“Travelling is returning to the essential” – Tibetan Proverb
Travelling to Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East or North Africa is a great way to learn how to speak Arabic.
Arabic is the fourth largest language in the world with 538 million native speakers and 246 million people who speak it as a second language.
It’s commonly known that learning the Arabic writing system, familiarising yourself with different dialects, and understanding the accompanying culture is pretty tricky.
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Whether you are hoping to learn Arabic or not, travelling to the Arab world is one of those things that, if you have the opportunity, you really should do in your lifetime.
However, due to our sensitivity around issues of ‘safety’, a news cycle that highlights terrorism in the Arab world, and an enduring ‘orientalist’ attitude towards these Middle Eastern and North African countries, we tend to lump them into one homogeneous block. This, quite straightforwardly, is a mindset that we need to shake off – as the Arabic-speaking world is as diverse, varied, and surprising as any other region of the world.
Presuming it is all the same is like presuming Europe is self-identical. It ain’t – and no-one who has ever seen the difference between Scotland and Sicily, Belfast and Belgrade would think so.
Why, then, should we travel to the Arabic-speaking world?
As we have said, the Arab world is not the self-same monolith that some in the west believe. And, as such, it is difficult to summarise all that the region offers.
From the outrageous and magnificent skyscrapers of countries like the UAE, to the bustling markets and ancient history of cities like Marrakesh, Algiers, and Amman, the Arabic-speaking countries offer a huge range of experiences. You only need to compare the skyline of Doha to the souks of Tunis to understand what we’re getting at.
And that’s just the cities. But from the Atlas Mountains to the deserts and the beaches on the Dead Sea, the region offers some of the most unforgettable natural experiences too.
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Civilisation was born in the Middle East – and so the history of the region stretches for mind-boggling temporal distances. The Sumerians, based in southern Iraq, were writing before the population of the UK was even settled (around 5000BC) – and it’s for this reason, among others, that the Middle East is known as the ‘cradle of civilisation’.
The following seven centuries were no less eventful, and during this period the Arab world effected some of the most remarkable cultural developments in history (there’s a reason three of the seven wonders of the ancient world were in the Middle East). But, in more mundane terms, the contribution of the Middle East to the development of the world has been beyond measure – as it was here that everything from toothbrushes to music, algebra to universities, coffee, and surgery were invented.
Much of the cultural prestige of the Arab world is still visible today – and a visit to the Middle East must be a historian’s and an architect’s dream come true.
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We’ve mentioned the diversity of the Arab world, both in its urban and natural aspects. Yet, some of the sights you will see are enough to blow the mind.
Think of Petra, or the pyramids of Giza. Consider Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah or the Ziggurat of Ur. Think of the Atlas Mountains, or the dunes of the Sahara. There really isn’t a region that beats it for its beauty – nor for the amazement it will evoke.
We have an image of the Arab world that is dominated by images of war, terror, and despair. And whilst some areas have their share of violence, this is not an image that many Arabs would recognise of their home nations.
One of the most important reasons to travel to Arabic-speaking countries is to learn more about an area of the world in which over three hundred million people live.
You’ll be surprised by what you find.
Of course, it goes without saying that the Arab world is the best place on the planet to learn how to speak Arabic.
Arabic is the fifth most common language in the world by number of native speakers – only behind Mandarin, English, Spanish, and Hindi. It is these days a hugely important global language – and a growing number of people are learning it as a second language.
You may well know some Arabic words already – although the chances are that you don’t know that they are Arabic. Words like ‘orange’, ‘safari’, ‘alcohol’, and ‘sofa’ all come from the Arabic, and the influence that the language has had on English is, perhaps surprisingly, immense. Maybe not though, if you know about the role Arabs played in the growth of science.
Watch out when you go to the Arab-speaking world, however. You’ll find that not all countries speak the same Arabic (there are about thirty different Arabic dialects!). See more about this below.
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If you want to go to the Arabic-speaking world, it’d be a good idea to speak a bit of the language as it’s not guaranteed that you’ll meet Arabs who can speak English.
Getting Arabic lessons before you go is a good idea. (Source: Pexels)
Firstly, we recommend that you take a few Arabic language lessons or private tutorials with one of the tutors on Superprof, at university if you’re a student, or at a language school.
