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Arabic is an immensely difficult language. Mastery requires a lot of work and dedication, but studying it means eating delicious food (Shawarma! Hommous! Mendi!) among hospitable people (and a few weird cab drivers and shop keepers who will rip you off) in the birthplace of civilization.
Arabic is a diglossic language, which means that the everyday spoken variety (which varies by country) is separate from the highly complicated written language. If you only learn to speak, you will not be able to understand the news, literature, forms and documents, letters, signage in airports, brochures, etc. But if you only learn the literary form, you will have great difficulty communicating with most of the people you encounter.
To become fluent in Arabic, you will have to learn the vernacular ("Amiyya") and the written ("FusHa" or "MSA"). Depending on the degree of fluency you desire, this will require at least one year of dedicated, intensive study (20+ hours per week) in an immersion environment (because in a lot of Arabic countries, Arabic is actually not the most commonly spoken language).
What are your language goals? How much time can you devote? How much money? Arabic programs abound in the Middle East. Your answers will determine the kind of program you will choose.
For centuries, the Islamic Empire extended from the Arabian Peninsula to the countries along the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Western North Africa and Spain. It was during these centuries that math and science flourished, major advances were made in medicine, astronomy and mathematics ("algebra" is, after all, an Arabic word) and numerous important works from Europe (including the writings of Greek philosophers) were translated into Arabic, without which they may have been lost forever.
It is estimated that up to 4,000 words in Spanish were assimilated from Arabic, due largely to the Muslim rule of Spain (roughly between the years 700 and 1500), and that Arabic has also given us numerous english words, including "algebra," "alcohol," "cat," "admiral," "sugar," "genie," "ghoul," and "zero".
Today, Arabic has more than 200 million native speakers, is the official language of more than 20 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, and is studied by Islam's 1 billion adherents. Evidence of the language's influence can be found in mosques and historical monuments all over the world, and Islamic art decorating some of the world's most famous sites including the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul and the Taj Mahal in India.
How much Arabic do you want to learn in your time abroad? If you aren't aiming for fluency, you can study just about anywhere in the Middle East. You can take a class and pick up some words here and there just from interacting with your environment. Students aiming for Arabic proficiency, however, should look to Egypt and Jordan (and one day, Inshallah, Syria and Yemen) first where you will be forced to interact in Arabic in most situations. Gulf countries are not Arabic immersion environments; English is the common language, and in fact opportunities to speak Arabic are difficult to come by.
Continent, country, region?
Do you need an accredited university/program? Will you only be studying Arabic or will you also need other courses? Do you want to speak Arabic outside of the classroom? There are quite a few Middle Eastern universities with accredited programs in engineering, business, architecture and other non-Middle East related courses (Egypt, Lebanon, UAE for starters). It is best to go to a university if you have graduation requirements to fulfill. Students just keen to study the language, however, should look into a language institute (sometimes these are part of the university), and may prefer, due to cost and flexibility, to enroll on their own instead of through a provider.
There are quite a few Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa. Check out programs in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. Major cities in Morocco include Rabat, Tangier, Meknes, and Ifrane. Sidi Bou Said is a popular city in Tunisia, and Alexandria and Cairo are major Egyptian study abroad destinations.
Jordan and Lebanon are great countries to study Arabic in. In Jordan, the capital, Amman, and the smaller Irbid offer programs. Beirut in particular is a popular language study city in Lebanon.
Prices, cost of living, expenses?
Studying Arabic abroad can be crazy expensive, or ridiculously cheap with providers (including API, CET (Jordan, Tunisia) CIEE, IFSA-Butler, ISEP) charging around $15000 per semester and an independently-arranged program costing as low as $500 per month for an intensive program. The cheapest, most interesting way is to study on your own. You can take an intensive program (80 hours per month) for $500-700 a month but you will be entirely independent.
The advantage of using a provider is that it includes insurance, cultural excursions, a resident director, and 24/7 support. And, because they contract with accredited institutions, it is a good fit for students needing credit transfer. The independent route is cheapest because it is just the bare bones, but this is the more interesting route, the one that puts you in closest contact with the culture. Currently, Egypt is the safest, most affordable destination with numerous quality language programs to choose from.
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Arabic is a language that is so enormous, so full of richness and history and poetic complexity that simply learning to speak it is committing an injustice. Go to the Middle East and fall in love. And if you don't, at least come back with a few good phrases. Speaking Arabic makes for a neat party trick.
Anna is a traveler, blogger, writer, former study abroad advisor, and current Arabic student. She blog-advises about traveling/studying/learning Arabic in the Middle East. Check it out here!