used in Egyptian Arabic (some of these words are also used in standard Arabic):
Turkish - kobri (bridge), from köprü; auDa (room), from oda; šakuuš (hammer), from çekiç; yafTa (sign), from yafta; haanim (respectful title for a lady), from hanım; baaša and beih (respectful titles of address), from paşa and bey; balTagi (thug), from baltacı gumruk (customs) from gümrük; gazma (shoe), from çizme (the Levantine word for shoe, kundara, is also from Turkish - kundura) French - blaaž (beach), from plage; kanaba (sofa), from canapé; dušš (shower), from douche; gatauh (cake), from gâteau; aSanSair (elevator), from ascenseur; garsaun (waiter), from garçon; iišaarb (scarf), from écharpe; balTo (coat), from paletot; sešwaar (hairdryer), from séchoir Italian - mauDa (style, fashion), from moda; gambari (shrimp), from gambero; kawitš (tire), from caucciù; gunilla (skirt), from gonnella; guwanti (gloves), from guanti; bosTa (mail, postal service), from posta; rušitta (medical prescription), from ricetta; faraawla (strawberry), from fragola Persian - dulaab (cabinet), from dol-âb; buršaam (pills, tablets), from parchîn; kaškuul (notebook), from kashkûl; banafsigi (violet), from banafsha; tarzi (tailor), from darzî; kamanga (violin), from kamâncha; zarkiš (to embroider/decorate), from zar-kash; lobya (string beans), from lûbiyâ Greek - Tarabaiza (table), from trapezi; kaburiya (crab), from kabouros; istakauza (lobster), from astakos; salaTa (salad), from salata
However, most of the colloquial words that differ from standard Arabic are concentrated in the area of everyday vocabulary. The majority of words in, say, Egyptian Arabic are the same as they are in fuSHa, just pronounced a bit differently -- and especially once you get into more high-level vocabulary, like the words used in the media, the words used in fuSHa are also used in the dialects, with the only real difference being some pronunciation modifications. Here's a list of some basic colloquial words to give a quick idea of a few vocabulary differences between dialects:
English Egyptian Arabic Levantine Arabic Moroccan Arabic what ايه (eih) شو (šuu) or ايش (aiš) أش (aš) or شنو (šnuu) or أشنو (ašnuu) how ازي (izzay) كيف (keif) كيفاش (kifaaš) why ليه (leih) ليش (leiš) لاش (laš) or علاش (3laaš) where فين (fein) وين (wein) فين (fiin) thing حاجة (Haaga) شي (šii) شي (šii) now دلوقت (dilwa'ti) هلّق (halla') دابا (daaba) word used to express wanting عايز/عاوز (the active participle 3aayiz/3aawiz) بدّ (badd-/bidd- + possessive pronoun) بغى (bġa) shoe جزمة (gazma) كندرة (kundara/kendara) سباط (sbbaT) mouth بقّ (bo'') تمّ (timm) فم (fomm) tomato طماطم (TamaaTim) بندورة (bandaura/banadaura) ماطيشة (maTiiša) to say قال - يقول ('aal - yi'uul) حكى - يحكي (Haka - yiHki) قال - يقول (gal - yiguul) fridge تلاجة (tallaaga) برّاد (birraad/barraad) تلاجة (tlaja) table طربيزة (Tarabaiza) طاولة (Taawle) طبلة (Tbla) clothes هدوم (huduum) أواعي (awaa3i) حوايج (Hwayj) money فلوس (filuus) مصاري (maSaari) فلوس (flus)
Grammar: Colloquial Arabic in general uses much simpler grammar than standard Arabic (and for that, we can all be thankful!). There are no case endings in 3ammiyya, and there are no dual conjugations of verbs either. A "b-" present continuous prefix is added to the imperfect (in some parts of the Levant عم is also added before the verb). Instead of using سـ or سوف to indicate the future, a "h-" prefix is used (although in some parts of the Levant, راح is said before the verb instead). Negation is simpler with the use of مش as opposed to ليس and its variants, and in Egypt, the past and present tenses are negated with a ما...ش prefix-suffix combination (the Levant usually just uses the "ma" prefix). The future tense is negated with مش instead of لن. And so forth.
Arabic on your computer What are all those numbers some people use when writing Arabic online?
