Learning Arabic

Arabic is a language of national security importance. The US Government considers Arabic a “critical language” and provides additional funding for students to learn the language in addition to training Arabic linguists through the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and other options to increase the amount of Arabic language speakers.

Arabic is classified as a Category IV language – a language extremely difficult for an English language speaker to learn. A DLI course requires over 2200 hours of instruction over 64 weeks. This only gets an individual to a 2/2 on the Defense Language Proficiency Test, which is intermediate proficiency.

Despite the difficulty, learning Arabic can differentiate an Intelligence Officer from their peers and allow participation in truly important cultural exchange programs, counterterrorism and other activities of critical importance.

Arabic Script

Arabic uses a specific script in a similar way to English using the Roman Alphabet. Before an individual can learn Arabic they must learn the script. I found a handbook like the Complete Guide to Arabic Script Reading and Writing (right) the perfect starting point. In about 12 hours I was reading and writing the whole alphabet.

If you prefer not to spend money, the Headstart2 Arabic program includes a section on learning the Arabic script. Another resource for learning the script is from Madinah Arabic.

Arabic Dialects

Arabic is not actually one language, which contributes to the difficulty of learning it. The written language is known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is a variation of what is also called Qu’ranic Arabic or Classical Arabic.

The spoken version of the language is split into dialects based on the location. For instance, there is an Iraqi dialect, a Levantine/Gulf dialect, a Saudi dialect, and so on. The most famous and widely used dialect is Egyptian Arabic, because Egyptian media like movies is broadcast throughout the Arab world.

For this reason, every Arabic speaker will need to learn MSA and a dialect. If you speak MSA, it is similar to speaking Shakespearean English – you will likely be understood in the cities but met with skepticism, and simply unintelligible outside the cities.

Basic Grammar and Vocabulary

The Headstart2 Arabic course will teach you approximately 750 words of MSA, review the Arabic script and cover basic grammar structures. Beyond this, the website Madinah Arabic covers several thousand Arabic words.

Special Operations Language Training (SOLT)

Another starting resource is the Special Operations Language Training (SOLT) Course. These course materials are used to prepare members of the US Special Forces to a 1/1 level, which covers about 25 weeks of material (1000 hours.)

Defense Language Institute Course

If you’re looking for more comprehensive training the Defense Language Institute MSA Basic Course resources are freely available. This is all the coursework used for the 64 week course that US Army and other linguists take.

Ultimate Arabic

This was the course that I used when I was learning Arabic. It includes a textbook and 8 CDs to teach you approximately 2000 words in Arabic. The copy I linked is the exact version I used, a new edition may have come out since then.

Intermediate Arabic Resources

Once you’ve completed the DLI resources (learning approximately 4000 words) or another comprehensive basic course you can move onto intermediate resources.

The Joint Language University includes some intermediate language resources.

Advanced Arabic

Like most languages, once you reach an advanced level the most important resources will be native language materials like Al-Jazeera Television, movies and written resources.

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