Saturday, March 29, 2008

Struggling With The Arabic Language

My first exposure to the Arabic language came when I met my future husband back in 1977. We were college students and I had never really been around Arabs before. Adnan and his other Arab friends would hang out, socialize, and share meals together, and of course, speak in Arabic. I used to sit back and listen to these men conversing in this alien language, with its strange guttural sounds. One surprising thing that I eventually got used to was hearing the use of the “F” word sprinkled amidst the Arabic words. The inappropriate English word actually forms the ending sound for many normal Arabic words. I would wonder how this fascinating language could often sound so harsh, crude and abrasive, yet always appear so beautifully artistic when written out in script.

I began asking Adnan how to say easy phrases in Arabic, which I wrote down in a notebook. Fawzy, a friend of Adnan’s, also took it upon himself to try to teach me some Arabic as well. He even taught me to sing a beautiful love song in Arabic, which I still remember to this day. One of the lines from the song, loosely translated, says something like “whenever I try to speak, the only sound that comes out is your name… Your name is written on my voice.” I remember being requested to sing it a few times at some gatherings the Arabs had, and boy, did that make an impression on those in attendance. Here was this young blonde American girl singing a love song in Arabic – they loved it!
Years later, when our son Adam was born, my husband began speaking to him only in Arabic. So Adam has a much better understanding of Arabic than I do. And he is learning to read and write it in school, which I am thrilled about. It is not easy to learn any language when you are in your mid-50s, and certainly not a language as difficult as Arabic. I have two books to help me learn the language and lots of human helpers as well! Everyone tries to help me with new words and phrases. I try to speak it as much as I can and I ask questions about how to say things in Arabic, but it isn’t happening as quickly as I would like. If I could get to where I would understand much of what is being said around me and be able to carry on little conversations, I would be happy.

But to make matters worse, conversational Arabic is different from classical Arabic, which is used in the Koran and by newscasters and others on TV here. All native Arabic speakers of every dialect can understand what is being said on TV and in the Koran, but it is not the way people on the street speak. I remember years ago when I went to Egypt and tried out the Arabic I had learned from Adnan and Fawzy, I thought it was funny that Egyptians would tell me that I spoke with a Saudi accent. I thought Arabic was Arabic – silly me!

Many English words are actually rooted in the Arabic language. For example, many words in the areas of food and drink come from Arabic, like alcohol, coffee, lemon, orange, sesame, spinach, and sugar. Arabic also has contributed words to the English language in other fields as well, such as geography, architecture, navigation, music, plants, sciences, sports, commerce, textiles, chemicals, colors, and minerals, to name a few.

Some sounds used in speaking Arabic are non-existent in English, and vice versa. Arabic does not use the sounds of “P” or “V,” thereby making it very difficult for Arab native speakers to pronounce these letters when speaking English. Some Arabic letters represent sounds in English that are made up of two letters like “th” and “sh.” Other sounds used in Arabic are so difficult to describe, I won’t even try. But trust me, these sounds are very difficult for English speakers to enunciate correctly.
Trying to learn how to read and write the Arabic language may be well beyond my abilities. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters which are consonants and three vowels which can be sounded short or long. Arabic letters look nothing like the letters in the English alphabet. Many Arabic letters are squiggly, curvy and curly, some with dots above and some with dots below, some with one dot, some with two. Depending on whether the letter comes at the beginning, middle, or end of the word, its written appearance can change. This makes it all the more difficult and confusing.

Arabic is written and read from right to left, the opposite of English. Something I find fascinating is that Arabic books which were written 1,500 years ago can be read and understood by any Arabic speaking person today. English didn’t even exist back then, and other languages that were in existence like Persian, Chinese and Greek have changed so much over time that older texts in those languages can only be read by scholars. Written Arabic is so beautiful it stands on its own as lovely artwork. Many Arabian homes display gorgeous artwork consisting of Arabic calligraphy made out of a variety of mediums such as metal or paint.

