WORD OF THE DAY
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How to Learn Arabic
© Saqib Hussain
4 Arabic Vocabulary
I had two major problems with Arabic vocabulary. Firstly, how to organise it; when I started studying Arabic, I used make list after list of new words, without any thought or creativity - not a recipe for a success!
Secondly, how to memorize and retain the vocabulary. Repeatedly looking over long lists of words with no logical structure is a great cure for insomnia, but pretty useless for anything else.
The stages below discuss an efficient way to deal with vocabulary at each stage of your Arabic education. As you will see, there is some variation depending on whether you want to focus on classical or modern Arabic.
A - When learning Arabic grammar
Details of how to organise, memorize and revise your vocabulary while studying Arabic grammar are given in the free course Arabic Phrases and Vocab Memorization in the Online Arabic section. This free course explains how a vocabulary sheet should be laid out, and the Ticket Methodology for revision. You should familiarise yourself with these two concepts now by going through that course material before reading on, as it will be referred to in the next stages.
The vocabulary learnt from your grammar book, whichever one you work through, is referred to below as your 'Core Vocabulary'.
B - Reading Stage I
Once you have gained enough confidence from your grammar studies to start reading books, make separate Arabic vocabulary sheets and tickets, in the manner shown in the course Arabic Phrases and Vocab Memorization, for each book you read. This will be referred to as your 'Book Vocabulary'.
It is important, if you want to study Arabic to a high level and focus in particular on classical or Quranic Arabic, to keep your Book Vocabulary separate from your Core Vocabulary. The reason for this is that your Core Vocabulary represents those words which you will learn and revise over and over again.
So before you can add words to your Core Vocabulary, you have to make sure that they are genuinely classical. That, however, requires an ability to use advanced classical Arabic dictionaries such as Lane's Lexicon or Lisān al-'Arab, which in turn requires, as mentioned in the previous section of this article, a degree of fluency in both classical and modern Arabic. Until you get to that stage, keep your Book Vocabulary separate, organised by books you have read.
Later, when you are ready, you will be able to check the classical authenticity of your Book Vocabulary, and then incorporate it into your Core Vocabulary (see Stage C below). This stage is therefore a transitional stage only - the aim is to prepare yourself for differentiating between classical and modern words.
C - Reading Stage II
If you primarily want study Arabic to understand modern media, writing etc. (i.e. modern Arabic), you can skip Stage B straight to this stage. When you come across a new word, find the closest word in your Core Arabic Vocabulary lists, and insert the new word beneath it. You should also then make a new vocabulary ticket for that word, and include it with the tickets for that chapter.
For example, the first time you come across the word for 'intoxicants', mukhaddirāt, you would find the closest word in your Core Arabic Vocabulary (which for in both our Arabic Grammar course and in Haywood and Nahmad would be 'wine', which is khamr), and write in the new word below it. You would then make a vocabulary ticket for 'drugs', and include it with the tickets for the appropriate chapter.
This method is predicated on your having memorized the Core Arabic Vocabulary extremely rigorously, by going through the vocabulary tickets and repeating the translation exercises until they are second nature. If you have done this, the additional vocabulary will just be an extension of words you already know and have been using regularly through the translation exercises, making the new words easier to memorize.
If, on the other hand, you want to learn Arabic for access to classical Arabic texts, i.e. you intend to focus on Classical Arabic, then you should only start expanding your Core Vocabulary, in the manner described above, once you are relatively comfortable reading texts and using advanced classical dictionaries. This is a necessary precondition, as only then will you have the ability to differentiate between classical, post-classical and modern words and usages.
For example, modern authors use the verb tasā`ala to mean 'to wonder'. If you come across this word in Stage B, you would note it as such in your Book Vocabulary. Later, when you are ready, you can incorporate it into your Core Vocabulary, by first checking its meaning in the advanced classical Arabic dictionaries (and finding that it means 'to ask one another'), and then noting both the modern and the classical meaning (indicating which is which) in your Core Vocabulary.
I know this all seems convoluted (after I promised you that this was an 'efficient' way to learn Arabic vocab!), but the pay-offs, if you persevere, are immense. By the end, you'll have an easily memorizable Arabic vocabulary list, in which you can confidently distinguish between classical and modern words.
D - Topical / Mass Vocabulary Memorization
Many students actually begin to study Arabic by memorizing a large amount of vocabulary topically - e.g the names of fruits, vegetables etc. This is, I suggest, in fact best left to the end. In the earlier stages, you should focus on memorizing words which are used regularly, and learn to use them correctly. This final stage is therefore a completion stage.
Unfortunately, there aren't many good books with topically arranged vocabulary. In English, you may find Build Your Arabic Vocabulary by Haroon Shirwani useful. In Arabic, there is al-Qāmūs al-Muṣawwar and al-Ifṣāḥ.
For the really adventurous, you might consider working through a dictionary like Hans Wehr or Hava, and memorizing all the doubled verbs, then all the hollow verbs, then all the defective verbs, and finally all the sound verbs. Remember, if you are interested in classical or Quranic Arabic, you will have to check the meaning of each verb in the advanced classical Arabic dictionaries such as Lane's Lexicon - happy memorizing!