I wanted to discuss something.
Upon starting a new live group class at a university, it made me ponder over some points to discuss about how to study Arabic in the West. I think this is a very important topic, and I will touch on some vital points from a teacher’s perspective – and not from a student’s perspective.
Why do I say that?
Of the issues that we have when it comes to learning the Arabic language today, is when teachers give too much room for the students to make decisions in matters that they don’t know about.
This is not a belittlement of students at all.
In school, college and university, in general you have a syllabus that is followed. And because you are new to the topic, as a student you trust that teacher. You trust the teacher to provide you with the sufficient information that you need to attain the goals that you aim to achieve.
I’ve been teaching two Arabic classes at a university, one for brothers and another for sisters. In the first class I taught from the book Arabiyyah Bayna Yadayk. I don’t like this book to be honest, for studying Arabic in the West, and I will share my reasons why shortly.
The reason I think this is important to discuss is because you will come across advice which will promote the Bayna Yadayk books. Sometimes the ones who promote this come from the perspective where they have studied Arabic abroad, most likely in Egypt. Or they are studying with somebody who has studied in Egypt.
And sometimes, I don’t think that those who studied in Egypt are clearly telling you about the kind of study programme they were enrolled in whilst they were there. It wasn’t that they just did Arabic once a week, for one hour. No; there would be a centre of learning which is normally 4 or 5 days a week, at a minimum of 2-3 hours per day. And then you have the process of living in the Arabic environment.
Why is this key? It is extremely important for somebody who is studying Bayna Yadayk to be in an Arabic-speaking environment. This is because the one who authored it based the order of the book on topic – but on conversations within that topic. Grammar is not a focus of book 1. There will be grammar that you memorise in usage, but as for studying the rule and the grammatical concept, this is absent in book 1 of Bayna Yadayk.
The goal that the author of Bayna Yadayk had when authoring the books was to learn how to speak Arabic as a child learns their mother tongue. You read, listen and imitate. You speak with that which you learn.
However, if you are in the West and the only time you speak Arabic is during your class time, you don’t benefit from this programme. I have friends who studied in Egypt who studied the Bayna Yadayk series, while I stayed in the UK and studied a different series. If I studied Bayna Yadayk in the West at the same time that they studied when they went to Egypt for a year, I would have been far behind them. But the different approach of study that I had when I studied eight years ago allowed me to keep up.
My friend for example studied Bayna Yadayk in 13 monthsabroad and became fluent in spoken Arabic, but they were grammatically very weak as that was not the focal point of the programme. He could tell you what sounded right or wrong,but he couldn’t tell you why because he didn’t study it. But what allowed him to benefit in such a manner? Every day he went to school. Plus, for a very small price, you are able to also get an Arabic personal tutor – especially after currency conversions coming from the West.
So, every day in Egypt you would spend 2-3 hours a day at school, and then a further 2 hours or so of personalised tuition. Especially as somebody who has gone solely to study, without family and the likes.
You’d go to your local shop and restaurant. All you’d be speaking is the Arabic language. It is a necessity that everything you learn will be put into practice; so you benefit from learning Arabic every day for 2-3 hours, and then living the practical life for the next 12 hours that you would be out and about using that which you learnt.
However, for us in the West now. Usually you would spend about an hour or two a week actually studying Arabic, and that would be your only contact time with the language. When you go to school, it’s in English. When you go to work, it’s in English. When you go home, it’s in English. So 80% of the time you are speaking a language that is not Arabic, whereas in an Arabic-speaking country you are using the language that you are learning.This has many benefits.
From them is frequent language contact with the language that you are learning. Why is this so important? Let’s say that for example, for the first three months you are learning the Arabic language you don’t know how to speak. But you have been observing others speaking with that language, so when you do start to speak you will imitate that which you have been observing.
When you make a mistake, you will be corrected immediately by those around you, and it will be so automatic that you don’t even take offence – it’s so emotionless. You learn how to say things correctly.
Another example is during actual conversation – when you don’t have the words to express what you are trying to say, the person that you are talking to acknowledges what you are trying to say, and they give it to you. That helps you again to learn the language from living it while learning it, which is very important.