Arabic numbers are written from left to right, like in English. So when there is written Arabic text with numbers inserted into the text, the words read from right to left, but the numbers read the opposite way! Help!!! Plus some of the Arabic numbers are similar looking to English numbers, but some of those are totally different numbers. Interestingly enough, true Arabic numbers are what is used in the US. In Arabia, the numbers actually come from Hindu/Indian!

I have read on several other people’s blogs about how they were unable to achieve proficiency in becoming fluent in Arabic, despite having lived in the country for twelve, fifteen or even twenty years. This was discouraging for me to read since I had high hopes of somewhat mastering Arabic in maybe a year or two…or three! I think now that maybe that was unrealistic on my part. But I will continue to strive and I will not give up.


  1. Oh my dear please don't give up~! Keep trying. I couldn't speak any arabic to my in-laws until my third year when i was teaching a pre-school and had to learn the basics like I want to eat, I want to drink. SO now i can talk at the level of an 8 year old and read at the level of maybe a 6 year old. But I keep trying. Having someone to talk to who doesn't know any english helps a lot so you can't cheat when you want to get your meaning across. I took a formal course to learn arabic writting but had to drop it when i was 8th mon preg. Also I have CD's to listen to (that i got two years ago and still haven't gotten around to) that teach arabic. It really is a beautiful language and I love that I can finally speak another language (i refused to learn spanish in school just because i lived near the mexican border). The best way to learn it is to practice it all the time and the less you use it the more you loose it. Since coming to UAE i stopped speaking it until recently i met arab women and had to converse and some of it came back and others I've forgotten and my mother-in-law will not be pleased hehehe. I wish you the best and I love this post.

  2. Such amazing stuff Susie! And we thought English was the only language that had all kinds of "exceptions". I love the new picture blogspot, too.

  3. Living in Jeddah on compounds for almost 8 years made it very hard to learn more than the simplest of Arabic phrases, as there is little need when everyone I came in contact with (shopkeepers, drivers, etc.) spoke English. Such a shame! That being said, at the very end of my stay in KSA, I did finally take an Arabic course where we were taught to read and write. I think that was a very important part of learning to speak it, since some of the sounds are hard to pick up to the untrained ear, but once you see the written word you know exactly what it should sound like. I think the best way to learn a language is by immersion. Many of my American friends married to Saudis have become quite fluent - so your prospects are good!

  4. Hi Susie!,I'm addicted to arabic calligraphy,it's beautiful!I wonder if the rosetta stone program is any good for learning the language?I'd always heard an immersion environment was best for learning the language,you're lucky!

  5. I love the "mash'allah" pendant! Do you actually have it, or is it just a stock photo?

  6. Lovely post... it was actually the attractive squiggly script of Arabic that led me to Islam! In my first year of uni I had to choose a third subject and eventually decided to take Arabic... it was throught that course that I started learning about the religion and converted to islam. :)

    Umm Ibrahim

  7. AMW -
    Thanks for the encouragement. I realize it's only been about 6months but I was hoping I would have made more progress by now. I'm still trying!

    Shari E -
    Thanks so much - I love my new heading picture too!

    Elise -
    I'm trying to look into taking a class. I think it would really help. Tonight I was tutoring, and a little 2 yr old girl was even trying to teach me some Arabic - it was hysterical.

  8. To Always in Kitchen -
    I have heard the Rosetta Stone programs are good but I haven't actually spoken with someone who has ordered it.
    And yes, the Arabic calligraphy is absolutely amazing.

    CairoGal -
    The pendant was a stock photo. I think it is so cool too. I wish I had one like it, but now I have something I can shop for!

    Umm Ibrahim -
    That is a great story of how you came to Islam! Very kool!

  9. Take heart, Susie! Immersion is the best way to learn a language. That's how I learned Spanish in Argentina. You remember the Spanish we took in school from 4th grade on. I couldn't speak it until I had to! Rosetta Stone is a good program. We use it at our school for the ELLs - English Language Learners. It is very basic so I think you would need lots of immersion with speakers which it looks like you are doing on a regulary basis.

  10. Great post. I have had the same thing happen. I will be speaking to someone in Arabic and they will tell me my accent is "Saudi" or "Khaliji".

