Reasons to learn Arabic

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

I don’t know Arabic, but I love reading how different languages handle things. This jumps out at me:

3. The writing system

The Arabic writing system is exotic looking but easy to learn, which is a rare combination. The language uses a straightforward alphabet, but because letters change their shape depending on what their neighbors are it is quite impenetrable to the uninitiated.

For exmaple, here are some “words” consisting of a single letter repeated three times:

ككك تتت ععع ممم

6. The Feminine Plural
Formal Arabic distinguishes between groups composed entirely of women and groups that contain one or more men, and has distinct pronouns, plural forms, and verb conjugations for feminine dual and feminine plural.

This gives Arabic a total of twelve personal pronouns. No other language will make you work as hard to avoid speaking formally to pairs of women.

7. Crazy Agreement Rules
Arabic has a number of very unusual agreement rules. My absolute favorite is that all non-human plurals are grammatically feminine singular:

al-kutub hadra’ (الكتب خضراء)

“The books, she is green”

10. Diglossia

Muslims believe that Arabic as written in the 7th century A.D. is the language of divine revalation. This has served as a tremendously conservative force on written Arabic, with two important consequences.

The first is that texts from over a thousand years ago remain accessible to modern readers. If you’re an English speaker, where even texts from 200 years ago can be rough going, this is quite a treat.

The second is that spoken Arabic has diverged substantially from the written language, so you can study it formally for years and not be able to understand a television commercial.

This is where it really helps to love language study. Arabic has a large number of dialects, some of which are not mutually intelligible, but all educated Arabs will know the formal written language, which they consider to be a higher form of their day-to-day speech. This ‘higher’ language is used in speeches, news programs, lectures and other formal contexts, but never in casual conversation unless differences in dialect make it absolutely necessary. The combination of numerous dialects and a formal/informal continuum is pretty much unique to Arabic and gives rise to fascinating situations watching Arabs calibrate their lanugage based on the situation and the linguistic background of their interlocutor.

Post external references

  1. 1