I advise people to study the Madinah books. There are those who dispraise the Madinah Books series by saying that you won’t be able to speak and/ or you won’t gain fluency in the language. I asked my students, “how many books do you think there are in the Madinah Books series?” and they said three. So I showed them the Ejtaal website for the full Madinah Books series (https://ejtaal.net/islam/arabic.html#madeenah-arabic) – here you get an idea of the complete package of the Madinah Books series, because this is what is available:
MADINAH BOOK 1 – Plus three other books.
MADINAH BOOK 2 – Plus six other books.
FIRST HALF OF MADINAH BOOK 3 – Plus six other books.
SECOND HALF OF MADINAH BOOK 3 – Plus five other books.
Now you get an idea of the complete package.
What’s so beneficial about the Shaykh that authored the Madinah Books series?
1. He’s non-Arab (Indian origin)
2. He’s a linguist
He designed the series specifically for students from non-Arabic speaking backgrounds to be able to study a programme for two years, which would then allow them to go on and study the religion in the Arabic language.
It’s more than just a language book – it’s learning the Arabic language in a way that gives you the fundamental principles of the language. Why is this so important? Grammar and morphology are the two main sciences of the Arabic language. When you have sufficient vocabulary, and you know these sciences, all you need to do now is learn the vocabulary for the topic of conversation or reading that you want to be involved in or pursue. When you know the fundamental principles of the language, you can apply them to every single word in the Arabic language, which allows you to always develop. This is true for any topic of discussion; whether it’s media, politics, geography, history… all that changes is the vocabulary that you use. As for the foundations of the language, this stays the same.
When you study a book that gives you the principles of the language in a way that is digestible, this facilitates for you to go away in your own time now and learn the vocabulary that you need for the topic of language that you want to be using – whether it’s Islamic Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic. The rules don’t change. All that is upon you is to use the correct vocabulary for that particular topic.
Studying a book like the Madinah series in the West is very digestible and you can see goals of achievement – rather than books like the Bayna Yadayk series which is designed for conversational practice on a daily basis, which you would be deprived of the majority of the time in the West. You may study the first five units of Bayna Yadayk, and you still can’t talk. But you would have had at least 15 different examples of conversation on different topics on the first five chapters. Soby then you should at least be able to have a basic conversation. But why do we find that students who study those books in the West are still unable to use that language that they’ve learnt for so long in discussion? This is because there is not enough language contact time living in the West.
The main point that I would like to emphasise in this regard is this: When it comes to deciding which book to study, I advise to listen to teachers rather than students. A student can go on the basis of what they studied in an Arab country – not what they studied in the West.
I emphasise that the majority of my Arabic studies occurred in the West. Within the last eight years, the actual study of Arabic abroad for me has been a year and three months.
This allowed me to have frequent language contact with all that which I had studied in the previous years, but this time in an Arabic speaking country. I was able to use it on a day to day basis, which allowed me to consolidate that which I know and develop better language usage.
How do we make up for those differences for us in the West? Of those ways is the recommendation of constant listening to Arabic language – whether it’s by lessons from scholars, general TV shows, cartoons (which is highly recommended more than anything else for the language learner in their beginning stages). Also in our school programme we have live conversational classes which try to facilitate some time for that major gap when studying Arabic in the West.
Those who have been to Arabic speaking countries whilst studying Arabic – even if it’s just for a one-week holiday – you will realise the highly noticeable difference and change in your own Arabic. This is because you have been forced to speak Arabic. It no longer becomes a burden; it is now something that you are confident in.
It’s all about how much language immersion you are getting in your studies with the Arabic language. You must observe your personal time and contact with the Arabic language.
When it comes to learning vocabulary, people ask “how can I increase my vocabulary?”
At school we studied English language and English literature. English language focuses on the rules behind the language. As for the literature study, it was understanding language use:reading novels, whether fictional, non-fictional, poetry. The different types of literature allow you to explore language usage and gain more understanding from the different texts and genres that you study.
Many people will take a vocabulary list and try to memorise the words in a repetitive style, for example:
“Kitaabun, baytun masjidun. Kitaabun, baytun, masjidun…”Over and over again.