    What then kills me is that they think I am lying when I tell them that is because I am married to a Saudi lady.

    Even some of my co-workers thought I wasnt telling the truth about that one until I ran into one guy with his family at the mall and other guy at a local Halal shop.

    Have you ever gotten the people who think you work for the FBI or CIA? I get people who think that here. I am a white guy, I speak Arabic, I must be a CIA guy.

  11. Hi Susie,

    It is hard to learn Arabic at our age, but not impossible! Reading and writing really isn't that difficult; once you learn the letters and their sounds, it's easy to promounce words because there aren't exceptions like we have in English; if it's this sound, then it's written this way. (Not like in English where we have "their", "there", and they're", all sounding the same way but spelled differently.)

    You might be able to find a place teaching a program called "Qaeda Noorania" (and it goes by different names) that's used to teach children all over the world to read Arabic so they can read Quran. In a very short time, they're able to read Arabic.

    Then the challenge is to understand what you're reading... you really do need to be immersed. I was trying to learn Arabic when I first came to Kuwait, but it's very easy to get by here without it. After I got married, my husband didn't have the patience to teach me, and then when I had children, I spoke English to them while he spoke Arabic, so they're fluent in both. (By the way, it's great that your husband spoke Arabic to your son; some men don't, which puts the children at a big disadvantage).

    Anyway, I took Arabic classes and learned the grammar and all, but didn't pick up enough vocabulary. I recently enrolled in an Islamic studies program that's for Arabic speakers - all in Arabic. It's difficult, but I'm getting better, and I think it's the only way... you need to be forced to use it.

    Sorry - your topics are interesting and I'm always putting long comments here.:)

  12. Dear Susie, don't despair! You have the best prospects: you are not only submerged in arab speaking surroudings, you also have aloving family who would like nothing better than to be able to talk with you!

    Our numerals are in effect arab! They were taken back by the crusaders, and replaced the roman ones that were in use before, you know, like: MMVCIII they are really cumbersome.

    If you can manage it is always best to really put a couple of hours a day aside for some serious studying. It would be great if you could enroll at a language school.
    Stop watchin tv!

    Another goos idea is to make up your own word-collection. Buy a small notbook, and whenever you ask the meaning of a word or a phrase, write it down on one side of the page, and you write the english on the other side. And every week you take it out, cover the english side and just memorise your new words.
    i hope you don't find me facetious giving you advice but this really helped me learning spanish very quickly when I was in Spain.

    We learn English, German and french at school in Holland, but when I went to Spain I thought it was a pity that I couldn't converse with some of the very nice people I met, so I decided to learn Spanish, and after finishing Art college I enrolled in a school for Spanish in Salamanca, for a couple of weeks. The teaching was based on ''Conversation'' but a more academic approach makes you learn faster, so I made up extra stuff like the word book, and that was a great help.

    Oh, and don't stop watching tv alltogether! Tv is great for getting a feel for languages! I already spoke and red German before I went to school, because we lived close to the border and we watched a lot of german tv.
    And in Salamanca we went to the (synchronised) movies a lot. ''Robin Hood, Principe de ladrones'' con Kevin Cstner!

  13. You should be able to find lots of places offering Arabic courses... I mean here in Riyadh there evening classes for non-Arabic speakers at one of the universities as well as Arabic and religion classes at places like Dar Al-Dhikr and suchlike. It's not so easy when you have little ones depending on you but maybe for you it would be more feasible to go to classes.

    Umm Ibrahim

    PS... Aafke; I have to say the Dutch are very impressive when it comes to foreign languages, they really put us sad Brits to shame!

  14. To Anonymous/Jeannine -
    Thanks for the tip about Rosetta Stone. I was afraid to lay out that kind of money on something that I was unsure about its track record.

    To AbuSinan -
    No - I have never been mistaken for CIA or FBI!!! How presumptious of people! I can see how others may not believe you about being married to a Saudi lady - it is so very rare. You are a very special guy!

  15. To Ann -
    Thanks for all the tips and encouragement. I am not discouraged, just a little frustrated at the slow progress.
    Please feel free to comment as often and as long as you want - you are always welcome!

