When you learn Arabic, it’s tempting to devote all your time to mastering the Arabic alphabet. However, you’ll soon find that those strange symbols might not be the hardest part about Arabic after all.
For speakers of any language that does not belong to the same language family, Arabic pronunciation can be the most challenging aspect of this language because you have to learn to make sounds you’ve never made before. (And we won’t lie —some of them are quite difficult!)
While these challenges might make you feel frustrated at first, there are a lot of things you can do to boost your Arabic sounds that will make your learning process more varied and entertaining.
Let’s get started, then.
First of all, we should acknowledge that what is seen (or heard!) as correct Arabic pronunciation varies greatly depending on the variety of the language that you’re studying.
Although they are mutually intelligible and use the same writing system, each regional dialect presents a few differences when it comes to pronunciation. The most confusing among these differences take place in the vowel letters. In fact, a vowel from a common word as said by someone who has a Standard Arabic pronunciation might have a completely different sound in Maghrebi.
This is because Egyptian Arabic has more vowel sounds than Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). The average Egyptian Arabic speaker uses six long vowels and, four short ones as compared to three short and three long vowels used by MSA speakers.
Also, in Egyptian Arabic, long vowels become shorter in unstressed syllables and before a group of consonants. At the same time, short /u/ and /i/ tend to be dropped when a new vowel is attached to a word. For example, kaatib, ‘having written’ (masculine) becomes katba, ‘having written’ (feminine).
Finally, some sounds are diphthongs in MSA, e.g., /aw/ and /ay/, but they are long syllables in Egyptian Arabic.
Difficult Sounds for English Speakers
Why is Arabic pronunciation so difficult to master?
Well, for the same reason that spoken English might be difficult for Spanish speakers. In Spanish, there is only one “A” sound, whereas in English we have three distinct sounds for “cat”, “Kate”, and “car”.
Arabic pronunciation presents similar challenges to English speakers, but it will become much easier to learn once you discover which sounds are possible in this language, and how to use your mouth to reproduce them.
Let’s explore some of the most difficult sounds for non-Arab speakers.
– In Arabic, the “L” sound is always light, like in the word “ally”. It never acquires a dark quality as in the world “full”.
– “J”, on the other hand, is always soft, as in “you”, and not hard as in “joy”.
But then there are a few consonant sounds that do not exist in spoken English. These are the ones that give Arabic pronunciation its reputation of being so hard to master.
– First, there is the rolled “R” sound, which will be very familiar to speakers of Italian or Spanish from words like “perro”.
– Also, the “KH” sound as pronounced in the German last name “Bach” or in the Scottish word “loch” is also a very common sound in Arabic.
– In addition, Arabic boasts four “emphatic” consonants which are articulated with your tongue in a high position and said with a bit of a kick at the end. These sounds are usually transcribed in the Latin capital letters D, DH, T, and S, because they sound like stronger versions of these familiar sounds.
If you want to hear how these emphatic letters are pronounced, watch the video below.
Finally, there are four sounds that don’t have one-to-one equivalents in English.
– Q is very similar to K, but it’s articulated further back in your throat.
– Gh is a smooth, light sound, kind of like the “y” in York, but it sounds as if you were trying to use the back of your tongue instead of its central part.
– 7/H is quite easy once you get the technique right. It sounds as if you were trying to whisper the English “H”. Say “huh” in a whisper and hear how your pitch becomes a bit higher than usual. See? Arabic pronunciation is not that hard.
– 3/GH is like a voiced version of 7, which means you don’t have to whisper anymore. Instead, you have to use your throat muscles to make a kind of coarse, throaty sound.
Tips to Learn Arabic Pronunciation
This is all very interesting, but what can you actually do to improve your Arabic pronunciation?
1. Make friends who speak Arabic
What could be more motivating than using the target language with a real communicative purpose? When you talk to native speakers of the language you’re learning, you get to speak freely about things you both care about, and you get lots of exposure to what real, modern Arabic sounds like.
Of course, we’re not suggesting you have to travel to Egypt right now. With apps like Tandem and Polyglot, you can find real speakers from all over the world who are as eager you learn your language as you are to learn theirs.
2. Learn with music
What do you do when you find a song you love? You sing along to it so many times that you memorise it. What does this mean for language learners? That by learning the lyrics of your favourite Arabic songs by heart you’re not only incorporating lots of new vocabulary but also a lot of rules about Arabic pronunciation.
If you love learning with music, make sure to check our blog on how you can use your favourite Arabic songs to boost your language level.
Too eager to keep on reading? Then let the music begin. Why don’t you play this clip with the best performances from Arab Idol (yes, the Arabic version of American Idol!)? You might find a few musical gems here.
3. Learn with movies
If you want to improve your Arabic pronunciation fast, you’ll need hours of exposure to the language.
When you watch an Arabic movie or TV show, you get a sense of the Arabic culture while hearing all those tricky grammar points spoken out loud in the context of realistic interactions and in a range of accents and dialects.
In this article, you will find 4 must-watch Arabic films for those who like to learn while immersing themselves in unforgettable stories.
Have you seen all of them already? Then try For Sama (2019) a documentary about a young woman who is followed through the years during the revolution in Aleppo, Syria. As Sama moves through love, marriage and motherhood, you will be moved by this epic journey into the experience of war from the perspective of a single woman.
If you’d like to learn using Netflix, check out these outstanding Netflix recommendations for Arabic learners.
4. Record yourself
A great way of tracking your progress when you’re learning a language is to record yourself. Choose a passage of your favourite book, say, Alameer Assagheer (The Little Prince), and read it into your computer microphone every month. Every time you do that, compare the newest and the older versions of the passage so you can assess your own progress and see how much you have improved and what sounds you still need to work on.
Although all the resources above are great learning companions, if you really want to take your Arabic pronunciation to the next level, the best thing you can do is take a few lessons with a native Arabic teacher. On our website, you will find tailor-made courses designed to suit every level and learning style.
Do you have any questions about our teaching methodology? Then send us a quick inquiry and we’ll make sure you get an immediate response.