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Arabic Study Advice

Dear Professor,

let me start by introducing myself: My name is Michael Müller, I am 23 years of age and currently reside in Germany. I have been pondering for quite some time whether I should contact you or not; in the end, I decided I should because there are only so many things one can do on one’s own. What I request is basically nothing more than some pointers, tips and maybe the answers to some of my questions.

About me:
I was born in Greece and am of German-English-Irish-Greek heritage. Having partially grown up in Greece I came in contact with Greek, German and English from an early age on. Of these, I have since forgotten Greek when I “traded it in” for Dutch as I moved to the Netherlands at age 6 – though I spoke it fluently at the time. German was the language spoken at home so I speak it natively as well. English was the language of many of our friends. I came in touch with it and learnt to speak and understand it from an early age on; though I only really refined my English during the past 3-4 years. I then spent a significant part of my life in the Netherlands, where I soon picked up Dutch (at age 6) and achieved native fluency in it.

Additionally, I had French in school; it didn’t do much for me, though. It’s not that I wasn’t interested but that I rather absorbed so much of it that formal classroom study soon became dull and boring for me. I have since developed my French and can now converse, read and write in French with pleasure and ease.

What really got me into languages was that one day for no apparent reason I decided to buy a Russian and an Italian language course at age 14; I learnt the “basics” of these languages; I then continued with Spanish and Latin; later on I picked up the basics of my “old native” Greek and some Bulgarian, too; and, not too long ago, I dabbled in Hungarian – but I wouldn’t say I have covered the “basics” in that language.

I wrote the above paragraphs about myself and submitted my linguistic biography in order to add some background to the questions I am about to ask.

Today, I am (or rather: I am trying to be) a writer; I have a small job that provides enough money for me at the moment and that basically requires no hours at all. Thus, I have a lot of “spare time” (I don’t really like that term) on my hands. I generally try to assign 2.5 hours to language study per day. That is to say a 2.5 hours minimum. If I am in a good mood I prolong my language studies that day; if I am in a bad mood, doing even one hour can be a chore.

My goals:
I am truly fascinated by language(s) – not only by second language acquisition but also by language in itself; I told you I am a writer (I basically write fiction) and love literature – this both includes an enormous amount of language, too, so that it is fair to say my world more or less revolves around language.
I am the type of language learner that learns a language in order to not only communicate with its respective speakers, but first and foremost in order to enjoy the literary treasures of the language(s) in question.
There are languages I want to learn extremely well (near-native proficiency, oral & written; these are the “select few” I want to focus on in this thread) and others with which I have agreed with myself to settle for less in (basically every other language but the six I am going to mention and the four that I speak already).

As I said: I want to focus on the “select few” today. Those are the languages I want to know as well as is humanly possible (including knowledge of their respective “classical” forms, etymology, history…). I have spent quite some time thinking about which languages are really that dear to me – only to discover they have in fact been always the same ones. They are: Spanish, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Persian and Urdu. These are the ones I’m trying to study right now.
In Spanish, Greek and Russian I am somewhere between intermediate and basic fluency (in order of proficiency: Spanish, Greek, Russian).

In Arabic, Persian and Urdu I am a complete beginner. I only started studying Arabic a couple of days ago and want to wait until I reach a decent level in it before I start Persian; then, having a good grounding in Arabic, Persian will come more easily for me in terms of vocabulary; my plan is to then steadfastly work on these two simultaneously, comparing them, analysing them and allowing them to strengthen one another as I study them; when I have a good/very good level in those two, Urdu will be no big step anymore once I have mastered the vocabulary of Arabic and Persian as well as having “understood” the structure of Persian. I think Urdu will more or less turn out to be a “variation on a theme” in the end, as you yourself put it once when referring to languages with a similar degree of similarity. I learn in order to be able to read the literature, as I told you; and these six languages undoubtedly have a great body of literature, each and every one of them.
Of the three Oriental ones Arabic is most important to me; I intend to learn MSA as well as it gets and then to focus on Egyptian Arabic for the spoken part of it. I would like to study its background, have a look at Classical Arabic and at the history of the Arabic language in general.
I know a long path lies before me but I am encouraged by the fact that I easily pick things up, especially especially if they are related to language (learning). The fact that I only really learnt one foreign language (French) to fluency is more due to my laziness and ability to waste time than anything else.
What do you think of this plan (in regard to the Orientals)?

