Why is Arabic so hard?

When I walked into Arabic class last week, Ahmed, my teacher, cheerily greeted me As-salamu Alaykum and asked me how I was doing. I said, “bi hair, alhamdulillah,” which means, “Good, praise be upon Allah.” But I was struggling. I just spent a full day at work sitting in front of a computer, and I was about to sit down for a full night in front of mind-bending grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

I am not one of those people who dread the thought of learning a foreign language. While everyone else was struggling with English in high school, I already spoke fluent English, which led to receiving a scholarship to study at an American university. So I left high school and enrolled in a Japanese language institute and took Japanese full time for a year, and I loved it. Then I studied Spanish after I moved to New York City and now I’m able to watch Spanish movies and read Spanish books with only occasionally checking dictionary. I have also taught myself some half-decent rudimentary Swahili. Languages are usually fun until I started Arabic.

Unlike your usual demographics for Arabic learners, who mostly study Arabic for work, I do it purely for fun. I figured as I’ve learned some of the world’s most popular languages, Chinese, English and Spanish, Arabic should be next.

However, my confidence, as I always boosted, “I speak 4 languages” stopped as soon as I started Alif Baa. The first challenge, the script, is a tough one. But it is by no means the biggest. Arabic has an alphabet, so it’s easier than my native Chinese, which has a set of tens of thousands of characters. There are just 28 letters, and it does not take long to get used to writing and reading right-to-left. (Though it still gives me a headache.) Most of the letters have four different forms, depending on whether they stand alone or joined at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Even then, so far so good. But the Arabic alphabet is an abjad, meaning that each letter represents a consonant. There are also long and short vowels. Long vowels can be ambiguous and short vowels are not generally indicated in writing. Maktab, or “office,” usually is just written as mktb. Short vowels are included in the Qur’an so as not to confuse the meaning, but usually not anywhere else, so you have to get used to reading without them. Tht whn y knw th lngg s tht hrd. But when you’re struggling with comprehension, to begin with, it’s pretty formidable.

Then there are the unfamiliar sounds those letters represent. I was shocked by my first Arabic class because I could not make any of them! Arabic has one “h” akin to the English h, and another one that sounds like a Spanish j as in Juan. That’s not to be confused with another kh, that is the ch familiar to Russian-speakers as the sound in “Rachmaninov.” And “r” that sounds like the rolling rr in Spanish. There’s also ‘ayn and ghayn, a “voiced pharyngeal fricative,” which are like a glottal sound of ah and hah, or as Ahmed put it, “just make it like you are about to vomit.” Unwritten in Roman-alphabet transliterations, it’s actually a consonant that begins many common words and names, including “Arabic,” and “Iraq.” and “Morocco.”

The sounds are tough, but the words are tougher. Spanish has genders and complicated conjugations but it is nothing compared to Arabic. In Arabic, there’s a dual form,  so nouns and verbs must be learned in singular, dual, and plural forms. A present tense verb has 13 forms. Every noun has nominative, genitive and accusative cases and two genders, which means put any word you learned from a textbook “vocabulary section” into a sentence, it probably writes and sounds differently. When Ahmed explains that numbers are marked for gender—but numbers from 3 to 10 take the opposite gender from the word they are modifying—we students stare at each other in slack-jawed solidarity. When we learn that adjectives modifying non-human plurals always have a feminine singular form—meaning that “the cars are new” comes out as “the cars, she are new”—I can hear gasps and heads banging on the desks around me.

There are other times we learn about Islamic culture. Arabic is peppered with a lot of Allah, like appending insha’Allah, “God willing,” to almost any statement of intent, as in, “I’ll see you in class on Wednesday, insha’Allah.” Or “bismillah” we recite at the beginning of our class, or “Masha’Allah” when we acknowledge anything.

The Foreign Language Institute reckons Arabic as one of the hardest languages, at level 5, the same level as Chinese, Japanese or Amharic, (the language of Ethiopia where the script አማርኛ looks like little people). There’s a joke that Arabic is only hard for the first ten years, and I’m now a second-year Arabic student, so I have nine years left.

That is if I work my ass off.