Our experience with learning language is limited to English, French, Spanish, Arabic and an insignificant amount of Chinese. We’re not sure how other languages function per se, but there is definitely some overlap between the linguistic structures of Spanish and Arabic. Much of our advice is regurgitated from the many wonderful and beautiful people who offered us their advice. However, we will add some of our experiences as explanation.
- Learn as much as you can where you are before traveling half-way across the world to study in a country that uses that language. You’ll benefit much more wherever you’re going if you are diligent where you currently are. In the least, you should know the alphabet of the language you’re studying and very basic phrases that may be essential for your survival e.g. “Where’s the bathroom?”, “What is this?”, “Thank You”, etc.
- With respect to Arabic and this applies to Spanish as well; understand grammar and verb conjunction because this will help you to easily assimilate new words into your repertoire. For example, if you learn the verb “to eat”, you can draw on your knowledge of verb conjugation to communicate “I eat”, “She eats”, “I don’t eat” (This could be a life-saving phrase!), “I will eat”, etc.
- Something that we’ve learned from tutoring others in English is how important confidence is in communication. Don’t assume that if someone doesn’t understand you immediately that you are wrong. Quickly review what you want to say, if you haven’t already, and repeat yourself clearly and audibly. The other scenario that we encounter is that people may not commonly use the standard form of the language that you learn in textbooks, so maybe repeat the sentence in its more basic elements. For example, “Excuse me, do you know where the post office is?” can easily be cut down to “Excuse me, Where’s the post office?” One thing that Eternitysojourner experienced often while in the states is that when people assume that you’re a “foreigner” they mentally prepare themselves to hear an accent or to hear something “foreign”. So sometimes, a person not understanding you is a result of their shock that you’re speaking the exact same language as them.
- Know your intention for studying the language. If your goal is to speak the common language of a country, remember that it may have its own nuances that don’t apply in another country with the same language. If your goal is to be literate in a language, then you may not be able to “kick it” in the streets with everyone right away. Some people learn the common language by spending time with people but can’t read a book in that language. Know your goal. Eternitysojourner went to an iftar (fast-breaking meal) a few days ago, the majority of the family spoke the Sana’ani dialect and that took some time to get used to. For example, instead of saying “baytuki” (your house), they would say “baytush”. So as a language learner you have to make choices about what your aim is for learning a language and that will inform how you go about doing so.
- Study. Study. Study! If you have a goal for your language learning, then work for it! Especially if you’re on a timeline. If you have no teacher, then review what you’ve learned in the past and master it. If you don’t know enough to do that, then pray for a teacher and seek them out. If you have no one to talk to in the language you’re studying, then talk to yourself…seriously! Practice saying basic questions or thoughts to yourself or in your mind, so they become fluent and easily retrievable in real conversation.
- Have sabr (patience)! Language acquisition takes time and requires effort for most. Our teacher always tells us “step by step”. It takes time to learn how to use a language. Our challenge is that we translate our ideas into Arabic very literally and then it doesn’t make sense to the reader. Each language functions differently, so take time to observe how to use a language and then make it work for you. There are many phrases that we may not understand literally, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use it functionally. It takes time and mastery to innovate your own original thoughts in another language. While you’re learning, look for patterns and imitate them.
- Be friendly. A smile can go a long way in communicating a sentiment that you may not have the words to say. Communication is largely non-verbal, so communicate how you feel through your facial expressions and gestures. You may not know how to say “That price is too high” but a shopkeeper can often read your expressions and gestures (especially if you put the item down and proceed to leave the store!).
As far as books, we’re currently studying Al-Arabiyyah lil-naasheen which utilizes vocabulary and scenarios that we find to be very relevant and practical. We studied the Madinah Arabic course in the past, which we really like and reference often. We also reference Husain Abdul-Sattaur’s book “Fundamentals of Classical Arabic, Vol. 1”, the Hans-Weir Arabic-English Dictionary, and the Al-Mawrid English-Arabic Dictionary. Hope that helps! Billahi tawfeeq! (Success is with God!)