How I Learned Arabic in America

In the Name of Allah, Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim,

This article was written on August 3, 2016 by Abu Awzaa’ee Abdus-Salaam

This summer, I was asked a question by a good old friend who I hadn’t seen in a long time. He wrote via WhatsApp,

“…may Allaah increase you and us in beneficial knowledge and implementation of that knowledge. Aameen.
If you have time could you explain your method of gaining knowledge of the Arabic language? What you did to get to the point you got to while living here, working, going to school, etc.”

I’ve been asked this question on many occasions in the past but this time I decided to make this response into a post in order to save time in the future rewriting and explaining the same answer over and over again. I hope that this post will be of benefit and motivate anyone interested in learning this beautiful language.

I ask Allah to accept this effort, place sincerity in my words and actions, and rid me from riyaa (showing off by actions) and sum’ah (showing off by words seeking to be heard by others). The words in this article are are only from the aspect of giving sincere advice to my beloved Muslim brothers and sisters in Islaam. As the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The Deen is (giving) sincere, pure advice”.

I would like to preface my response to this question by saying:

1. When I was in the States I never considered myself to be a master of the language (and I still don’t, not even close). These methods are just to help the reader to get on his or her feet and hopefully allow the reader to realize what needs to be worked on in order to progress.

2. These are the methods I personally took in order to develop my understanding. It may not be the best, and there may be other methods that work well with others, but alhamdulillah this is what I found beneficial for myself. The reader should take what is beneficial and leave what is not.

3. One can only reach a certain level studying Arabic in America. If a person truly wants to have a proper understanding of the language then it is a must to travel and live in an Arabic (Fusha) speaking environment. There are certain word usages and phrases a person won’t understand unless he or she lived with the people of the language. Living in Makkah for the short time I’ve been here, my understanding of Arabic has drastically changed through my dealings with scholars, students, and native speakers. It is a bit difficult to explain but one example that comes to mind that is common with most new learners is the change in thought process. When an English speaker first begins to learn Arabic he or she is constantly translating what is heard and said, but in reality, this is not the proper way to understand this rich language. Living in an Arabic speaking environment corrects that by allowing the student to begin thinking and learning Arabic in Arabic. This is something attested to by anyone who has lived overseas and who has learned the language.

If you wish to excel then you must plan on taking a trip overseas, but at the same time don’t let this stop you from beginning to learn now (are you guaranteed tomorrow?). Take these tips as a template in learning for now until you’re able to travel.

4. You ARE able to learn no matter how old you are or “slow” you THINK you may be! Subhanallah, we need to realize that our Lord is the MOST Generous. Do you understand what that means? He’s able to grant every single thing that exists all of their wants and desires and it wouldn’t diminish from His dominion ONE BIT. Reflect over that for a second…He has the ability to do ANYTHING He wants and He grants to whoever He wishes!

If you recognize this reality and might of our Lord, then what makes you think if you are SINCERE, work HARD, and SUPPLICATE that He will not grant you understanding? If a person is sincere in learning and works towards it all while begging Him for success Allah WILL answer! He will never prevent a person from understanding his or her religion, therefore work towards it! And I really mean that…you can learn! If I can do it then I certainly know you can as well.

Okay, after that long introduction here is my response.

*I would like to kindly note that I’ve edited this advice and added some additional tips so as to benefit the reader.*

May Allah make this advice beneficial for us all.

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“I would say first and foremost you have to make abundant du’aa for success in learning, ask for good teachers and companions. It played a major role in my case and I ask Allah to make it easy for us all.

The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) advice is an excellent template of what to do in all affairs and specifically in learning Arabic,

احرص على ما ينفعك واستعن بالله ولا تعجز

‘Be diligent in what will benefit you, seek assistance in Allah and do not tire.’ (Muslim, narrated Abu Hurayrah)

You have to make this your daily motto. Supplications, hard work and a ‘never give up attitude’ is extremely important to help you overcome the many pitfalls you will face in this journey. For this reason, I created this motto for Keys To Knowledge:

إِنْ تُرِدْ أَنْ تَنَالَ الفَلَاحْ … فَعَلَيْكَ بِالصِّدْقِ وَالْإِلْحَاحْ

“If you want to attain prosperity,

Then upon you is persistence and sincerity”

If you’re going to learn, then it requires tremendous amounts of patience in reading books (and using a dictionary), attending classes, and listening to audios/watching videos. Learning Arabic – and any language in general – has 4 aspects: reading, listening, writing and speaking. I’m going to give you practical advice of what I did to help hone these skills while I was in America.

Before I explain this I have to mention that a good teacher and companions are required in order to guide you in your learning and development. Follow the program being taught and be consistent. Your desire will decrease from time to time therefore your teacher and classmates will aid in renewing your intention and drive. If you do not have a teacher then supplicate to Allah and beg Him for one, may Allah grant you success.

When I reverted to Islam, Allah blessed me to immediately begin learning the Arabic alphabet. After a month or so I was able to read the Qur’an, alhamdulilah. Once I was able to read Arabic letters with some type of fluency I began studying “Arabic Made Easy” with my teacher (may Allah reward him and his family with good in this life and the next). This is a good book and teaches beginning level grammar terminologies in English. It also provides a good amount of vocabulary words for a total beginner. It was an excellent start to keep me motivated and the book was easily digestible. I have to stress that having a good teacher – especially in the beginning of your studies – is key. A good teacher will break down confusing content into simple terms and give you that motivation to keep on learning!

