(My) tips for Learning Spoken Arabic

13 Aug

After five years of living in a Muslim country, I still am not fluent in speaking Arabic.  I don’t really interact with sisters too much and, my oldest son usually did most of the grocery shopping at the small nearby stores; until recently, I did not really get out too much until I discovered the big Western style grocery stores.  

 My oldest son was nine when we moved to Egypt.  Within a year, I would say, he was fluent in the local lingo.  Now my nine year old, though not fluent, is picking it up well masha Allah.  And as I go out more, I am making some progress, insha Allah.  My son hails down the taxi, but has trouble explaining where a store is located so I have to step in… 

During my trips out, I have made some observations and come to a few conclusions that make communicating a little more easier. I thought they may be of some help to others who are planning to move to an Arabic country and Arabic is not their native language, again, these are just my thoughts……...   

Fushah vs. Local dialect

 The language spoken in the streets in most Arabic speaking countries is probably not the fushah that many of us learn say from the Madinah books, etc.  You will find local dialects for different countries and even different dialects within a small country. Many times the vocabulary is very different from what you may learn.  So be prepared to learn the local lingo, it’s a must….   


For out on the street communication, don’t get bogged down into using so much of that grammar you learn from books…Of course it is important to learn grammar to read the quraan and Arabic text, but it can be a time killer out on the streets when you need to communicate quickly. 

Example: Conjugation.  If you take the time to figure out how to correctly conjugate a word, well you may draw a blank stare from say an impatient taxi driver.  I have found that you knowing the “you” form are the most important as you may most likely be addressing one person (say a taxi driver, cashier, etc) and of course learning “I” forms, I want, I need, etc.  You may want to get a conjugation dictionary and practice conjugating for those forms of words that you might use often.  

 Endings (damma, kasrah, fathah).

Of course these are extremely helpful, as they can tell you who or what did something, for example, but when I try to figure out the correct ending, it just takes up a long time and anyway, I find that in spoken language, these are often left off anyway. 

 Sentence Structure.

 Learn how the locals say key phrases and say what they say.  It may not seem to make sense if you’ve studied fushah. Just learn it and use it if you want to communicate quickly.  I pick up a lot of phrases in the taxi and just use them the next time and it really works. Sometimes you get helpful drivers who will tell you how to say something “better” or “correctly”. Take it and use it, trust me. 


Now I can really butcher a word.  I may elongate when it’s a short sound or vice versa.  When you hear someone pronounce something, remember it.  It could mean a world of difference between how you pronounce something and how its locally pronounced.  I’ve given names of streets and drawn blank faces and repeated it different ways until I got “m’aruf” (known, I know)  picked that phrase up the other day in the taxi…….Its amazing, to me I would think if I mispronounce it you could still figure it out, but apparently not……. 


Again, sometimes if you use fushah for a work, it doesn’t go over well.  Learn the local vocabulary.  For instance, someone learning fushah might say “Matha tureed?” What do you want?  Here its “Ish tureed?” “Ish” is used in many places (I think Egypt is one if I remember correctly).  If you don’t understand something its “Ish?”  Still funny using that one, though…….  

Listening, Body Language, and Context Clues

Native speakers seem to speak fast if your ear is not trained.  Get lots of practice listening to people. I have learned that sometimes you have to listen for key words instead of trying to take in the whole sentence.  Just understanding one word of a string of uncomprehensible words can make the difference between understanding and being completely lost. And also helpful too is that you can sometimes easily pick up the gist of what someone is saying by their body language, whew.  Sometimes a driver will rattle off a quick sentence and the only thing that saved me was that he pointed or made some gesture.  At first, there will be a lot of trial and error. If you can go around with someone who is fluent and just listen, that really helps.  My son is my translator and I often ask, what’d he say? What does that mean? You have to get in there and act like you know what is going on. I asked my son what the taxi driver said thinking he had understood and he said he didn’t know, but the guy pointed,lol.

 I am always amazed though because my son will go into a store talk with the people and I sit back and watch them go back and forth, and everything sounded totally foreign to me.  You have to get out there and use the language.  Studying from a book is good, but to be able to communicate with people, you have to get out there and use it (the masjid, the store, go to a sister’s house, etc) that is how you are going to learn it.  

