Arabic - It's Got to Be the Toughest Language on Earth

by Chris Traub
(Windsor, California, U.S.A. )

First, I'm pretty fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, I know some Italian, I've studied a little Greek, Turkish, Swahili, Persian, etc. But nothing prepared me for the awful nightmare of trying to learn Arabic! After studying it pretty intensively for 10 1/2 years, I told people I still couldn't speak it very well. They'd say, "Is that because it's so hard to pronounce?" I'd say, "No! I didn't say I can't pronounce it." They'd ask, "Then is it because you write it from right to left?" I'd say, "That has NOTHING to do with it. That's a non-issue." They'd then ask, "Then why is it so hard?" I'd say, "Because it has a HUGE amount of unfamiliar vocabulary and very, very complicated grammar and because of a million weird little quirks it has." I think the Arabs set out to make it the most difficult language to learn and did an excellent job of it!


Arabic is nothing like Persian, though a beginner would have no way of knowing that by comparing the two languages in their written forms. The Persian alphabet only has 4 letters that are not found in Arabic. Though the handwriting is a different style, that has nothing to do with the real differences between the two languages. Persian is infinitely easier to learn. It's Indo-European and has many similarities to English. For example, brother is barudar, bad is the same word pronounced slightly differently, etc. In Arabic, brother is akh, bad is is TaliH or shareer. Approximately 50% of the Persian vocabulary is of Arabic origin but that does not make the two related. You're only tacking leaves from a Semitic tree onto the branches of an Indo-European tree. At the grass roots level, the two languages are very different.

Arabic is similar to Hebrew, to which it is related. It is also similar to Amharic of Ethiopia and to Tagrinya of Eritrea. Tagrinya is one of the very few languages which, like Arabic, contains many of the old Semitic sounds. Therefore, it sounds much like Arabic when spoken.

Arabic has 15 verb forms, though the last 5 are rarely used. All verb types conjugate differently which is one of the more difficult aspects of Arabic.

Learning the alphabet, which seems difficult at first glance, is one of the easiest steps. I learned the alphabet in two days and anyone can do it in less than a week.

Arabic pronunciation is not too difficult if you have an open mind and get out of your English-speaking mode. Just plunge in and do your best and you won't sound too bad. I've almost always been understood when I speak Arabic. I went to Haifa, Israel 4 years ago with my friend Kevin. There was a class of Arab children in front of the Baha'i Gardens waiting for a tour. Kevin worked his way through them saying, "Excuse me! Excuse me!" One of the Arab children non-chalantly said, "Sabah al kheir," (good morning) obviously not expecting a reply. I non-chalantly said, "Sabah an-nur." They all smiled and laughed and said, "Oooooooh!" I was also in the Arab section looking for a place to eat when I saw an elderly Arab man standing there. I said, "Batahke Araby?" He nodded. I said, "Fii mata'am 'arib min hon?" (Is there a restaurant near here?) He said, "'Eish biddak? Falafil?" (What kind do you want? Falafil?) I said, "Aywa, falafil." He pointed and said, "Hunak, 'aal yameen." (There on the right)I also chatted a bit with Arab taxi drivers but had to stay very basic.

If you are a total masochist, I strongly recommend studying Arabic. If you have other reasons for learning Arabic, I can only wish you the best of luck. I don't care what anyone says, it's not going to be easy!

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