Whether you’ve chosen to study Arabic to study the Qur’an, for future employment opportunities or you just like the cute, squiggly letters, Arabic is still among the most difficult languages to learn, next to Mandarin and Korean.
Through trial and error, I learned a few difficult lessons while studying Arabic abroad. Below are a few pointers that may guide your experience to be successful and safe!
'Salam alaikum', 'alaikum wa salam', 'Kefik?', 'Kul Shi Behkair?' 'Alhamdulilah’
These are all common greetings in Arabic that are being said simultaneously and without real response. An authentic Arabic greeting is more like a battle of the wits – who can say the most, the fastest and embrace the other with numerous kisses to the cheeks.
There isn’t a rule of thumb of how many kisses or how many greetings before it being socially acceptable to move along with your day, but from personal experience, the more, the better.
It is part of the culture to be warm-hearted and open so take advantage of this language-learning opportunity and greet everyone you see! Keep in mind that it is not culturally appropriate to physically greet someone that you don’t know (stranger danger!) or if they are of the opposite gender.
In general, each country or region in the Middle East speaks a different dialect of Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the dialect you will most likely study first as an Arabic student. You will find it in textbooks, newspapers, and Google Translate, yet it is not spoken or understood by much of the public. Learning Modern Standard Arabic is an important first step in learning the language as it is the foundation that all other dialects stem from.
Although learning the classical dialect (MSA) is significantly useful, it is beneficial to study the dialect of the country in which you are living to best communicate with the local population.
For example, Egyptians speak Egyptian Arabic or Masri, Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians and the Lebanese speak a form of Levantine Arabic or Shaami, Emiratis (UAE) and Saudis speak a form of Gulf Arabic or Khaleeji, so on and so forth.
At first, the diverse range of dialects may seem daunting, but after some time, you should be able to identify the different regional sounds and characteristics.
Insha'allah literally means, "God willing", but culturally it either means, 'never' or 'likely'. You may be speaking with someone about the weather and, “Insha’allah, the weather will get warmer soon.” Per contra, it is infamously known for its ambiguousness when making plans or speaking wishfully about the future. If ‘Insha’allah’ was culturally translated to English, it would be something like, “I’ll have to check my schedule and get back to you.” It is like playing a perpetual game of insha’allah identification.
As it was explained to me once by an Arab friend, everything is up to God’s will, whether it be the weather or if she can make it to our coffee date the next day. Either way, as a non-native speaker, insha’allah will be cryptic in translation and interpretation in most situations.
Don't be scared to practice your Arabic in public! Although you may begin by using Modern Standard Arabic instead of the regional dialect, you will pick up on local phrases and accents just by speaking with taxi drivers, shop-keepers and restaurant staff.
You may say the wrong thing or sound strange using Modern Standard Arabic, but practicing your Arabic in the neighborhood is vital to your abroad language experience. You will pick up the language much quicker by immersing yourself in the culture.
During my first trip to the Middle East, I was under the impression that I could get anywhere in a taxi by simply stating the location in which I wanted to go. Little did I know that my ignorance to simple utterances would get me lost in the middle of the night in the heart of Amman, Jordan.
Again, a similar situation occurred in Morocco. After 3+ years of learning Arabic, the language divide between my taxi driver and my English-accented, Levantine-MSA blended dialect was immense. If I would have taken the time to learn basic phrases in the local dialect, I wouldn’t have been caught in these conundrums.
Much of the vocabulary you will need to go shopping in the market or get around by foot or taxi is not taught in a normal Arabic curriculum (unless you are taking a dialect course).
To avoid misunderstandings and the risk of getting lost or in dangerous situations like myself, carry a small notebook with common words/phrases in the local dialect such as 'left', 'right', 'stop here', 'how much?', ‘I need help’ etc…