How it all began
اِنْ كُنْتَ فِيْ المَغْرِبْ فَلَا تَسْتَغْرِبْ
Five years ago, I would not understand a single word of this sentence. Is it a verse from the Qur’an? Is it a saying from the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)? Is it a poem? Or an extract from a book? I was in my third year of law studies, trying to cope, trying to get through. However, with each day passing by I understood less and less of what the Norwegian law system was trying to tell me, despite it being the country of my birth; my own country.
The decision to study Arabic was not an easy one. As a matter of fact, who on earth with a sane mind would quit law school and study a language that is not even spoken in their own country, let alone any of the neighboring countries. Add that to the expectations of family, friends, and society when a prospective lawyer takes such a bold step.
However, I persisted. And believe it or not, but the decision to study Arabic was taken just five minutes before the final deadline. And there I was, enrolled in the Middle Eastern studies and Arabic language program at the University of Oslo in Norway.
My Arabic-Learning Journey
The first couple of weeks were easy. Too easy. In fact, I was on top of my class as I knew all the letters from before. Being born in a Muslim family of Pakistani origin, I knew how to read and recite the Qur’an, without understanding a single word of what I was reading. But as soon as we finished our first dictation, it hit me. A fellow student got better grades than me. As I saw my ethnic Norwegian classmates, who did not know a single word of this new and unknown language beat me in all these dictations, I realized that this was not going to be as easy as I first imagined.
Time went by and I started learning more and more, letters turned into words, words turned into sentences and before I knew it, I was able to introduce myself in Arabic to the visiting speakers and guests at the local Mosque in Norway. After a year of Arabic studies we were gearing up for our next chapter; the semester abroad program to either Amman in Jordan or Cairo in Egypt.
I choose the latter
The semester abroad in Cairo was followed by a semester abroad at the National University of Singapore (NUS) where I also enrolled in their Arabic module. The experience of studying Arabic in these two countries was extremely beneficial. From walking in the historical streets of Cairo to my interaction with the wonderful Malay community in Singapore (selamat pagi, apa khabar?), it was an experience that opened the doors to the Arabic world for me. Doors, that most likely would still have been shut if I continued my law studies three years prior.
After these experiences, I returned back to Norway and graduated in 2017, and there I was with a bachelor’s degree in my hand with Arabic as my major. I was privileged enough to work with our new Syrian brothers and sisters that settled in Norway, but our conversations hardly ever lasted longer than a minute or two at max.
So… wait? Is that it? After dropping out of law school, three years of Arabic studies it comes down to just casual small talk? This could not be it? When I opened and tried to read any book written in Arabic, I did not understand most of the words. I then realized that my boat in this big and vast ocean just set sail, and the ocean was much wider and deeper than I thought. But hey… at least my boat was floating and the wind made it sail in the right direction.
The Turning Point
After working for a couple of years I decided to quit my job to further my Arabic studies. I signed up for the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) courses at the Arabic Language Institute in Fez, Morocco (ALIF), and after a placement test, I was now once again a full-time student with 20 hours of instruction every week.
Why Morocco? Well, why not? This is my usual answer to everyone who asks me this question. In my experience, it all narrows down to three things when it comes to learning Arabic as a non-native speaker. I will now share with you some of my tips.
Tips to Study Arabic
Conversing in Arabic
An interesting fact that you most likely did not know is that the Arabic you will learn is not the spoken language in any of the 25 countries where it is an official language. As a matter of fact, it is not spoken in any country at all.
The Arabic you will learn is the MSA; the Modern Standard Arabic (al-fusha). Its grammar and rules are derived from the Qur’an, and although there are separate courses for Quranic Arabic when it comes to vocabulary, the MSA is pretty much the “same” language that is revealed in the Qur’an. Hence, most religious speeches are conducted in this language. Besides this, the MSA is used in books, the news and in the newspapers.
Despite all of this, no one really speaks this language. So… what do you do?
This is, unfortunately, a challenge for any student of the language. Ordering food at a restaurant or asking the person next to you for directions can result in them looking at you with a funny face, or not being able to reply back in the same manner by not using their local dialect.
Every Arab country has its own dialect, and even within those countries, the dialect might have slight differences depending on the geographical location. For instance, a person from Iraq or Syria will most likely not understand a person from Algeria or Morocco. So… what do I do? Do I have to actually LEARN these dialects as well?
Well, my experience was simple. I decided to not care about these things. If someone gave me a funny look or laughed at me, I would laugh with them! What is the worst that could happen? I will just explain that I am an Arabic language student, and most of them would appreciate that fact and even share their own experiences from their schooldays. Some of them would even turn out to be great friends as you have something in common; love for the Modern Standard Arabic through their passion for reading or writing poems.
