Can I just admit this real quick? Depending on the dialect I’m listening to, the speed of the speaker’s speech, and the topic being discussed, Arabic, to me, can sound like a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo. Okay?
I feel like I’m not supposed to admit that. I feel like I’m only supposed to talk about how beautiful and elegant the language is, but I like to be real with you all on this blog. I was listening to an unscripted conversation on the radio the other day, and thought, What are they even talkinggg about?!
Listening immersion is crucial to building fluency in Arabic. But if you don’t know what you’re listening to and what you’re listening for, your immersion will continue to go right over your head.
Because of this conundrum, when I started watching TV shows without Arabic subtitles, I had to create systems and strategies in order to begin parsing out words from sounds that I didn’t really understand. Step-by-step, the sounds became syllables, the syllables became words, and the words became sentences which became conversations which became full tv series.
So to save you some time and confusion in your immersion journey, here are 5 unusual tips you need if you want to train your ear to understand Levantine Arabic. يلاّ
1. Listen for the “roots” of every word.
Arabic is like Animorphs. Let me explain…
80s and 90s kids, remember these books? In every book, a kid morphed from a person into an animal. As you can see here on this incredibly trippy book cover — the boy is the hawk is the hawk is the boy. The hawk and the boy are actually the same entity, in essence. But at certain times, they take on different forms.
Arabic is the same way. Many words that you’re encountering in your immersion are actually the same words in essence but are taking on different forms in that instance.
This is because every Arabic word is made up of a 3-letter “root” or “وزن”. Words in Arabic (ani)morph when consonants or vowels are added to that “وزن”.
To see how this all works, let’s play a game. Look at these words:
مكتبة / كاتب / مكتوب
What letters do you see in all three words?
ك ت ب
Great, great, that’s the “وزن”. You’re getting the hang of things. Here’s another example:
تسجيل / سجّل/ مسجّل
What letters do you see in all three words?
س ج ل
Now imagine figuring this out with your ears and not your eyes while immersing in native-speaker content…
I get that this may sound difficult. Especially if you don’t feel like your ears are sensitive enough to pick out words in Arabic that you’ve heard, but have never seen.
But I encourage you to start listening for “roots” because roots are the cheat code to training your ear for Levantine Arabic. If you can understand the root of any one word, you’re much more likely to infer the meaning of similar, yet unknown words that you encounter in immersion. This will help you progress in Arabic at lightning speed.
So how do you listen for roots in immersion?
Step 1: Hear the word in immersion and approximate the sound. (If you’re reading this will be way easier.)
Step 2: Think: What 3 main letters most likely make up the word I just heard?
Step 3: Open up an online dictionary like Lughatuna and add the “وزن” you think you heard.
Step 4: Rinse and repeat until you find the correct word.
Main Takeaway: Listening for “roots” is the cheat code to training your ear for Levantine Arabic. If you know one root, you’ll magically start to understand similar, yet unknown words.
2. Listen for similar-sounding “S” and “D” sounds: س ص/ د ض
Lucky for us, Arabic is a phonetic language. Unlikely for us, some Arabic letters sound so similar to each other that the difference between the sounds can be very hard to recognize.
Enter, my arch-enemies: س ص and د ض. Or as I like to say: s, s and d, d.
Here are examples of words that might sound exactly the same to me depending on the accent of the speaker, as well as the speaker’s speaking speed:
سعيد – happy / صعيد – plateau
ضِيْق – distress / ديك – rooster
When I’m immersing and come across س/ ص words or د/ ض words, I follow these steps to look the word up in the dictionary:
Step 1: Listen for the other letters in the root.
Step 2: I look up the word I think I’m hearing, using different “s” or “d” combinations until I find the right word.
Main takeaway: It is sometimes impossible to tell whether the word someone is saying uses a ض or a د or a س or a ص. When in doubt, look up all possible combinations of the word until you find the right one.
3. Listen for “hiccups” and “hard” sounds.
For the longest time, one of the hardest words for me to acquire was يلاقي or “to find” because I couldn’t find the root. The entire word sounded like one long vowel. One day, as if a spell was lifted, I suddenly realized that the Lebanese actors I was watching were skipping over the ق sound entirely.
To me, this act of “skipping over the ق”, sounds like a hiccup or like someone taking a small gasp of air. (I know that some Levantine dialects pronounce the ق as it should be pronounced or as a hard “g, but I rarely hear this in the Lebanese and Syrian media I listen to.)
To see how this works, let’s take the word: minute or دقيقة.
If you’re like me, and you started learning Arabic in a traditional Arabic class with MSA pronunciation, then you would be listening for a word that sounds something like: “da-kee-ka”. But when you immerse in Levantine media, what you’ll hear is something like: “da-ee-a”. Half the word will disappear.
Main Takeaway: If you learned Arabic in a classroom environment, you are likely not used to hearing the Levantine pronunciation of ق. When you’re immersing, listen for letters that seem to just disappear (or that sound like a hard “g”). 9 times out of the 10, the letter you’re hearing is a ق.
4. Listen for “gargled” and “silent” sounds, especially at the ends of words.
Some of the hardest roots for my ears to recognize are ء, ى, ا ,و and ع. Especially when they’re at the end of a word.
To me, the ع reminds me of the gargling sound I make in the morning when I tilt my head back and use mouthwash. ي, و, أ are vowel sounds, so I mistake them for English exclamations like “Ah!” or “Ooo!” or “Eee!” or as other random non-word sounds that we humans tend to make. I forget whether ى and ء are vowels or consonants or something else, but whatever they are, their sounds are so soft that they can seem unnoticeable or downright silent.
Some of the words I struggled to acquire were:
- to get lost: ضَاْع
- a goodbye/farewell: وَدَاْع
- enemy/enemies: عَدُوّ، ج أَعْدَاْء
- he remains: يَبْقَى
- epidemic: وَبَاْء
And the list goes on…
Main Takeaway: When in doubt, the sound you’re looking for but can’t hear may be an ع ,و ,ا , ء, or ى. Find the other 2 roots of the word and then mix and match these other letters until you find the exact word you’re looking for.
5. Use Google Translate’s “Speech-to-Text” Function
This is the pro tip of pro tips.
Use Google and relax.
Step 1: Log into the Google Translate app on your phone and use the microphone to speak the unknown word directly into the translator.
Step 2: Make sure to put on your BEST Arabic pronunciation. Be dramatic and over-enunciate so that the translator can truly understand what you’re saying. (Think of how we make fun of French accents by being super elaborate with our impressions. This is actually very helpful with the translator.)
Step 3: After seeing the correct spelling of the word on Google Translate, head over to Lughatuna and look up the word there.
In my experience, this works about 50% of the time. The times when it doesn’t work is when I really can’t figure out the right pronunciation of the word I’m hearing or when the dictionary just doesn’t carry that Levantine word at all. But hey, 50% is better than nothing!
Main Takeaway: Technology is on our side. Google Translate’s “speech-to-text” can solve a lot of your problems (at least half of the time).
Alright, I hope you enjoyed these strategies! See you next week, let me know what you think down in the comments!