Arabic is one of the official languages of the Arab League and knowing how to speak the language will be hugely appreciated by the locals and will also help you stay out of trouble.
Arabic lessons will help you get to grips with the writing system, learn the nuances of this guttural Semitic language, master its pronunciation, and feel more comfortable when speaking.
Depending on whether you’re planning on studying in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, or Oman, your budget and the requirements for getting onto a course will be different.
In fact, there are also different administrative steps in each country. In terms of the language, each country has its own dialects, too.
Literary Arabic is considered the standard form of the language and is generally understood by all Arabic speakers. However, a Moroccan won’t necessarily understand a Syrian when they speak Arabic, for example.
Similarly, some countries are far more progressive than others. Generally speaking, society in Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan are more open than it is in Lebanon, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is almost completely closed off to foreigners. While you may hear that Russia and China are closed off, it’s nothing in comparison to the draconian measures for making your way into Saudi Arabia.
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As we said above, Arabic is not just Arabic. It’s not the same wherever you will go – just as there are many regional differences in the language spoken in, say, Italy. Whilst in the UK we do have our own dialectic differences – Geordie, say, or ‘the Queen’s English’ – we have a greater degree of standardisation and cross-dialect comprehension. For a learner of English as a second language, however, these differences can be challenging. And the same applies for those learning Arabic.
Modern Standard Arabic is the most common form of the language – but this, as with most standard languages, is pretty much limited to a written form. Countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria teach this language at schools, and the literacy in this language is about seventy to eighty percent in each of these countries. This, if you are learning ‘Arabic’, is the language you are probably going to be learning.
However, if you are travelling in, say Morocco or other countries in northern Africa, you’ll probably hear in the street quite a different language to that you will hear on the pavements of Baghdad, say, or Beirut. Make sure that, if you are enrolling with language classes in the area, you know what dialect you are speaking.
There are three main dialects of Arabic: Levantine, Egyptian, and Gulf Arabic.
|Levantine||Spoken by people in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria mainly, as well as those in diaspora.|
|Egyptian||Obviously, this one is based in Egypt, but the country's powerful cultural industries has made it understandable to most Arabic speakers.|
|Gulf||Gulf Arabic is spoken in the Gulf, so UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait, as well as parts of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.|
|Maghreb||More a group of dialects than one specifically, these are spoken throughout Morocco and Algeria.|
As between English dialects, the differences between those in Arabic range from the phonological (pronunciation) to the syntactical and grammatical. Some are also different due to colonisation, with lots of French words being used in, say, Levantine Arabic.
It’s fundamental that you check how safe the country where you’re planning to study is.
Syria, for example, has been at war since 2011. (Source: ErikaWittlieb)
We wouldn’t really recommend travelling to Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Western Egypt, or border regions.
Armed conflicts and political instability has made moving around large areas of certain Persian Gulf states and Northern Africa. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and IS also still operate in certain places.
Add this to the geopolitical battles taking place over natural resources (mainly gas and oil) between powers in the West (the US and Russia) and the conflict between Israel and Palestine, civil war in Syria, the American Gulf War in Iraq, instability following the Arab Spring (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria), and sectarian conflicts between Shias and Sunnis.
In short, the safest countries include Morocco, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
While you can travel on a tourist visa for 90 days in Morocco, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, you’ll need to get a student visa to start a university course or a language course at a language school. Visas are obligatory even for visiting countries in the Arabic-speaking world.
Studying in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Fujairah is often said to be an unforgettable experience. Many countries have been constructing prestigious university campuses to attract students.
You’ll need a sponsor to get your student visa for Dubai and this could cost as much as £600. This is nothing compared to the fees of the university which can be around £10,000.
The student visa costs around £1,500. While this isn’t cheap, a degree from one of these universities and the ability to speak Arabic will certainly help when it comes to looking for work.
Would you prefer to study Arabic in Morocco?
There are 14 universities in Morocco and you’ll need a residency permit if you want to stay over 90 days. That said, you do have 3 months once you get there to get one.
Saudi Arabia is quite closed off to the rest of the world for study. (Source: GLady)
Imagine getting your Master’s while learning Arabic at the same time. If you speak French, you’re in luck as there are French-speaking universities in Morocco, Lebanon, and Tunisia.
