While traditionally, students looking to learn a new language abroad might have considered Spanish, Italian or French, the more adventurous are now considering expanding their linguistic horizons with others such as Arabic.
Why might you want to learn Arabic? For starters, Arabic is the official language of 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa and one of the UN’s six official languages, spoken by over 315 million native speakers around the world. Arabic has also contributed words to the English language such as sugar that comes from the Arabic succar, guitar that comes from qithara, and lemon that comes from leymoon.
Whether you’re looking for a unique language learning experience on your gap-year or sabbatical overseas or plan to move to an Arabic-speaking country to work, intern, volunteer or study abroad, having basic conversation skills in Arabic will ensure that you have an experience that is significantly more immersive, enriched with the kind of cultural context that only speaking and understanding a foreign language can offer.
The countries that make up the Arab world are diverse in terms of culture, society and political environment and each one offers a unique experience. When deciding where to learn Arabic abroad, you’ll also need to think about program structure (a language exchange and homestay program versus a formal certificate course), cost and affordability, and the dialect spoken locally.
A Note on Dialects of Arabic
While Classical Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur’an, is the foundation on which the Arabic language is based, it is rarely spoken in modern times. Learning Modern Standard Arabic, the official language of most Arabic speaking countries and taught in most organized language courses, means that you’ll be understood by Arabic speakers around the world.
Depending on where you choose to learn Arabic, you may encounter different dialects of the language. Similar to the regional/country differences in Spanish, you'll encounter different vocabulary, accents, and even expressions and phrases.
Levantine Arabic includes dialects spoken informally in Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Syria, but is also understood in other parts of the region, thanks to Lebanese expat communities living abroad. It borrows words from French, Greek and English.
Egyptian Arabic, spoken in Egypt, is the most widely spoken dialect of Arabic. The language of Egyptian films and literature, widely respected around the Arab world, Egyptian Arabic is also spoken and understood in other countries in the Middle East.
Gulf Arabic (also sometimes called khaleeji Arabic) includes the dialects of Arabic speakers in the Gulf countries such as the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and parts of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. You might be surprised to know that some of these borrow words from languages that have had close cultural exchanges and trade links with the region such as Urdu, Persian and Hindi.
With all that in mind, let's explore some of these countries in greater detail. Here are the best places to learn Arabic abroad.
Considering that Egyptian Arabic is the most widely spoken dialect of Arabic in the world, Egypt is a good choice to learn Arabic abroad, especially if you’re interested in an experience that is as culturally rewarding as it is educational. Egypt offers a variety of Arabic language programs, suited to every level of proficiency, age, preference and style of learning.
Whether your goal is to learn Arabic for professional and business use, learn Arabic while on vacation, or learn Arabic for diplomacy to help you develop mediation and negotiation skills for a new job, Egypt offers a host of short and long-term learning opportunities. Depending on your needs and goals, you can choose to become proficient in Arabic conversation, writing, business communication and public speaking. Most courses are in Modern Standard Arabic, while some also offer the additional option of learning Egyptian colloquial Arabic.
Many language learners choose to study Arabic in Cairo, a city that charms visitors who stay long enough to venture beyond its tourist traps. With traditional values on one hand and cultural and socio-political dynamism on the other, it’s a fascinating place to live in once you learn to adjust to the cultural norms. If you’re interested in history and archaeology, Egypt, often called the cradle of civilization, is undeniably one of the most interesting countries to visit in the world while you add a new language skill to your repertoire. The cost of living in Cairo (versus others in the Middle East such as Dubai or Beirut) is also relatively low, making it a suitable choice if you plan on staying longer.
Thanks to the ancient Nabataean capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra and the desert landscape of Wadi Rum, Jordan attracts visitors from all over the world. They arrive to find that it is not only these otherworldly sites that make Jordan incredible; it’s the kindness and legendary hospitality of Jordanians that makes a visit to Jordan unforgettable.
Amman is a culturally rich city that offers the perfect balance of tradition and modernity. For adventure and nature lovers, activities such as canyoning in Wadi Mujib, diving in Aqaba, or floating in the Dead Sea lie within easy reach and make for an excellent way to explore Jordan during weekends. Amman is also one of the more affordable and budget-friendly cities to learn Arabic in.
Some language centers offer small group courses to develop conversational skills, while others offer short and long courses in Modern Standard Arabic and also organize trips around Jordan. For those willing to spend more time to master the language, there are comprehensive courses where each term lasts about three months.
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With historical cities such as Tunis and Hammamet that inspire artists and writers, Maghrebi architecture of minarets and courtyards, and beautiful seaside towns, Tunisia, a country where culture is infused with Roman, Ottoman, Phoenician, and Berber influences, attracts the most intrepid of Arabic language learners. Both French and Arabic (in the Tunisian dialect) are widely spoken in the country, giving students the chance to practice speaking Arabic to bolster their learning.
Arabic language courses offer Modern Standard Arabic as well as the Tunisian dialect and range from short courses to longer 10-week comprehensive courses that combine group lessons, private tutoring and volunteering while staying with a host family, and also offer university credits. Schools may also organize leisure activities and trips for students so they can explore archaeological sites, museums, smaller towns and villages and the countryside during the program. While some programs offer accommodation with host families, others offer private rooms and apartments. Private one-on-one Arabic language courses are also available and vary in fees depending on the number of hours of language study.