 I’m long winded, but I wanted to end with a few out on the street vocabulary/phrases that I have picked up and use in the taxi:  

Tawalli or alatoule (straight)

Yameen (right)

Shimaal (left)

Irja (as in turn around and go back the other way, u turn)

Ta’aruf ________?  (do you know ______?) as in a particular street or building

Shweyyah (a little bit, a little, a little further)

Ba’dayn (further down)

Ath-thani (the next, as in the next street for example)

Qarib min (close to)

Janby (next to, or near)    


Posted by on August 13, 2007 in Arabic Study Aids


6 responses to “(My) tips for Learning Spoken Arabic

  1. TheLadyOfTheHouse

    August 14, 2007 at 2:50 am

    I wish there were more books out there that explained this, but most of the dialects ARE fuSHaa, just with some pronunciation variations or grammatical simplifications. In fact, many of the dialect words are very classical words that are not used in Modern Standard Arabic but ARE in the Qur’an! Understanding how this works in my husband’s dialect (Syrian) has been the most amazing, eye-opening thing in the world for me and has allowed me to understand the dialect and MSA/FuSHaa as a holistic system and has even allowed me to understand the Qur’an better. I understand this not only from my husband but from a book series that specifically treats Syrian Arabic this way, by showing the direct derivation of the dialect from FuSHaa. I don’t know of any that treat other dialects the same way. Even the Moroccan dialect, which does have a fair number of loan words from French and Berber, is still mostly FuSHaa even though you’d probably never guess it and even most Arabs have a hard time understanding it. (It’s mostly the thick accent.)

    But for example, everything in your list of words above for navigating a taxi driver is all FuSHaa. Even the word “Ish” or “eysh” (as it’s pronounced in Syria, which means specifically “which one”) is just a shortened version of “ayyu shay'” which is fuSHaa and means the same thing. Most people though don’t actually realize this, especially not people with lower education levels that you may deal with on a daily basis (such as taxi drivers, etc.) which is why you can’t usually get by speaking straight MSA/Classical with them. But by learning MSA/Classical, you can then easily learn ANY dialect quickly if you have the information you need to convert from one to the other.

    I hear a lot of people (especially non-Arabs who don’t get it) disparaging the dialects as “street slang” or “trash Arabic” or something like that. It’s absolutely untrue and that attitude shows ignorance of the Arabic language. Someday if I ever get around to actually blogging again, I’d like to write about it.

    You’re absolutely right about practice and training your ear to “hear” the words when people speak fast. I remember my first trip to Syria I was there for only a month and only was able to minimally understand by the time I left even though I spent lots of time with my MIL and one SIL. The second time I was there for three months but spent a lot of time alone and I had to watch TV just to try and remember what I had learned the first time. The third time I was also there for three months and I was with a lot of people that time (we had family members living with us and visiting daily) and it was that time I really learned how to speak and I can now understand quite a bit.

    Just don’t be afraid to make mistakes and sound silly. I do a lot of that now but it took me a while to get up enough courage to do so. I’m a perfectionist and pretty shy about making mistakes in front of people so that was really difficult for me to learn!

  2. Umm Sahla

    November 12, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Assalamu alaikum sister…
    I really enjoy reading your posts! We recently moved to Kuwait and my question is, how did you help your son to become fluent within a year of moving overseas? I have 4 children age range 7 months to 8 years old mashaAllah…but with homeschooling and me not able to communicate in Arabic, how will they become fluent in Arabic? Too many ppl here seem to speak English…although we usually get spoken to in Arabic when we go out (everyone thinks we are Arab)…and ppl are really confused when we ask if they speak english. There are other families that have been here more than 5 years and still speak no Arabic…I don’t want that to be our family. The families I know whose kids do speak are all in school, which is not an option for us…sooo…any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    Umm Sahla

  3. talibiddeenjr

    November 18, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    wa alaykum us salaam,

    To be perfectly honest, I did nothing to help my son become fluent in Arabic (though I wish I could say I did), he learned it himself by going to the stores and doing my shopping for me, masha Allah he just picked it up through that. And my younger son, age 9, is picking it up that way too, masha Allah.

    I have been overseas for almost 5 years and although I can read and write Arabic, I am not fluent, not even close. But the more I go out and interact with people in stores and things, that is when I pick it up, little by little.

    I don’t really ever get together with Arabic speaking sisters, but I know that this is how a lot of sisters pick up the Arabic and the kids by playing with Arabic speaking children. I don’t think that books can do the trick, you have to actually get out there and use it, and make mistakes along the way too, I guess.

    I am truly amazed at my son because he is fluent and didn’t get that from books. I guess when you have to learn it to figure out what is going on and to take care of business, basically when its essential, then you do what you have to do to pick it up.

    Umm Ibrahim

  4. Birgit-Bierig

    July 29, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Sometimes it’s really that simple, isn’t it? I feel a little stupid for not thinking of this myself/earlier, though.

  5. islambase

    September 20, 2009 at 11:16 am

    as-salamu alaykum sister,

    Jazkillah khair for your article, you’ve explained the situation very well. Masha’allah you’ve highlighted the importance of learning a dialect if one is truly to be fluent in Arabic and it’s not that hard but you got to practice, practice and practice…insha’allah.

    Br. Islambase

    • talibiddeenjr

      October 2, 2009 at 2:21 pm

      wa alaykum us salaam.

      wa yakum. Glad you think its useful.

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