  16. Thanks, Aafke -
    I will try to take your advice!
    I am already keeping the notebook and I frequently study it. I put in words and phrases that aren't in my books.

  17. I used a book called "Alif, Baa, Taa," and it was pretty decent. It comes w/ DVDs. Affke mentioned learning SPanish in Spain by watching familiar films dubbed over into Spanish. WHen I lived in Spain is did that all the time, and it REALLY helped. I watched "Los Simpsons" every night. Unfortunately you don't have the benefit of dubbed cinema (or any cinema), but music is another great way to develop vocabulary (I know your husband isn't much of a fan).

  18. To CairoGal -
    Thanks - I'll look for that book. Boy, I'm so glad I wrote this post - I have gotten some great suggestions and encouragement!!!

  19. Susie,
    That is so interesting, Wow! Hang in there my dear friend.

  20. Stranger in this Dunya: we have to! Nobody speaks Dutch! Anyway, Languages are fun!

    Totally off-topic, but your son look very handsome with the shorter haircut!


  22. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  23. To Pam -
    Thanks so much for your kind words. It thrills me to know that you are interested in the things I am writing about.

    To Irene -
    Wow! Thanks so much for all the great information. I can't believe how much helpful info I have received back from this post! I have so many more options now that I need to look into. Thanks again.

  24. Hi,
    Wow, every one of your blogs has been fascinating, Susie. This one was no exception. I didn't know how intricate or diverse the Arabic language was. Thanks for sharing with us. We enjoy each and every posting.
    Are you going to come to Arizona when you visit the states? We'd sure love to see you.
    Love you,

  25. A lot of people recommend the Madinah Arabic course. (I think it was developed for non-Arabic speakers coming to study in the Islamic university in Madinah.)

    You can buy the books, but you can also do it free online at - and you have the advantage of having your family to help you as you go along.

  26. By the way, for anyone who's not familiar with Arabic, you can go to and hear the Quran being recited by different reciters. Mishari-Rashid (Sheikh Al-Afasy) has a beautiful voice, masha'allah. (There are all kinds of options there; you can also see and/or hear English translations with it.)

  27. Gee, Ann, thank you so much for the info. All of these comments will not only benefit me, but also maybe others who are interested as well. Thanks!

  28. Hi Susie,I found these to help me write the letters correctly

    some of them are for children,but I'll take all the help I can get!

  29. Thanks, Always in the Kitchen!
    Others have suggested getting children's beginners books too -
    after all, that's what I am!

  30. Hi Susie. I'm just dropping by to say that it's been really interesting reading your posts. My family also made the "Big Move" last summer. I also struggle with the Arabic language. Even though I'm now living in the Arab World, most people want to practice their English with me so I don't get much practice with Arabic. I've found the site to be very helpful. I listen on my ipod when i drive or clean my house. My problem is that I can read Arabic, and understand a great deal, but cannot formulate sentences of my own. It sounds like you are very motivated to learn. I'm sure you'll be successful.

  31. Heey Susie!
    I've had so much fun reading your post! I've just noticed I've been kind of smiling while reading every single line :-) Arabic is not that hard, you will learn it easily since you're surrounded by Arabic language almost everywhere..
    I don't know why "watching" you through your blog is so addictive! Keep going, enjoy life, and Salams to you and your family!

  32. Salaam,

    Just wanted to say I am new at your blog....and I love it...makes me wanna visit.........maybe one day.....InshaAllah

  33. Hi Anonymous -
    Thanks for the tip about IPOD. Maybe I can use my son's while he's at school! I also have the same deal with people here wanting to practise their English on me, so I find myself not having to speak Arabic as much as I would like.

    To Arabilluminist -
    What can I say? Seeing your comments really made my day!

    To Angry Muslimah -
    Thanks so much! I have been reading your blog too and I have so enjoyed myself reading it.