They were developed in chat rooms where people couldn't write using the Arabic alphabet, so they had to type in English transliteration and come up with ways to represent the Arabic letters that don't exist in English.
ء = 2 ح = 7 ظ = 6' ع = 3 خ = 5 or 7' ص = 9 غ = 3' or gh ط = 6 ض = 9'
How can I read Arabic fonts and write in Arabic on my computer?
For Windows XP (Windows Vista users see here): Go to the Control Panel, then select Regional and Language Options. Click on the Languages tab at the top.
To install Arabic font support - Under the "Supplemental language support" section, check the box for "Install files for complex scripts and right-to-left languages (including Thai)." Click "Apply."
To enable writing in Arabic - Under the "Text services and input languages" section, click on the Details button. A box will pop up, and under the Settings tab you'll see an "Installed services" tab. Click on the Add button at the right, and an Add Input Language box will appear. Select any variety of Arabic you want; it won't make a difference. Back in the "Text services and input languages" box, go to the "Preferences" section at the bottom (still in the "Settings" tab) and click the Language Bar button. Check the boxes saying "Show the language bar on the desktop" and "Show additional language bar icons in the taskbar." A little box with "EN" on it will appear at the bottom right, in the taskbar; clicking on the "EN" will pop up a menu where you can toggle back and forth between English and Arabic. Use the keyboard shortcut Alt+Shift to toggle between languages more quickly.
If you want to be able to type in Arabic without going through these steps, you can use this online Arabic keyboard. You can also use it to learn the Arabic keyboard layout. For really exhaustive information on enabling Arabic for Windows, this webpage covers just about everything. Mac users can use this information to enable Arabic support.
How do you say...?
How do you say "Welcome/hello/happy birthday" etc. in Arabic?
I have an entire page dedicated to common phrases like this here. But you can use أهلا وسهلا ahlan wa sahlan or مرحبا marHaba for both "Welcome" and "Hello." "Happy birthday" is عيد ميلاد سعيد 3iid miilaad sa3iid, but people usually just use كل سنة وانت طيب kull sana winta Tayyib (in Egypt), or كل سنة وانت سالم kull sane winte saalim (in the Levant). The standard phrase is كل عام وأنتم بخير kull 3aam wa-antum bexeir. If you're addressing a woman, say كل سنة وانت طيبة kull sana winti Tayyiba or كل سنة وانت سالمة kull sane winti saalme. (The standard phrase stays the same.) How do you say "I love you" in Arabic?
Standard Arabic Egyptian Arabic Addressed to a man أحبك - uHibbuka بحبك - baHebbak Addressed to a woman أحبك - uHibbuki بحبك - baHebbik Addressed to two people أحبكما - uHibbukuma بحبكو - baHebbuku Addressed to three or more people, at least one of whom is a man أحبكم - uHibbukum بحبكو - baHebbuku Addressed to three or more women أحبكن - uHibbukunna بحبكو - baHebbuku
You can say أنا "ana" beforehand, but it's not really necessary, since it's clear that it's "I" just from the conjugation. If you want to say you love someone "a lot," you can add كثيرا kathiiran or حبا جما Hubban jamman in fuSHa, or قوي 'awi in 3ammiyya. Or for an even more enthusiastic emphasis, you can say قد الدنيا 'add id-dunya, which would sound a little corny but cute.
How do you say "I miss you" in Arabic?