Regarding Arabic – or rather its script – I have a question that you are probably one of the most suitable persons to answer: I am currently trying to achieve ambidexterity. I figured it would be “easier” to write Arabic with your left hand as it is written from right to left. However, it crossed my mind the other day that there is some kind of stigma on the left hand in the Orient. Did you ever experience any problems in that regard while in Lebanon? Moreover, did you notice whether righthandedness was really more common? One naturally figures it’s easier to write with your left hand in a script that’s written from right to left. I think you yourself mentioned you like to write Arabic with your left hand. How much of a difference does it make? Is there a stigma on writing with your left hand? Does it really make a difference at all in terms of comfort and smearing?

About Spanish, Greek and Russian:
I already mentioned in this posting that Spanish is the one I know best (being fluent in French and having studied Italian and Latin) – I can even read some simple novels in it but do not necessarily get what’s going on when I’m reading novels that are more high-brow.
Greek was once my mother tongue and I had to slowly re-learn its basics last year (while living in Athens for 5 months). I want to study Greek in its entirety, that is, its Classical and Koine forms and preferably even the Byzantine forms, too.
Russian: I love Russian literature and my aim is to read the best novel ever written (The Brothers Karamazov) in the original. My command of Russian is shaky, though I can read and write what I see and hear with ease; my vocabulary needs the most work. I have spoken Russian with my neighbours on a daily basis but it was simple, colloquial Russian. Still, I am not altogether “new” to it when it comes to producing/listening the language.

The materials I’m using:


  • Langenscheidt’s Lehrbuch des modernen Arabisch
  • Living Languages: Arabic


  • Assimil: Griechisch ohne Mühe
  • Teach Yourself Greek (though I already internalized its content)
  • Several native materials


  • Teach Yourself Modern Persian
  • Living Languages: Persian


  • Langenscheidt Russisch 1 + 2
  • PONS Expresskurs Russisch
  • Princeton’s Russian course


  • Assimil: Spanisch ohne Mühe


  • Teach Yourself Urdu
  • Colloquial Urdu
  • Let’s Study Urdu (Yale)

Of course, I don’t solely use those; I look at what there is available online, too, and try to access native materials as soon as possible.

About my studying habits:
I have noticed that you are an extremely systematic person when it comes to studying.
As much as I love learning languages, I am by far not as systematic as you; I assign a certain minimum time to my language studies (at the moment this is 2.5 hours) and try to focus on my “weak points” in the languages I’m learning. I’m not studying a single language for hours on end but I always “promise” myself to learn one new rule, one new feature in my target language every day. This way gaps slowly disappear. Then again, if I have some time to spare after reading, writing and learning languages I sometimes like to focus on one language (after my language studies for that day, mind you) for a part or for the remainder of the evening – like spending the evening watching Spanish television channels, listening to Greek radio or translating something.

I think I have given you enough information to work with.

The question behind all of this is (as I have stated before): Do you have any pointers, any tips, any advice that could help me achieve my goal even quicker? Is there anything I must heed, watch out for, be aware of, take care of or avoid?

I am looking forward to your reply.
Thank you for your time.

Michael Müller

My reply:

Dear Mr. Müller:

While I thoroughly understand your desire to master another language to fluency and to focus upon learning Arabic in depth, I feel a need to say something first of all about your current resolve to give it 100% of your attention and effort. This would certainly be the wisest course of action for what might be described as a normal, average, or typical learner – that is, for someone without any special interest or experience in language learning who nonetheless wants or needs to learn a specific language, sometimes to a specific level by a specific deadline, because of external factors such as job requirements. Obviously none of this applies to you. You are an unusual or atypical learner in every respect – in regards to the number of languages in which you have been reared, in regards to the number of languages that you have already studied to some degree in relation to your age, in regards to your interest in language learning in general, in regards to your desire and intent to learn a large number of languages, in regards to your literary motivation for doing so, and in regards to your liberty to do so according to your own timeframe. It probably is a good idea for you to build a base in one of the exotic Orientals to which you aspire before you add on the others (and the logic of your plan of procedure through Arabic, Persian, and Urdu sounds perfectly sound), but I am not sure that it is necessary or even economical for you to put your Spanish, French, Greek, and Russian on hold while you concentrate on 100% on Arabic. I will not belabor the point here, but I would recommend that you read what I wrote not all that long ago on the subject of the temporal efficiency of simultaneous language study in the thread on time management.