My advice here would be to stick with these new friends, meet them as much as possible and benefit from their knowledge and understanding of the language as they will be delighted to speak to you in MSA (al-fusha) and even correct your mistakes. Don’t be shy and just jump into it! It might feel very awkward when starting out, but trust me… you can ONLY improve.
On the other hand, there are also students who enroll in language classes in the local dialects. Depending on where you want to study Arabic, you can formally study the dialect (al-aamiya) of that country. Although these classes might be a good starting point and will equip you with the basic vocabulary to get by, I would not recommend it.
I believe that the time and money spent on learning one of the dialects should rather be spent learning the real Arabic; the MSA (al-fushaa). If you are a social person who easily makes friends and has no problems roaming around the streets and exploring new areas, you will pick up the local dialect in a natural environment, without having to spend your hard earned money on it.
If your goal is to learn and excel in the Modern Standard Arabic, enrolling into a dialect class might also affect and “mess up” your MSA (al-fushaa) as you will end up mixing up words from both. This will not make a good impression when you try to speak in class, and especially if you have academic ambitions and want to use Arabic in a future profession.
Another thing that was beneficial for me, was the opportunities to converse with scholars, teachers and prayer leaders (imams) from different Mosques around the world. Most of these talks in Islamic circles are held in the MSA, and you will have excellent opportunities to improve both your listening and speaking skills.
Learning Arabic in Morocco
I was told that Moroccans do not speak Arabic, as the local dialect (al-daareeja) is very distant from the other dialects. This is true and can at times get quite frustrating as I will be understood, but not able to understand what is being said to me. There was a point when even I considered furthering my Arabic studies in another country instead of Morocco, but I then realized that I speak English with most of my local friends, I do not opt for the optional homework or watch half an hour of Arabic news every day. I do not require all of the 36 million Moroccans to speak with me. I have my group of friends who will converse and help me with the MSA and also a great set of teachers, which brings me to my next point:
The quality of instruction
This is the second most important factor when it comes to learning and excelling as a non-native speaker of Arabic. A great teacher can easily be the difference between your understanding of the complex but beautiful grammar and vocalization system of the language. Having studied Arabic in four different countries, I have experienced great teachers, and some not that great. However, until today I am immensely grateful for those who made an impact in my understanding of all the grammar, rules and other linguistic traits that are important to know. A very useful tip is to maximize your learning from a good teacher. Are you fortunate enough to find one of them, stick to that person and extract as much information and knowledge possible while you still can?
Your own efforts
This is by far the most important factor when it comes to your Arabic studies, and it counts for most things in life. You can find the best program in the world with the best teachers. Their methods will be the best in the world and will have first-class facilities and textbooks, but at the end of the day it all comes down to your own efforts.
I have had almost fluent conversations with non-native speakers of the Arabic language who did not spend a single day in a classroom let alone a single day in an Arabic speaking country. On the other hand, I have met full-time Arabic language students who did not even manage to complete a single sentence.
Is Arabic Hard?
Learning Arabic is fun. A lot of fun! If you, like me and a lot of other students have a strong motivation, it is definitely one of the biggest blessings in life. To share a personal experience: I still remember after a few weeks into my studies how I managed to understand a single line from the Qur’an and its grammatical context. That feeling was indeed out of the world, and how I wished and wanted the rest of my family and friends from the Islamic community to feel the same way. If you enjoy reciting and listening to the Qur’an but do not understand much of it, your experience of reciting and listening will indeed reach a whole new level when it comes to both understanding and the spiritual aspect.
At the same time, learning Arabic is hard. Extremely hard. But nothing in life comes easy. You will not build more muscle mass by just lifting the same weights over and over again. IF you REALLY want it, have the right intention, try your best and don’t give up I am sure that you will come through and succeed.
Life is short and limited, but our impact on it can be vast and even last forever. If you do have the time and means to spend a year or even a few months of your life to formally study Arabic.
اِنْ كُنْتَ فِيْ المَغْرِبْ فَلَا تَسْتَغْرِبْ
If you are still with me, you will notice that I started this text with the abovementioned sentence. I wrote that five years ago I did not understand a single part of it. Now, I am able to understand every single word, every single grammatical context and the reason for its vocalization.
Well, what does the sentence say? I guess you will only find out after you lay that first stone and build the foundation of your journey as an Arabic language student.
Remember to message me when you do understand the sentence, though!
Born and raised in Norway with Pakistani roots. Graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies & Arabic language from the University of Oslo, Norway. Studied in Egypt, Norway, Singapore and now Morocco. Worked as a project manager with young people and refugees through the Municipality of Oslo, and also as ground staff for Scandinavian Airlines at Oslo Airport. Currently also a member of the administration at the Islamic Cultural Centre Norway; biggest Mosque and first Islamic organization in the country.