Standard Arabic Egyptian Arabic Addressed to a man أنا مشتاق(ة) إليك - ana muštaaq(at)un ileika وحشتني - waHašteni Addressed to a woman أنا مشتاق(ة) إليك - ana muštaaq(at)un ileiki وحشتيني - waHaštiini Addressed to two people أنا مشتاق(ة) إليكما - ana muštaaq(at)un ileikuma وحشتوني - waHaštuuni Addressed to three or more people, at least one of whom is a man أنا مشتاق(ة) إليكم - ana muštaaq(at)un ileikum وحشتوني - waHaštuuni Addressed to three or more women أنا مشتاق(ة) إليكن - ana muštaaq(at)un ileikunna وحشتوني - waHaštuuni For the standard Arabic column, I put the appropriate phrase if you're a woman in parentheses -- so if you're male, ignore what's in the parentheses and use مشتاق muštaaqun, and if you're female, use مشتاقة muštaaqatun. For the Egyptian dialect, what I wrote is actually the past tense, which is frequently used to express "I miss you" in the present tense. The present-tense conjugations are: Addressed to a man وحشني - waHešni Addressed to a woman وحشاني - waHšaani Addressed to more than one person وحشني - waHšenniSource:http://arabic.desert-sky.net/faq.html
Basic Arabic Phrases IntroductionAssalaam Alaikum -Peace be up on youTo which the reply is:Wa Alaikum assalaam -And peace be upon youThis phrase will be used in many different contexts when meeting people.Marhabbah - helloto which the reply is:Marhabbteen - helloThis is probably the equivalent of saying hi in the UKSabah al khair - good morningTo which the reply is:Sabah al noorMasah al khair -good afternoon / eveningTo which the reply is:Masah al noorShukran (jazeelan) -thank you (very much) To which the reply is:Aafwaan -you're welcomeAn alternative to Shukran is MushkoorAhlan wa sahlan -WelcomeTo which the reply is:Ahlan beek - welcome to you (to a male)Ahlan beech (to a female)Ahlan beekum (to a group)This is usually used in introductionsKeef haluk? -How are you?Sometimes shortened to KeefakTo which the reply is:Al hamdu lillah (bi khair) - praise be to Allah (well)This should be the usual reply.You could use:Ana bikhayr, shukran - I am fine, thank youWeyn inta - Literally, where are you?, but probably equivalent to Long time no seeOccasionally you will hear:Shu-ukhbaarak -what's your news? - which you would reply to in the normal wayAysh ismuk -what is your name?Ismi Jason -my name is JasonTitakellem ingleezi -do you speak English?Ana la atakellem al arabi -I don't speak ArabicTerrref arabi? -do you know ArabicAtakullum inglieezi -I speak EnglishInta min weyn? -where are you from?Ana min ingliterra -I'm from EnglandUmreeka -USAOostraaalia -AustraliaAl imaraaat -UAEWa inta? -and you?Maasalaamah -GoodbyeTo which the reply is:Fi aman allah or Maasalaamah
Miscellaneous Words: Inshallah -If Allah wishesThis phrase is used in reference to a future, since all things are at Allah's will. So if you say, see you tomorrow, you might be replied with Inshallah. Indeed, it is used in numerous contexts. You'll send me the report tomorrow? -Inshallah. Maashallah -What Allah wishesThis is used when complimenting something, usually in the context of family or health. Mabrook - CongratulationsThis is used in any congratulatory context, more so than you would use in English. Naam - yesAywa - yeah/okLa - noMin fudluk - pleaseShoo? - what?Shoofi mafi? -what's up? or what's the matter?Shoo hada? - what is this?Mafi mushkil -no problemItfudul -by my guest / my pleasureWhen you sneeze you sayAl hamdu lillahTo which someone will sayYer humkullahAnd you will say again Yer hamna wa yer humkumTamaam - perfect Baadin - laterDilwaati - now Ilyoum - today Bukra - tomorrow Ashoofook bukra - see you tomorrow Aadhi - it's normalJebli shai - bring me some tea Kallemni - call me/talk to me Ma adhri - I dont know Maa-i-khussni - its not my problem Inta kida - thumbs up Intaa tabaan thumbs down Areed areef - i want to know Mumken asaduq - can i help you Sida - straight Yasar - left Yameen - right Tabaan - of course Andi - i have Kam -how muchAffwaan -excuse meKull -everything
Numbers0 -siffr1 -wahid2 -itnain3 -thalatha4 -arba5 -khumsah6 -settah7 -sabaa8 -thamaaneeya9 -tissaa10 -asharah11 -ihda shaar12- ithna shaar13 -thalatha shaar14 - arba ata shaar15 -khamsta shaar16 -sitta shaar17 -saba ata shaar18 -tamantha shar19 -tis ata shar20 -ishrin21 -wahid wa ishrin22 -ithain wa ishrin23 -thalatha wa ishrin24 -arbaa wa ishrin etc30 -thalath een40 -arba een50 -khamseen60 -sitteen70 -sabeen80 -thamaneen90 -tiseen100 -miyya200 -mittain251 -thalatha miyaa400 -arba miyya etc1000 -alf2000 -alfain2510 -thalaathat aalaf4000 -arbaat aalaf