  34. salaams sister
    i found your blog by chance especially this entry, well don't worry about arabic...I know what you are going through, I also had to learn it, so can tell you, it's doable:) just don't give up

    regards from Poland

  35. To Amina -
    Thanks for your encouraging words of support. I won't give up. But how long did it take you to learn Arabic and what worked best for you?

  36. Thanks for this lovely post, Susie! I've got a few ideas about how to learn Arabic, and I am well qualified, because I studied twelve years and have done many programs. I found them all helpful, to an extent. I don't believe a single program is sufficient-- even immersion.

    Try as many texts as you can for learning grammar. Each has a different approach.

    I'm not sure Rosetta Stone is worth its cost; you can download a sample lesson.

    For pronunciation, study tajweed at your local madrassa.

    For comprehension, simply keep listening.

    I had to give up Arabic when I repatriated, but now, after ten years without it, I have started learning again. I accept that I will probably never gain fluency, but that is now OK. The beauty of the language is enough.

    The best on-line site around is It's unique in method and it's versatle. Almost best of all-- it's content is for adults, real adults, not children or college kids!

  37. Hi Marahm -
    Thanks for all your terrific suggestions. I appreciate it. And best of luck in your continuing quest to conquer the Arabic language!

  38. Don't give up! I feel your pain, I live in Beijing and am trying to wrap my head around Chinese. My main motivation is the look of shock when a white girl walks into a shop and asks for something Chinese... seems like it's your motivation, too! Good luck, Susie!

  39. Hi Meg -
    So glad you dropped by. I do get a kick out of people's reactions when they hear me speaking Arabic. One of the earliest experiences I had shortly after I arrived was at the Fresh Produce market, when I asked a vendor "How much are the onions?" in Arabic. He was speechless.

  40. Hi Susie! I came here from your link-back on a comment you left on my Blog:-D I was looking at your posts and they are very awesome-0 to read, especially with the pictures you have included! Your insight into life in Arabia kinda gives me and idea of what to expect when I go back to my husband's native land (UAE) and I need all the pointers I can get, hehe. BTW something you wrote in your profile touched my heart: My son is learning to speak Arabic fluently, has met aunts, uncles and cousins he never met knew before, and is learning about his heritage, culture and religion.
    Well my son Abdullah is 8 months old and we are planning to go back by the end of this year (insha'Allah) so I cant for him to experience his father's language and culture at a young age, and meet his paternal family (and tons of cousins LoL) ASAP!

    Please keep on writing your adventures, Susie. You now have one more reader:-D I am gonna link your Blog to my page because I have girl who comes to my page alot and she is a Canadian also married to a native Saudi and I am sure she will enjoy stoppin' by here.

    Take care!

  41. I have enjoyed reading your blog. It has certainly been educational for me. I knew next to nothing about Saudi Arabia and what I thought I knew was mostly based on misconceptions. You are a gifted writer and I have enjoyed reading everything you post.

  42. Hi Aalia -
    So glad to hear that you have enjoyed my blog. I don't know how similar UAE is to Saudi Arabia though! UAE is much more westernized than here. Women have a lot more freedom there. I hear that it is a fantastic place. You will love it.
    There are many blogs out there from the UAE that might give you a good idea about life there.
    In some ways I wish we had come here when my son was much younger. He has had a more difficult time making the transition from American teenager, but he is now doing fine.

  43. To Vickie -
    It's great hearing that you have enjoyed the blog - thanks for letting me know! It means a lot to me.

  44. As a second language learner, and I am bilingual in the easy one, Spanish, I really enjoyed your blog on Arabic. There is NO way I could learn it!

  45. Hi Susie,
    This is my first comment on a blog, although I read a lot of them. I found you through American Bedu, who I read every day and have learned so much from. I love your blog, and enjoy the colour that your pictures add. I'm now in Cairo, as of last year, but lived in K.S.A. for six years and loved every (well almost) minute of it. I spent six months in Jubail, two and a half years in Jeddah and three years in Yanbu. Recently we were on holiday, in Dahab, on the Red Sea, and we could see the twinkling lights of some Saudi town and we felt quite nostalgic.