I say this to you above all because the degree of exotic difference (i.e., of difficulty) of Arabic is so much greater than that of French, the language you have dominated through study. A European or a Westerner of any stripe can reasonably expect to “master” French after a finite period of concentrated and serious engagement, but that is just not the case for Arabic. The learning curve is very different, much slower and much steeper – you will make progress, certainly, but whether you are a typical or an atypical learner, I would say that the first and most important pointer I can give you as you embark upon the study of something this exotic is to remain ever cognizant of the fact that this engagement to learn is that of an ongoing lifetime commitment to apprenticeship.

Apart from that, the next piece of general advice I can give you is to try to improve your overall study habits so as to make them more systematic. Your original post was a bit confusing in this regard – you said that you generally assign 2.5 hours a day to language study as a minimum, but then that you sometimes did more, while at other times you found doing even 1 hour to be a chore. Presuming that you still have large amounts of free time that you could commit to language study, and presuming that you stay with your goal of learning as much Arabic as swiftly as possible, then you ought to consider devoting more than 2.5 hours a day. More important than sheer quantity of time, however, is its division and the systematic regularity of the way you apportion your activities. Working with 150 minutes as a measure and dividing it into 30 minute segments regularly interspersed throughout your day, for the beginning stages of autodidactic Arabic, I would recommend:

30 minutes grammatical study
30 minutes grammatical exercises
30 minutes scriptorium
30 minutes shadowing
30 minutes reading aloud

For the efficient in-depth study of Arabic, especially for someone with the major goal of reading literature in it, I do not think you can forgo any of these activities on any given day. Shadowing and systematic study are as important as they are for any of the more familiar European tongues you have studied; scriptorium and reading aloud from the very beginning are even more so because of the different script system. (Regarding your original question about left handedness: this is much more actively suppressed in Korea than it is in Lebanon, which is admittedly not the most representative of Arab nations. I would say something like 10% of my students in Lebanon appeared to be left handed, and there was no stigma attached to it.)

So, what materials are you using or should you use? Is the Living Languages Arabic the one I show in my video review? Then, while it appears to be a very solid course, I think it is very business oriented for someone with your goals, and likewise it moves you away from MSA and into the various dialects all too quickly. As for the Langenscheidts course – is that the one by Harald Funk? Then penciled on the flyleaf of my copy I have noted that while it is admirably systematic, it is also too business oriented for me and consequently that the content of the reading and exercises is boring.

For the serious in-depth study of any language you always need at least a good handful of courses, and for something exotic like Arabic it is always good to get your hands on everything you can in order to determine what works best for you. Far and away the most helpful foundational course for me was the Linguaphone Arabic Course. Based on my own experience with it, I can heartily recommend thoroughly internalizing its content as a primary building block in your endeavor. If nothing else, this would certainly be the best shadowing material at your stage, and likewise you could copy it by hand and read it aloud on your own.

Do you need a tried and true 19th century reference grammar in its 20th or 21st reprint such as the standard works by Wright, Haywood, or Brockelmann at this stage? Perhaps not, but Thatcher’s Arabic Grammar has both interesting exercises and an answer key. Less known but perhaps even more valuable and succinct, despite its awful title, is Abul Hashim’s Arabic Made Easy (Muslim Media: Delhi). If you can track them down, another obscure but excellent source for solid old-fashioned written exercises are the Arabic Language and Grammar series of Dr. Jochanan Kapliwatzky, published by Rubin Mass in Jerusalem half a century ago.

As you clearly already know, there is thankfully somewhat less cause for concern with dated language in older books for MSA than for many other languages. We students of Arabic must be especially thankful for this in regards to your second main request, namely “what to heed, what to watch out for,” I would say an important consideration is, whenever possible, to choose didactic material that has all vowels clearly written in. Unfortunately and inexplicably, although Arabic schoolchildren read such texts well into their adolescence, i.e., for the bulk of their education in their environmental language, in recent decades there has been an increasing tendency to drop them from Western textbooks for Arabic (sort of a sink or swim attitude, or perhaps an over reliance upon recorded supplementation).

