Over several centuries, Arabic empires have conquered or influenced vast territories of land via their Muslim military conquests. Now Arabic, or some derivative of it, is widely spoken in North Africa, parts of East Africa, the Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, and Western Asia. With the Arab world’s increasing influence, and America’s lingering political involvement in certain countries post 9/11, fluency in Arabic has quickly become a sought after skill.
Arabic is spoken by approximately 420 million people, making it one of the most populous languages in the world. But it can easily be classified into multiple languages due to the numerous dialects and influences from other languages. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the written and most official version. It originated on the Arabian Peninsula and is used in the Koran, textbooks, news, and government business. It’s also an official language of the United Nations.
Read the guide on this page written by Go Overseas experts, just for you. Then choose an Arabic language program from the list below. You'll be on your way to becoming a fluent Arabic speaker!Photo credit: ADEL AL-OMRANI.
There are a multitude of courses and programs available for those seeking to master Arabic. However, with a different alphabet and grammar structure, Arabic can be exceedingly difficult to learn if you are not committed. Most programs only except those that have previous experience with the language and can prove they are serious about learning more. It’s not a language that can simply fill an academic credit.
- University courses: If you want to get a head start, there are plenty of options right in the United States to take Arabic courses at universities or any language school. However, lessons in America will most likely be taught in MSA and there are far fewer courses and written material that teach the regional varieties of Arabic. If you are planning to work, volunteer, or travel in a specific country, where communication with locals is key, knowing MSA won’t be adequately helpful. The best way to learn the local version of Arabic is to go there. These courses are included in your tuition so unless you want extra lessons it won’t cost more.
- Homestays: Living with a host family is by far the best way to fully immerse yourself and learn the colloquial language the quickest. Plenty of study abroad programs offer home stays while taking courses at a university or language school, allowing you to gain insight into Arab traditions, social customs, and daily life. It’s beneficial because it allows you to grow comfortable with your host family, which will increase the amount of practice you are receiving, and thus build your confidence. It also means daily home-cooked meals, and typically a home-stay is cheaper than renting or paying for a hotel.
- Study Abroad: University of Arkansas Arabic Professor Adnan Haydar says “One of the best ways to study Arabic is by going abroad.” There are an assortment of programs available for students working towards a degree. They can be completed either during a semester in conjunction with other courses or for a summer or winter term and are strictly language intensive. There are several American style universities in Egypt of the Middle East that will collaborate with your home university to ensure you receive the academic credits you need. If you are serious about becoming fluent in Arabic you should spend at least a year in the country of your choice. The price of programs varies greatly depending on which country you choose, the length of your stay, and which universities your home institution is affiliated with.
- Language Study & Volunteer: Joining the Peace Corps is one of the most authentic ways to study a language and immerse yourself in the culture. Language instructions are provided in the beginning of your term, and then you are placed in a local community where knowing how to communicate is imperative. If you are turned off by the two year commitment, institutions like The Moroccan Center for Arabic Studies offers language programs complemented by volunteering in childcare, women empowerment, teaching English, and teaching French. A month long volunteer/language course for this program is around $2200.
Why Study Arabic Abroad?
Arabic is quickly gaining popularity as the demand for specialized jobs in the government increases. The current high demand and low supply means that knowing Arabic will immediately set you apart from competitors when applying for jobs and internships. However, there has been a recent growth in students studying Arabic and this is hugely important; it builds cultural understanding with the Mideast, debunks myths and stereotypes that pervade the media, and offers a pathway towards understanding and a working relationship. USA Today says “the number of American students studying Arabic has increased significantly over the years” which means there are now more opportunities, programs, and scholarships offered. Don’t miss your chance to take advantage of the high market demand - your Arabic fluency could be the key to attaining your dream job.
Popular Locations for Learning Arabic
Arabic is spoken in many different countries - it’s the official 27 countries - but sadly a large amount of them are considered dangerous and underdeveloped, thus aren’t recommended for student travelers. The four places people consistently go to study Arabic are Lebanon, Egypt, Dubai, and Morocco, mainly because they are relatively stable and liberal compared to the rest of the Middle East. They also have American style universities and more options for courses, exchange programs, tutoring, and home stays. At this time, Morocco and Dubai are the safest, though Morocco provides a bit more of an authentic, cultural experience.
Choosing an Arabic Learning Program
It’s very important to know what you want out of the language when you choose a program. As mentioned earlier, there are a variety of different forms of Arabic spoken, so choosing your country is the same as choosing which dialect you will learn (you can still learn MSA anywhere you go). You also need to evaluate what’s important to you: living with a family vs. your privacy, having excursions included vs. a more independent experience, being taught by private tutors vs. with a group of other students, taking classes at a university vs. a language school, the intensity of the program, and how much you are willing to spend. When researching programs, make sure you consider all of these factors as it will determine the outcome of your experience.
- Simply saying "hello" in Arabic is considered extremely rude. The most common initial greeting is “As-salamu alaykum” (peace be upon you) and the correct response is “Wa alaykumu s-salam” (and also with you). Following this, it’s typical to exchange the equivalent of “how are you?” five different ways before you carry on your way.
- When greeting, men can handshake, and women may kiss or not, but there is absolutely no cross gender touching.
- Arabic is a very poetic language. The Koran was for centuries passed down orally, so the texts are subsequently very eloquent and lyrical.
- Muslims consider Arabic to be the language of God, so even if a Muslim’s native language is something different, they at least know a few key phrases, and some have even memorized the Koran.
Study abroad programs, language programs and scholarship awarders are all extremely selective when considering which students to accept. They want students who are serious about studying the language and thoroughly committed to becoming fluent. This means that having some knowledge or taking classes previous to applying is almost essential. Academic GPA, extracurricular activities, previous internships, and volunteer experience are all evaluated. Programs want motivated and upstanding students over 18 years old, have been in college for at least a year, are still currently studying towards any kind of degree, and most importantly are committed to using their Arabic fluency in their careers.
If you are seeking a scholarship to continue your Arabic studies, there are plenty of ways to find help. Intensive programs and homestays can be costly, easily upwards of $5000 for a semester, which might not include flights, visas, and other traveling expenses.
Here are a few options:
- AMIDEAST offers Need-Based Scholarships as well as Blog Abroad opportunities for summer and semester long terms. You must be enrolled in a university and display high academic performance. Awards can be up to $5000 for a semester.
- Boren Scholarships and Fellowships are highly prestigious. You must be either enrolled in undergraduate or graduate studies. Preference is also given to students who will study abroad for longer periods of time, and who are highly motivated by the opportunity to work in the federal government.
- Critical Language Scholarship Program offers awards to students currently enrolled in university. Preference will be given to those who show they plan to use the language for a future career. CLS will help with obtaining a visa.