  46. Hi Linda K -
    I have to admit, Arabic is a bit tougher than Spanish! Of course, I learned Spanish when I was a young kid, so it seemed a lot easier for me back then. Now I'm old and the brain just doesn't work like it used to!

    To Anonymous -
    How cool that you have lived so many places. I'll bet you have lots of interesting stories you could tell... You should start a blog!!!

  47. Wow there a lot of comments here since I first read this post! Have you ever done a meme before? I tagged you for the six word memoir meme.

  48. Hi Susie,

    I'm just now reading this post about learning Arabic. I'm wondering if your Arabic is any better. Are you still giving it a try. I've been trying to learn Arabic on and off for the past two years. I learned the alphabet and numbers on my own. I have memorized a few words. It is extremely difficult because most books just teach the language for traveling so I can't learn vocabulary beyond the airport. I've recently tried learning dinner vocabulary. This is sticking with me better. I'm trying to learn vocabulary that I will use often. Arabic is difficult but I think rewarding in the end.

  49. Hi Susie,

    I chanced upon your blog by accident.
    Its very nice to read a blog about Saudi Arabia and life there as I've always wanted to visit.

    In one of your paragraphs you state that Chinese is one of the languages which required scholars to interpret.

    I'd like to correct you and say that aside from the Chinese which cavemen in China used, the classical Chinese you see today can still be read by a present day Chinese person, some 2,000 - 3,000 years later. :)

    We also have similarities to Arabs where by we read our text right to left, and we share many of our cultural similarities with Arabs such as view of women (being weaker and subordinate to men culturally) as we were old trading partners since time immemorial.

  50. salam
    i am just about to enter saudi and one of things on mind is to marry a sauid inshallah and leanr arabic but i am scared how thing are in sauid never been there .wold likt to know where arabic is taught and want to learn the arabic dishes to cook lol

  51. sausei sista itll be a slow process but you wil learn slowly and on that you are interested in it that will make it easier

  52. Great blog, very interesting articles! I actually landed here looking for information on saudi weddings. I live in Jubail, KSA and I'm also learning Arabic. I actually thought I could make good progress within a year or two... reading your article will make me be more realistic and re-assess my ambitions!
    Thanks a lot, cheers

  53. Susie..sometimes it's easier just to speak with your eyes and the rest will follow. It's not worth your time to stress..what is important the smile and the eyes.

  54. I used Rosetta Stone for Spanish (my husband's first language) and Japanese (my son is fluent). In both cases it really did teach me the conversational words for the appropriate region. Mexican Spanish, vs. Spain Spanish. I'm pretty sure you can get a free intro disk online to see if you like it. I love it!

  55. Hi Susie, I came upon your blog quite by accident. It is fascinating.I am a former German teacher and know how difficult it can be to learn a new language at an older age. I enjoy hearing other's comments about the language and customs of their country. Thank you for your really interesting blog. Judi in Dallas

  56. salam sister..i really want to know what arabic song that u sing? do u have the tittle? mybe i can sing it to my bf.he's saudi too..its kindda hard to learn arabic,i know how u feel

  57. Peace Upon you sister, I got her looking for Arabic/Indian numbers and I'm glad I did. I'm so, so happy to hear this, I'm glade that there is people like you that appreciate the ARABIC language and love to learn it. With this love, I'm sure you will be able to speak it correctly. By this time I'm guessing you know more than the time when you had this post.
    My first language was Arabic and French than English as third language when I got to US, but I mastered the language by helping my son on his home works although I did go to school to learn the US pronunciation since my English was British! I really had bad memories of my first time coming in this country, trying to fit in but I did it! I do speak well USA English now although some people would think I'm from Louisiana because of the french accent or Greek. Lot of compliments for my pretty accent! and trust me you will have the same compliments!
    Always be in crowd/family don't isolate yourself, let people correct you if you made a mistake and remember the correction! Never be afraid of making mistakes because we learn from our mistakes. There is a saying that said "If you don't use it you loose it" in other word if don't keep trying you will never get what you want. I'm sure if you are perseverant you will get there. I'm sure God is seeing what you trying to accomplish and he will help you. Thanks and Good luck