March 3, 2012
Eat your Dictionary: Teaching/Learning Arabic #2



5 min read

I decided to add some more info about learning Arabic, but this time concentrate on the adult side of things.

1. What works for the kids will work for you, as long as you act like a child

This means what it says. You have to think like a child. Don’t over analyze things when learning. Don’t say “But WHY do they say al-walad al-dhaki for the smart boy and not walad al-dhaki? WHY WHY WHY?”

Because, that’s the way that Arabs speak, and if you want to speak Arabic correctly you have to eat all your vegetables before you get any more meatloaf.

Its as simple as that. Do what you are told.

Be a child, ingest the language, and spit it back out.

Don’t get cocky when someone corrects you, say thank you and sit up straight!

Humility is the key here.

2. Learn the science of “Sarf” morphology

A lot of non-Arab speakers waste centuries on learning “Nahu” or Grammar.

Not that Grammar is not important.

But to learn it with out anything to use it one is a waste of time in the beginning.

Why, well think of it this way.

The Arabic language is a body:

  • Vocabulary is its skeleton.
  • Verbs are its muscular system
  • Grammar are the joints and ligaments
  • Balaghah (Rhetoric) is the life force that moves the body

If you don’t have a skeleton and muscles to move it, you can play with ligaments and disconnected joints all day, it wont do you any good.

Sarf allows you to take one word and form from that word over 10 variants.

Example: ‘Ilm (علم)

  • to know (عَـلِـمَ)
  • to teach (عَـلـَّـمَ)
  • to learn(تـَعَـلـَّـمَ)
  • to fake learning (تـَعَالـَـمَ)
  • to seek instruction (اسْـتـَعْـلـَـمَ)

These are all verbs in the past tense only, here are some nouns:

  • A scholar, one of knowledge (عالم)
  • A teacher (مُعَـلـِّّم)
  • A student (متعلم)
  • A person posing as knowledgeable (متعالم)
  • Knowledge (علم)
  • Something known (معلوم)
  • A landmark (معْلم)
  • A flag or a mountain (عَـلـَمٌ)

That’s thirteen (13) words from one root word (ع ل م)

So think, if it takes 5000 words to be upwardly proficient in any language, minus pronouns, prepositions, etc. how many actual root words would you have to know? If you knew 200, multiplied it by 10, thats already 2000 words, almost half way there.

So you need Vocabulary to make a skeleton.

Think of Sarf, the science that allows you to form verbs as being your stem cells. You can create bone, muscle, flesh, ligaments, etc.

Learning sarf is your basic building block to a healthy body.

You don’t really need an introductory text or anything, just look at this chart () and memorize the verb scales. The Roman numerals in the upper row correspond with those used in the Hans-Wehr Arabic English dictionary. I’ll add later what each of the verb forms mean, InshaAllah.

Al-Mawrid is another good dictionary, but don’t be fooled. It will only allow you to relate a previously derived word to its meaning, and won’t teach you how to relate that word back to its root word, which then opens the door for you to use the above chart and form all sorts of other words.

3. Eat your dictionary

After you get a Hans-Wehr, read the introduction, go through this verb chart, try to memorize it, and then eat your dictionary.

Grab anything you can, the Quran, books, newspapers, advertisements, and try to translate them.

Use your dictionary, then try to think up knew words from those you just learned.

Use them in sentences and conversation. No one to talk to? Talk to your self, record it, and play it back. Double check what you said. Ask others. Strive to constantly improve.

Tear up your dictionary. Rip it to shreds. Use it so much the binding breaks.

When that happens, don’t buy another one. Buy an Arabic to Arabic dictionary like al-Qamus al-Muhit or al-Mu’jam al-Wasit.

Then build off of your basic understanding in Arabic into an advanced one. The longer you rely on translating word for word, the longer it will take you to understand Arabic naturally.

4. THINK in Arabic

Remember the Clint Eastwood movie “Firefox”, where he stole the top secret Russian plane that could only be piloted if the pilot thought of how to move in Russian?

Well if you don’t then no big deal, there are better things to do with your time.

But the fact remains; mastery in any language comes when you can think in that language. So practice frequently.

5. Read in Arabic

Read in Arabic. At three levels.

  • advanced books: things like the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, the Maqamat of al-Hamadhani and al-Hariri, etc. Jawahir al-Adab is an excellent resource for a selection of Arabic literature.
  • intermediate books: things like Suwar min Hayat al Sahabah
  • childrens books: like the Qasas al-Nabiyyin and those mentioned in the first post

Think of reading like lifting weights.

If you dont lift heavy sometimes, you’ll never build up strength.

If you don’t do light, quick reps, you’ll never get cut.

If you don’t do continuous intermediate weights, you’ll never build stamina.

You have to do all three or else you’ll hit a ceiling and go no where.

I hope this help, if there are any corrections, comments, or advice from your personal experience please leave a comment.

Next up – Get Ready for Practice: Teaching/Learning Arabic #3


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