As to your next point about how to practice speaking/listening to MSA – I assume you know or can find out about the mainstream sources (e.g., BBC or Deutsche Welle broadcasts in Arabic) for general listening, and that you obviously know full well that you will at some point need to get a conversation partner for actual discourse. Thus, I also assume you are asking for leads as to good recorded literary material to work with. Well, after you have internalized the Linguaphone course or its equivalent and put yourself through a grammatical course or two, you should be more than ready for Munther A. Younes Tales from Kalila wa Dimna: An Arabic Reader (unfortunately without vowels, but with good and clear if not particularly dramatic recordings) published by Yale University Press and now available from Spoken Language Services. After that, you may want to consider exploring some of the children’s series of both traditional Arabic tales and translated European classics, published with recordings by the Librairie du Liban. All of these would make excellent material for shadowing, thus speaking practice, and for writing, and the latter (vocalized) for reading aloud as well.

As for how to go about learning a dialect, all I can really tell you is not to be as foolishly pigheaded as I myself was about refusing to do when and if you actually get to spend time in an Arabic country. You mentioned Egyptian as your colloquial of choice at some point in your original letter, but elsewhere you just said “one dialect,” and your Living Language course has the outlines of four of five, does it not? You have years of engagement with MSA before you really need to worry about this, and then I suspect you will most wisely want to focus upon whatever dialect your living conversational partner happens to speak. If you really want to begin preparing for that day as an adjunct to your MSA studies now, however, then I would recommend that you also begin exploring FSA or (Formal Spoken Arabic), a teaching construct of the most universally adaptable Arabic lingua franca, e.g., Karin C. Ryding’s Formal Spoken Arabic courses published by Georgetown University Press.

I hope I have sufficiently answered your questions. Again, the most important element in the efficient in-depth study of Arabic, as of all languages, is the development of an intelligent and systematically regular study regimen.

Best of luck to you!

Alexander Arguelles

Dear professor,

Thank you for your comprehensive answer.

It might indeed be useful not to abandon Greek and Russian completely, though my ability in certain languages usually doesn’t suffer as much from disuse as one might expect.
I will abandon Spanish for now; at this moment, I have little motivation to learn it and would rather like to focus on Russian and Greek instead.

The “Living Language” MSA course is indeed the one you praised in your video. The Langenscheidt book I was referring to is not a “Praktisches Lehrbuch” like the ones that you get with the language courses, but rather a manual filled with useful information. (Though I do have the book you mentioned, as well.) I am referring to this book.

I have one other question about Arabic though; I don’t feel comfortable with the so-called ’emphatic consonants’. I know they are supposed to be different, but I honestly don’t hear any difference between consonants like ‘sin’ and ‘Sad’. Some people say they aren’t as much different from each other in sound, but that they rather influence the whole syllable/the vowel that follows them. I made a separate thread in this forum about this problem, as well as a YouTube video.

I think minimal pairs might be of great help here; I did, however, not find any minimal pair exercises for Arabic through Google. I’m sure you have some advice for this.

Michael Müller

My reply:

Dear Mr. Müller:

Since you mention it and since you have it handy, upon reflection one of the strongest points of Dr. Funk’s course is its recordings of the Übungen zur Lautlehre (S. 38-40), which lend themselves particularly perfectly to minimal pair practice.

You probably cannot hear the difference between the ’emphatic consonants’ and the ‘normal’ ones because such distinctions do not exist in any of the languages that you already know. However, their production is a relatively simple and painless matter of physically sucking your tongue to the bottom of your mouth while keeping the same basis of articulation, thus creating a “hollow” echoing effect in the following vowels. If you practice doing this over time, you should come to hear the distinction.

All this said, it is really not the best strategy to worry over much about this kind of detail at the beginning stages of learning, when the learning curve is most rapid. Rather, you should endeavor to learn as much globally as you can until you level off, for your will find that many seeming difficulties simply take care of themselves. It is when you come to a plateau that you should focus on resolving residual problems. Attempting to solve them prematurely can turn out to be a most inefficient use of time.

Yours with best wishes,

Alexander Arguelles

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My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

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