You could get lessons in French, speak Arabic with your classmates, or even attend universities where lessons are taught in English in Abu Dhabi, for example. There are also universities offering UK degrees in the United Arab Emirates.
This could be useful for understanding what you’re learning in class while learning the language outside of it.
Keep in mind that the dialects of Arabic differ in every country. For example, in Morocco, there’s Darija Arabic.
The cost of university courses in the United Arab Emirates, for example, can cost thousands whereas, in Morocco and Tunisia, they cost much less.
You can’t study abroad with your pockets empty. If you don’t have much in terms of savings, you might have to consider getting in some debt…
You’ll need to work out a budget since studying in Dubai can be really expensive (between £10,000 and £15,000), several hundred for flights, and around £1,500 in monthly costs.
There aren’t many students who can manage around £3,000 per month (including tuition) so many opt for a student loan or try to get a scholarship.
You can also work while you study Arabic. For example, the average salary in Dubai is $3,000 per month.
You should check flight comparison websites like Skyscanner.
Once you get to your new home, you’ll need to find somewhere to live. (Source: judithscharnowski)
The site can find the cheapest prices for flights, especially if you’re flexible on the dates. This is really useful as you can save several hundred pounds.
Staying in Casablanca, Marrakesh, or Tunis can be quite affordable. On the other hand, a flat in Dubai can cost a small fortune.
It’s a good idea to do your research before you get there when it comes to finding accommodation.
So how do you do it?
Start by checking websites for estate agents in each country. We recommend getting a hotel room or a holiday rent (through Airbnb, for example) for the first week or so in order to give you some time to look at flats.
Keep in mind that when you sign a lease in Dubai, you will probably be expected to pay for the whole year upfront. Make sure you include this in your budget.
Staying in Morocco, on the other hand, is more like you’d find in the UK with monthly rent payments. Morocco and Tunisia also cost a lot less than the United Arab Emirates.
Make sure you remember to get all the important documents together before you go. Here’s our advice on what you’ll probably need to bring with you.
Bring the following:
Make sure that your passport is valid for up to six months after your expected return date. We recommend that you also make a digital copy of all these documents and send them to yourself via email in case you lose any of them. It might also be worthwhile to have paper copies of them, too.
Can you come back to the UK without a passport?
Don’t worry! You can get an emergency passport for your return to the UK from the consulate.
As we said, some areas can be dangerous.
It’s a good idea to let the necessary authorities know in case of an emergency.
The UK Government website provides information on travelling abroad. This includes information such as:
Consulates can also help foreign students to:
While many accidents are uncommon, you can’t eradicate all risk.
The last advice for anyone staying in a foreign country is to respect foreign customs!
This might seem obvious, but you need to keep them in mind. The Arabic speaking countries are culturally very different from Western countries in certain respects.
For example, you shouldn’t criticise Islam, throw any edible bread, or wave at someone with your left hand. Family is important in these countries, too, and families can hold a lot of sway over their family members.
This could explain why Arabic-speaking countries have some of the lowest suicide rates in the world.
Here are some basic rules you can follow:
One last piece of advice is to take Arabic lessons before you go and bring some notes on basic phrases.
Anyone who has done it knows that travelling alone can be hard. But, for those who have never done and are considering it, you should also know that it’s one of the best things that you can possibly do in life.
When you are alone, you are much more open to building new relationships. If you are with friends or a partner, there is less impulse to put yourself out there and meet new people. However, it is the latter group that suffers in this: if you are open to it, when travelling, you can meet some of the most brilliant, inspiring, and most intimate friends you’ll ever meet in your life.
But how do you do it? and how do you get through those nights in when you are alone? The right attitude goes a long way – so, be open and friendly, and remember that a night off is really quite a normal thing.
Firstly, it is worth being aware of sites like Couchsurfing, Meetup, and Craigslist, on which you can organise group outings. These are really helpful resources to have in your pocket – particularly Couchsurfing – because you will find that there are many like-minded people in the city you’ve ended up in that feel exactly like you do.
If you are attending a language school or a university, parts of the social pressure will be off. The institutions themselves might organise social events, whilst, if you are in classes, make sure that you make friends with your classmates!
There are hostels all across the Middle East and North Africa. If you are staying in one of these, then the social game’s an easy one for you. Hang around in the social area and let it happen!