Critical Languages Program

What is Arabic?

Arabic belongs to the Semitic family of languages. Besides Arabic, spoken languages in this family include Modern Hebrew, Amharic, Tigre, Tigrinya, Syriac, a few Aramaic dialects, and Maltese. 250 million people in the Arab world speak Arabic as their native language. Furthermore, 1.2 billion Muslims all over the world use Arabic in their prayers and religious recitations. Arabic is also the liturgical language of many Eastern Christian churches.

For practical purposes, we might divide Arabic into three varieties:

Classical Arabic is the oldest type of Arabic that is studied widely. It is the language of the Qur’an and texts from the classical age of the Islamic empire.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or al-fuSHaa is a direct descendant of ClassicalArabic and is now the language of elevated discourse or correspondence, contemporary literature, and the mass media.

Colloquial Arabic, or caammiyya, refers to the regional dialects used in everyday discourse and popular culture media (music, movies, etc.).

Why study Arabic?

Students choose to study Arabic for a variety of reasons. Some study it as part of their academic work, and to satisfy general interest in the people and cultures of the Arabic speaking world. Arabic can be useful to students with a background in political science or international studies who see the urgent demand for Arabic in contemporary world affairs. Some students take Arabic to help them get jobs both with the US government or non-government agencies operating in the Arab world. Students of Arab descent often take Arabic to better understand this heritage and gain familiarity with the language of a parent or grandparent. Muslim students usually take Arabic in order to read the Qur’an and other religious texts. Learning Arabic will open to you a vast body of literature and art, as well as offer opportunities for interaction with other Arabic speakers.
Interest in the Arabic language and Arab studies has risen dramatically following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Enrollment in Arabic courses at many American universities has more than doubled during the past two years; interest in Arabic focused study abroad programs has also increased.A deep and abiding interest in the Arabic language and Arab culture will be the single most useful tool in overcoming the inevitable challenges of learning a language such as Arabic. Not everyone who studies Arabic will make a career out of it. Whether you see Arabic as an intellectual challenge, a means to connect with your heritage, a door to a new and unknown world, or a key to a career path, we hope you will also see it as an invaluable tool for intercultural communication and understanding.

Is Arabic harder than other languages?

To say that learning Arabic is no “harder” for native English speakers than learning Spanish would probably be false advertising. In a common scale that groups languages according to the number of contact hours required to achieve advanced proficiency,Arabic falls in category 4 (together with Chinese Korean, Japanese, and Hindi), which is the highest level. This means that it takes longer to acquire the same level of proficiency in Arabic than it would in Spanish or French. Arabic is relatively difficult because it requires learning a new script, new consonant sounds, and a different syntax, as well an extensive vocabulary with few cognates. Inevitably, Arabic courses will be among the most difficult some students will ever take. This probably has as much to do with the nature of language learning as it does with Arabic—some students would likely find the study of any language challenging.

Despite its difficulty, Arabic is not the exclusive realm of “elite” students or the linguistically gifted. Arabic is absolutely “doable” and can be an enjoyable challenge for any student. Even students with average native talent can be very successful in learning Arabic; and even gifted students run into frustrations. Stubborn perseverance and dedicated study are more important than does “catching on” quickly to a new language. Do not be afraid of Arabic’s reputation. Have confidence in your ability to learn Arabic and to learn it well. Many Americans have reached Superior level proficiency in Arabic and you too should expect to be one of them very soon inshaa’allah.