They memorise the words. But when they’re asked to use the words in a sentence, they freeze; unable to use the words that they’ve committed to memory. This is because they are not learning the words and vocabulary in usage.
But if I say to you, for example, “al baytu kabeerun” (the house is big), “al masjidu qareebun” (the masjid is near), “al masjidu ba’eedan min baytee” (the masjid is far from my house); then now the new words and vocabulary are being learned in usage. This is very important.
Books like “qasas al nabiyyeen lil atfaal” (the stories of the prophets for children) are essential for the beginner Arabic student. The way that they are laid out are in easy-to-follow stories where the literature allows the reader to see the words in usage. Between three pages, you will see the usage of the word “kaana” (“he was”) a minimum of 20 times. This emphasises the point of language contact and immersion.
When you want to teach your children how to read, you give them books for the age and level that they are, with the colour codes. This is the same approach that you have to have with the Arabic language.
Even as adults, when our language level is beginner (which is the language level of a child), we need to be reading literature at a child’s level. And then we will develop onto other books of higher levels. What you will find is that these books are designed for the language learner. With these more advanced books (an example is a book called “Kaleela wa Dimna”, a series of many short stories), underneath the text there will be words that are not commonly known in the Arabic language, along with what they mean. This ensures that you are going to learn Arabic in Arabic, which is very important.
Then you might go to a book like “Taha Hussain”, which is another literature book. This is a bit more advanced, with less notes on what words mean.
If you are studying books such as Bayna Yadayk, a way to help yourself is to write out the conversations once, twice, three times. The goal is to improve your handwriting, and you will be able to practise writing at a faster pace. Of the tips that I can give you in order to write faster is not to write the dots or vowel sounds until after you’ve written the whole sentence.
My general advice to you all would be to always trust your teacher. Don’t always determine how to study the Arabic language based on a student, because they are learning themselves and they don’t necessarily know. They know what is working for them personally at that particular moment, but as for a larger scale, that is for those who have been trained in the regard of:
• how to teach language.
• knowing what is appropriate for different levels.
• what kind of language to expose people to at their given level.
• how to make students want to learn more.
• how to avoid making learning difficult for them and turning them away.
What is important is making sure that you consult a teacher based on your goals for studying the Arabic language. Once you know your goal, it becomes easier to be able to select a book which is suitable for you. This cannot be decided by a student, it needs to be decided by a teacher – someone who has background knowledge of the language, preferably someone who has engaged with you in conversation so that they know your current level and what you might have studied.
For example, when I went to Morocco to study I took a placement test. This determined that I needed a private teacher, because they couldn’t facilitate for my level (due to the fact that they didn’t expect to host a student who had already studied Arabic).
When I met my teacher and discussed with him what I studied, he came back to me with two books and told me “I suggest for you one of these two books, so you let me know what you would like to study”. Then I went to the bookshop and looked through them before deciding which one best suited what I wanted to achieve.
At the moment, I have eight sections on my bookshelf about Arabic language books. Out of all of these, I only can know how and when to study them under the guidance of a teacher. These eight sections got restricted to two books, based on the knowledge of my teacher – that is the key.
Always refer back to your teacher for advice and consultation to ensure that you are getting the best guidance for your journey in studying the Arabic language, and buying and reading books that are suitable for your level in shaa Allah wata’aala.
This is my brief advice on studying Arabic in the West, and a little insight into why we choose different books, while being conscious of the books that we’re choosing.
There are many different books and courses out there, some which are unknown.
Some other books:
• Gateway to Arabic (7-8 books plus extension books)
• Al Nahu Al Waadih (not for beginners, this is only in Arabic)
• Kitaabul Asaasi
• Kitaabul Ta’aallum
• Mastering Arabic
In general, always remember that learning the Arabic language – like doing anything new – is only difficult in the beginning. And as you get comfortable and repeat the process as much as possible, it only becomes easier in shaa Allah wata’aala. Nothing can be harder than the first time, it always gets easier.
If you would ever like to ask any questions or would like advice, feel free to message or write it on the Facebook group (make sure you tag my name).