The U.A.E. might not be the most budget-friendly destination on this list to learn Arabic abroad in, especially in cities such as Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but as a country that offers the opportunity to meet people from all around the world in a truly cosmopolitan setting, it certainly is an interesting option. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are modern cities home to a large population of expats and offer a high standard of living. The U.A.E. is also safe, progressive and politically stable. All of this serves as a great introduction to the Middle East if this is your first time in the region. You can also learn Arabic in Sharjah, where living costs are significantly lower and the ties to tradition and culture are stronger.
One of the important things to know about learning Arabic in the U.A.E. is that at first, you might not be motivated to practice speaking Arabic while in the country, as everyone is fluent in English. So it will definitely take a conscious effort on your part to put your skills to test, but once you begin to converse in Arabic, you’ll find that your efforts are much appreciated and encouraged by locals. In the U.A.E., you can also pick up a bit of dialects other than the Gulf dialect such as the Tunisian, Egyptian and Levantine, as there are large expat communities from these countries living in the U.A.E.
In the U.A.E., you’ll find language schools, private tutoring, as well as university courses that offer credits teaching Arabic language courses ranging from shorter or part-time beginner and conversation level to advanced level. The American University of Sharjah offers Arabic language study to students whose universities have an exchange program with AUS as well as to Visiting Students. The Arabic Language Center offers private and group courses that emphasize speaking proficiency through a task-based methodology while the Eton Institute is a good fit for working professionals who prefer self-study or group courses a few times a week.
For the Arabic language learner willing to go off-the-beaten-path, Oman offers a Middle Eastern experience that expertly balances tradition and modernity in an environment that is warm, hospitable and politically stable. Oman’s appeal lies not only in its firm ties to the past and willingness to introduce visitors to Islamic culture, but also in the diversity and beautiful landscapes found around the country; modern cities with Islamic architecture and old-world souks, pristine beaches, quaint fishing towns, agricultural villages with terraced farms, quiet wadis and spectacular hiking trails.
The cost of living as well as program costs in Oman are significantly lower than those in neighboring UAE. You can take a language vacation in the capital Muscat, living with a host family or in an apartment while you learn Arabic or take a more intensive course learning Modern Standard Arabic that involves 20 hours per week of classroom instruction, conversation practice with an Omani facilitator, and review sessions and seminars. A’Sharqiyah University offers courses in both Modern Standard Arabic and Omani Colloquial Arabic that helps students with everyday conversations. The university offers student accommodation as well as excursions around Oman during free time. While English is widely spoken in Oman, there are plenty of opportunities to practice Arabic, especially outside of the cities.
Morocco offers an Arabic learning experience that is markedly unique; its cultural influences come from the Berbers, Arabs, North Africa, and Spanish and French colonial rule, and visitors are rewarded with magnificent Saharan landscapes, labyrinth medinas, lush oases, fishing villages, beach towns and exciting cities home to colonial Andalusian architecture, fortifications, and bustling cities. Affordable cost of living and accommodation makes Morocco an attractive choice to learn Arabic abroad.
Learning Arabic in Morocco is sure to be culturally immersive and students will find themselves eager to practice their skills outside tourist-heavy areas where English is spoken. Arabic language courses, ranging from a few weeks to months are available in cities like Rabat, Fes, Casablanca, Tangier, Essaouira, Marrakesh, and Meknes, so there’s a course for you whatever your preference.
You can choose to learn Modern Standard Arabic or Moroccan Arabic (Darija) in a small group, guaranteeing greater individual attention. Intensive six-week courses in Modern Standard Arabic and Colloquial Moroccan Arabic are available while other schools accept students of all ages and proficiency. Most schools try to minimize the use of English in the classroom to encourage students to expand and use their Arabic vocabulary. Schools may also organize extracurricular activities, field trips and excursions around the country. Accommodation is available in apartments and quaint riads with local families or fellow students.
Due to a culture that is significantly more conservative than its neighbors, Saudi Arabia remains an unusual choice to travel abroad to learn Arabic in. But if you find yourself moving there to work or intern abroad, then you should definitely think of learning Arabic. Though English is widely spoken in cities like Riyadh that are home to a large expat population, locals appreciate a foreigner who is trying to learn their language. Moreover, Arabic is the official language of the country and useful in business and professional settings.
Private Arabic language tutoring is available in cities like Jeddah and Riyadh and fees are charged by the hour. The Arabic Linguistics Institute at King Saud University offers an intensive two-year full-time program for non-native male students at the undergraduate level and under the age of 25, and results in a Diploma. The university offers accommodation. King Abdulaziz University offers shorter Arabic courses for both male and female students of all ages as well as a one-year course for postgraduate students.
Other institutes such as Ascent offer group language courses that are conducted over seven to eight weeks, ranging from one to three classes a week and accept students of all ages and proficiency. These schools may organize trips around the city and extracurricular activities to develop speaking proficiency. The Jeddah Cultural Exchange Company also offers a comprehensive, multilevel Arabic language course for foreigners and non-native speakers that works to build vocabulary, develop conversational skill as well as reading and writing proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic.
Whatever your motivations to learn Arabic, you'll find that it broadens your understanding of a part of the world that is widely misrepresented and misunderstood in the media and results in memorable authentic experiences in the Arab world.