For those who know I grew up in Saudi Arabia, it may come as a surprise that I only started learning Arabic when I lived in Morocco in 2009-2010. After that huge wasted opportunity (liasaf jadid!) in Saudi Arabia, I was very eager to learn the language spoken across so much of the Middle East.
3 things I learned as I began learning Arabic:
1. There is no one Arabic
I had heard about dialects, and in particular big differences between what is spoken between, say, Egypt and Oman, but I imagined these were differences primarily in accent, a common misconception. First, there is Fusha (“fus-ha”), or Classical Arabic, in which the Quran is written. Second, there is the closely related Modern Standard Arabic. Third, we have Colloquial, which will depend on the country. My first mistake was to believe the Arabic language school administrator when he said that Modern Standard would be the most useful to learn, as it is understood and spoken everywhere.
2. People are weird about colloquial Arabic
I soon discovered that the Modern Standard words for “please”, “very”, “here”, and even the number “two” were different than what everyone was saying around me. That’s because while Modern Standard is used for literature and media, it is not used by anyone for day-to-day needs. After four months of Modern Standard, I could barely communicate with the baker, the taxi driver, my neighbour, or Latifa, the woman that scrubbed me every week at the hamam. To learn Darija, the spoken Arabic of Morocco, I basically had to trick my teacher, the lovely Fatima. “It’s not a real language,” she said. “It’s not written.” “It has no rules.” “You can’t learn it.” Fatima was passionate about Fusha and Modern Standard, and considered Darija an unworthy-of-time language. Never mind that it was her home language. Eventually I came up with a system–bringing in lists of expressions I needed to say or I expected to hear, explaining them in French (our common language), and having her translate them into Darija–and this new phase of learning opened up a whole new world.
3. If you do learn Modern Standard, you will almost certainly join a weird club centred around a lonely Egyptian woman named Maha
For some reason that I don’t have time to research now, the Arabic-for-English-speakers world is ruled by Al-Kitaab, literally “the book”. It’s a CD and book set based around a chronically pouty woman named Maha, who hates her life in America and quickly teaches us the word for “lonely”–waheed. As one blogger puts it, “To study Arabic in America today is to be induced into a world of longing, abandonment and regret.” The Al-Kitaab method as I remember it requires you to recite Maha’s sad soliloquies aloud, to really let them sink in. The upside of joining the weird Maha club is that you will appreciate these weird songs, skits, puppet shows, and Taylor Swift remixes.