Depending on how you count “native speakers” of languages, Arabic may be the sixth or seventh most popular language in the world:
1. Mandarin 836,000,000
2. Hindi 333,000,000
3. Spanish 332,000,000
4. English 322,000,000
5. Indonesian 220,000,000
6. Bengali 189,000,000
7. Arabic 186,000,000
8. Russian 170,000,000
9. Portuguese 170,000,000
10. Japanese 125,000,000
11. German 98,000,000
12. French 72,000,000
Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family, and is hence closely related to Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia) and Hebrew. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) —also known as “Literary Arabic”— is based on Qur’anic Arabic, the language used in the Koran. It is understood by most, but not all, speakers of Arabic. This is due to the fact that Arabic consists of many dialects often referred to as “Colloquial Arabic” learned by Arabs as their first language. Literary Arabic is the official language of all Arab countries and is the only form of Arabic taught in schools at all stages. Virtually all printed materials is written in MSA.
Is Arabic difficult?
YES – and no. Learning Arabic certainly takes time and practice, but there are not many irregularities in the grammar. It’s much less complicated than Latin, and probably simpler than German, too.
If you speak a European language, the root system of Arabic is an unfamiliar concept. Arabic words are constructed from three-letter “roots” which convey a basic idea. For example, k-t-b conveys the idea of writing. Addition of other letters before, between and after the root letters produces many associated words: not only “write” but also “book”, “office”, “library”, and “author”.
Learning vocabulary may cause problems at first. In most European languages there are many words which resemble those in English. Arabic has very few, but it becomes easier once you have memorised a few roots.
Arabic has many regional dialects, and if you want to master one of these the only really effective way is to spend a few years in the place of your choice. For general purposes – such as reading or listening to radio – it’s best to concentrate on Modern Standard Arabic (numerous courses and textbooks are available). This would also be useful if you’re interested in Islam, though you would need some additional religious vocabulary.
There are 28 consonants and three vowels – a, i, u – which can be short or long. Some of the sounds are unique to Arabic and difficult for foreigners to pronounce exactly, though you should be able to make yourself understood.
The normal word order of a sentence is verb/subject/object. The function of nouns in a sentence can also be distinguished by case-endings (marks above the last letter of a word) but these are usually found only in the Qur’an or school textbooks.
Feminine nouns add the suffix …aat to form the plural but masculine nouns generally have a “broken” plural which involves changing vowels in the middle of the word: kitaab (“book”); kutub (“books”).
Arabic has very few irregular verbs and does not use “is” or “are” at all in the present tense: “the king good” means “the king is good”. Subtle alterations in the basic meaning of a verb are made by adding to the root. These changes follow regular rules, giving ten possible “verb forms” (though in practice only three or four exist for most verbs. The root k-s-r produces:
- form I kasara, “he broke”
- form II kassara, “he smashed to bits”
- form VII inkasara, “it was broken up”
Sometimes these must be used with care: qAtala means “he fought” but qatala means “he killed”.