You’re probably reading this article because you’re confused about the way how Arabic is spoken, is it tonal or not? Why does it sound harder than any other languages? Is it easy to be an Arabic speaker?
There might be some elements which let you think that Arabic is a tonal language because of the “unfamiliar sounds” to make when speaking Arabic, but it’s not. Arabic is not a tonal language. The pronunciation of words, letters, and writing system might be foreign to you, and fortunately, it’s written phonetically — meaning, every word is spelled exactly how it sounds.
Another factor that makes you puzzled about the language is that there are some kinds of Arabic accents that differ from one country to another, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a tonal language. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this article — the accents and the dialects made you confused if Arabic is tonal or not. To understand more, let’s talk first about the tonal language.
What Is a Tonal Language?
In the world of linguistics, a Tonal Language uses a pitch tone to determine the meaning of words. That means a single word or syllable which is spoken in different tones has various meanings.
Let’s take the word “paw” from the Hmong language (also known as Mong) as an example. Paw has been spoken in different tones, thus, the meaning might be a ball, female, to throw, to see, thorn, or your father’s mother.
Let’s discuss briefly some examples of words from various tonal languages. In Mandarin Chinese, the word “ma” is spoken in different tones. It has five different meanings based on the way they’re pronounced.
/máma mâ màtə mǎ ma/
Translation: Is mom scolding the horse’s hemp?
Another example is the Thai word “mai” that has several meanings that depend on the pitch when pronounced.
/mǎi mài mâi mái/
Translation: Does new silk burn?
That being said, the appropriate use of pitch in tonal languages are extremely vital. One wrong sound that you make will change the entire meaning of the word and the sentence.
And now that we’ve discussed the meaning of tonal language, you may be asking for a deeper proof that Arabic isn’t tonal. To understand more, let’s talk first about the Arabic language.
The Arabic Language
Over 1600 years old and is spoken by over 300 million people around the world, the Arabic language is one of the top five major languages globally. It is the official language of the Quran — the holy book of Islam, and a widely-used language in the Muslim world. Arabic belongs to the Semitic group of languages, along with Hebrew and Amharic.
There are various Arabic dialects. Classical Arabic, the written language of the Quran and the main spiritual text of Islam. Classical Arabic is no longer a spoken language in today’s generation, yet, it is primarily used for religious purposes. So if you (or even an Arabic speaker) want to read the Quran in its original language by yourself, then you need to have a thorough study of Classical Arabic.
Another dialect of the Arabic language is the Modern Standard Arabic — an adapted form of Classical Arabic. It is the primary form of the Arabic language that is spoken and studied today. That being said, if you are learning “Arabic” now, then you are probably learning the Modern Standard Arabic, well, unless you intentionally choose to study Classical.
There are more numerous dialects spoken throughout the Middle East and Africa, and the Modern Standard Arabic is the foundational language of all those dialects. That means, if you already know the Modern Standard Arabic, it’ll be much easier for you to learn other Arabic dialects.
And if Classical Arabic is the one used in Quran, the Modern Standard Arabic is used in books, newspapers, magazines, official documents, children books, TV and radio, in Mosque and in daily conversations.
Aside from Classical and Modern Standard, there are other local dialects of the Arabic language that vary considerably. For example, a Moroccan might have some difficulty understanding an Iraqi, even though they both speak Arabic.
There are many surprising facts that you’ll know more about the Arabic language. As for now, you might “only” have the idea that Arabic is the main language in the Arab world, Arabic is the language of Quran, and Arabic has a cool writing style, isn’t it?
The Arabic Alphabet
No doubt that the Arabic writing style is very intimidating for people who don’t have any knowledge of it. I admit that it looks insanely difficult, yet rest assured that writing the Arabic alphabet, also known as the Arabic Abjad, is really easy and straightforward. If you try to focus on learning them, it’ll only take a day or two until you learn how to connect the letters to form words and sentences.
Unlike the Latin alphabet, Arabic doesn’t use upper or lowercase letters. Nevertheless, each letter can be written differently depending on its location when used in a word. Each letter can be placed in four forms — at the start, in the middle, at the end, and all by itself.
The Arabic alphabet is normally written in cursive or script form, meaning, almost all the letters are connected with each other.
Why Learn Arabic?
Arabic has a complicated appearance because of the squiggles and dots of its alphabet, harsh-sounding pronunciation, and the culture’s strong nature. But being a complex one is what makes Arabic stand out. There are good reasons why learning the Arabic Language as well as embrace its culture will benefit you now and in the future.
Arabic is the official language of over 20 countries with 300 million native speakers worldwide. Although these speakers are mostly from the Middle East, still, there are minority groups of native speakers that can be found in other parts of the world. Moreover, Arabic is one of the official languages of the United Nations, as well as the Arab League, the African Union, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. That being said, you now have the idea of the importance of the Arabic language. If you’re an Arabic speaker, then you’ll probably have endless opportunities.
For some reasons, people want to read and understand the holy book Quran by themselves without asking for help from translators. So if you wish to try to clearly understand the holy religious text of the Quran by yourself, then learning Arabic is a must — Classical Arabic, in particular.
Let’s talk about the next reason. There are “high demand and low supply” of Arabic speakers in the Western part of the world. We all know that the Middle East has a growing importance in international affairs, and as the industry grows, there’s a bigger need for workers that are familiar with the Arabic language and culture. That’s why even Westerners have the desire to learn Arabic, for their future success!
Is Arabic Easy to Learn?
There are thousands of languages spoken around the world, and Arabic is one of the most difficult ones to learn — not to mention, it’s always one of the “TOP TWO” alongside with Mandarin Chinese.
The reason? First and foremost, there are several varieties of the Arabic language which is classified by the region or country in which the language is spoken. So if you want to learn Arabic, you should start first by choosing which dialect you want to pursue.
The next reason is its cool writing style. Yes, I keep saying “cool” because it looks like a well-designed symbol or drawing. However, if you’re trying to learn Arabic and you’ve been using the Latin alphabet for your entire life, then this might be a big change for you. Fortunately, the 28 Arabic script letters are easier than the thousand characters of the Mandarin Chinese. Another thing that makes Arabic difficult especially if you’re an English speaker is the exclusion of most vowels in words. “Srsly? Ths mks rdng nd wrtng th lngg vry dffclt fr y.” And lastly, Arabic is written from right to left — opposite on how you’re reading this! “!!!lausu eht naht daer ot regnol uoy ekat lliw sihT”
One other thing that makes Arabic difficult to learn is that there are some characteristics of the spoken language that make it hard to get used to, particularly the sounds. Spoken Arabic has many sounds that don’t exist in other languages such as the sounds made in the back of your throat. Those sounds are unfamiliar to English speakers and will take you longer to master. This is also one of the main reasons why people, even you, think that Arabic is a tonal language. But again, it’s not.
And talking about the grammar, upon guessing, you’ll surely come up with “Yes, I think the grammar is very challenging.” In Arabic, verbs are used before the subject, and you have to be familiar with using dual form of words and add them to the singular or plural forms.
Although Arabic has the reputation of being a difficult language to learn (and to master), still, it’s not so impossible for everyone to study it. The trick to learning Arabic (or any other language) is to know the most effective methods that suit you.
So now, I hope that this article helps you clear up your confusion about the Arabic language. If you’ve finally decided to learn Arabic, check out this article before you start learning!