After studying this book, my teacher paired me with another student (who turned out to be one of my best friends) and threw us “into the fire”, we began our study of al-Ajroomiyyah. Al-Ajroomiyyah is a classical beginning text on Arabic grammar, usually studied by native speakers. At that point, with the amount of vocabulary I had at my disposal, I can honestly say I was not ready for that level of Arabic. Mind you we had to go through the explanation IN ARABIC! But, only by Allah’s permission, I decided to take on the challenge.

Our teacher would explain the general concepts in the book and skip alot of detail. It really was up to us to read the explanation and find the gems. When I opened the all-Arabic explanation I literally understood zero of what was going on. This was completely different than my usual portion of Arabic material learning sentences like “This is a boy”, or “Muhammad’s book”. But, alhamdulillah, I decided to take my two dictionaries (Hans Wehr and Mawrid – yeah that big thing) and look up every single word I found. It was at this point I realized that knowledge wasn’t transferred via osmosis.

Anything I didn’t understand I asked my teacher and he explained. At the time I thought to myself that this is what I have to do in order to learn. If I don’t memorize and understand these vocabulary words now then I’ll never be able do it. This drive pushed me. After being taught al-Ajroomiyyah (explained by Ibn Uthaymeen, and in my honest opinion, it’s the best explanation because the Shaykh gave examples after examples after examples until the concepts became clearer than day – may Allah have mercy on him) and studying it multiple times with my teacher I ventured off to other books on my own/with other students. Ultimately, in order to truly progress at the fast rate you have to add personal studies outside of the material you are taught in class.

This is what I did to develop each of the aforementioned skills:

Reading

First I took a composition notebook and divided it into 2 sections: one side for nouns and the other for verbs. This was used as my vocabulary notebook in which I reviewed on a daily basis. I filled it with new words I came across in my readings, conversations, classes and videos.

Then I read Arabic books like “Stories of the Prophets” by Nadwi and Shaykh Fawzaan’s explanation of 40 Ahadith an-Nawawi that contained full tashkeel (fatha, dhumma, kasra, etc). I used these books because they contained easy vocabulary and amazing information that kept me motivated at the same time. The tashkeel helped tremendously in pronunciation and application of grammar I previously learned in al-Ajroomiyyah.

Every day I took 5 pages from “Stories of the Prophets” and a hadith with its explanation by Shaykh Fawzaan. I read it out loud to myself and also to others, if anyone was present. I then recorded all new words into my vocabulary notebook. Building vocabulary on a daily basis was (and still is) very crucial, and this helped me in doing that. After I finished reading these books I went over them again 3 extra times. This reinforced the vocabulary I found and aided in my understanding. It turned out that every time I re-read a book I was able to pick up on things I didn’t notice before. I made it a point to always read out loud in order to get my tongue accustomed to the sounds – this was tremendous advice given to me from a friend, Allah reward him well.

This was my methodology with regard to books. I performed the same method with as many books as I was able to get hold of without jumping to other titles until I felt I had a good grasp of previous works.

Listening and Writing

My teacher always told us that he listened to Nur ala Darb tapes of ibn Uthaymeen on his way to and back from work on the train. He said that this helped him in his progression, and naturally I wanted to do the same.

He gave us a 5 minute clip and told me and my classmate to listen to it a couple of times every day. He said that at first I wouldn’t be able understand anything, but, after a while, my ears will become accustomed. Alhamdulilah, that turned out to be true. My ears began to pick up on some letters and eventually I was able to make out some words.

Over time I moved from 5 minute clips to 10 minute clips to 30 minute clips to full lectures. It was hard at first but with consistency, patience and more importantly success from Allah (du’aa is key) I was able to pick up on it. It may take weeks, months, or years but you have to remain consistent (remember the motto). I also tried to behave as if I was in a classroom setting. I took notes during the lecture and if I didn’t understand something or something went over my head I rewinded and played it over and over again until I understood. I kept taking notes until I was able to transcribe entire lectures. This helped tremendously in progression because my brain had to work harder to process what I was hearing and then put it on paper. This was one of the hardest skills to develop and was accompanied with much frustration, but was the most rewarding especially now that I am studying in KSA. I always wanted to study overseas in an Islamic university. So I kept pushing myself listening to lectures and writing as much notes down as I could knowing that building these dictation skills now will help me later on.

Speaking

As for speaking then this was the hardest to develop simply because of the lack people who spoke Fusha Arabic. Alhamdulillah I was able to find brothers towards the latter moments of my time in America and it helped, but nothing is compared to progression in an Arabic environment. In order to compensate for this skill I read a lot of conversational books (Muhammad bin Saud Ma’had books and Arabiyyah Bayna Yadayk) and had conversations with myself. Sometimes I would play out scenarios in my head and interact with myself out loud. It was a bit awkward at first, but after a while it became the norm…

These are the methods I took to begin learning Arabic in America. I hope you will find this piece of advice beneficial in some way or another akhil karim, baarakallahu feekum. May Allah grant us all success in learning.

Your brother in Islam,

Abdus-Salaam”

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Jazaakumullah khayran for taking your time to read these tips and advice.

We have a Telegram channel where we share information about our Arabic and Islamic courses as well as benefits pertaining to the Arabic language. We encourage you to join and invite your friends and families. Please click on this link:

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