For about two years now, I’ve been studying Arabic. Those of you who know me well know that, to some extent, this has taken over my life. I try to study at least one hour a day five times a week (obviously, this doesn’t always work) and my poor, dear husband often comes home to find me reciting strange words aloud to my computer screen or recording winding monologues where, worryingly, he understands his name but not what I’m saying about him (I’m working on family introductions: “My husband’s name is Fadi. Fadi works at Kennedy Airport. We got married two years ago and live with my family on Long Island…”). Sometimes what my professor teaches me is so difficult I leave class with a splitting headache, but this isn’t often. I’ll put this out there: I just love the language. It is beautiful, poetic, and most importantly, completely rational (unlike, ahem, French).
Years ago, when I was intrigued by the language but petrified to begin the daunting process of learning it, I found this article, which made it seem even daunting. Most Americans think that Arabic is too difficult a language to learn — and they are completely wrong. To compare Arabic with French, there are many reasons why French is, in some ways, more difficult:
1. Arabic is COMPLETELY phonetic. Once you learn the alphabet, you know what sound to make for each letter. On the other hand, French phonetics was designed to “sound pretty” (e.g. h aspiré, liaisons, etc.)
2. Conjugating verbs in Arabic is very easy. There are ten forms of verbs in Arabic with no exceptions and if you want to turn conjugate a verb to the future tense, all you need to do is add the equivalent of an English “s” to the beginning of the word.
3. Since Arabic is a Semitic language, like Hebrew, it is based on a three letter root system. This means that groups of words related to a main idea will all be formed from the same three letters (e.g. words that are related to the concept of possessing or owning are all composed of the letters m-l-k and include the words “to own”, “to possess”, as well as “king” or “queen” because the concept of possession is related to having dominion over, having subjects, etc.). Using this root system in combination with the ten verb forms and noun derivations, even if you do not know a word, you can likely construct the word yourself or guess its meaning and be correct.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Arabic is how words are figuratively linked together based on like concepts, which are often very abstract. Thus the verb to do wrong (thalama) is related to the noun wrongdoing, but also, injustice, gloom, duskiness, villain, outrage, complaint, tyrannical, tyrannized, murky, and so on… I love the balance — how Arabic can be so rational and can use such poetic abstractions to relate one word to another, and so on.
Anyway, perhaps the most difficult area of Arabic (besides the strange number rules and broken plurals) is the use of case endings, which are difficult if you are not deeply familiar with grammar rules. Most of the other difficulties are solved through memorization. Arabic is a difficult language for English speaks to learn, but it is not impossible and the grammar is fairly simple when compared to other languages, which is why I hate when people say they would/could never learn it. If you want to see real complicated stuff, look at this great article about the advanced grammatical nuances of French.