Overall Summary:Today we’ll learn a simple way to remember and express the tenses in Levantine Arabic. Your main takeaway should be: “As long as I know the present tense of a verb, I can express almost all tenses.” As a fun bonus, each explanation of the tenses will have sentence examples recorded in a Syrian accent.
Part I. How Learning Arabic Grammar Went From Being My Worst Nightmare to My Best Friend
It was a long, dark, and stormy morning at Princeton. The walked into my Arabic 102 class, and the door squeaked open then closed behind me. The classroom felt too cold for late summer. My classmates and I shivered in our chairs, although the sun shone brightly outside. My teacher entered. She was holding a stack of papers with indecipherable text on them. Was this a spell? The ingredients to a potion? I tried to make out the unknown script, but couldn’t. Instead, they turned out to be something beyond anything I could have imagined…
My teacher began to drop a copy of the paper in front of each student. I was last in the row. Student by student, I watched their expressions transform as they read the sheet. Fear, confusion, shock. Someone said slowly, Oh my god. What was this? I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to watch. I sensed my teacher standing in front of me, and then a soft thud. The paper was on my desk. I open my eyes slowly and saw this…
*cue dramatic sound effect* DUN DUN DUN
ARABIC G R A M M A R.
If you’ve studied Arabic formally, you’ve probably seen this chart. And many more like it.
Now that I have a strong foundation in Arabic, I understand that my teachers were trying to be helpful by showing this chart to me. They were trying to express a truth about the language that is truly worth every Arabic student digesting: Arabic is a highly logical language, based on patterns and repetition. If you understand the logic, patterns, and repetition, you will understand the entire language.
But at the time, that’s not what I understood. Instead, each box represented how “difficult” Arabic was, how “foreign” and “inaccessible” the language would always be, and how Arabic fluency was only reserved for “smart” people.
I’ve since been able to challenge each one of those prejudices I carried about Arabic. I know understand, that Arabic fluency is at anyone’s fingertips as long as we — practice, immerse, and stay patient.
But I wasn’t able to shake my fear of learning grammar directly was somehow harmful to Arabic learners’ confidence with the language.
If you’re an avid reader of this site, then you know I’m an avid proponent of learning grammar naturally through immersion and comprehensible input of Arabic. I believe in watching tv shows and movies and listening to podcasts and music in order to “naturally” pick up grammar the way we did as children learning our own native languages. This method has served me since I started my fluency journey in Feb 2020.
But in August 2021, something happened that entirely changed my perception of learning grammar.
I lived in Beirut for 3 months — from August 2021 – November 2021 — and I realized that although I could speak fluently and understand native speakers — I couldn’t tell stories well.
This is important because, in my opinion, language is… well… simply a means of telling stories.
As humans, we evolved sitting around campfires talking about life, and the universe, and whatever mammoth we’d killed that day.
Think about the people in your life: The ones we feel closest to are the one’s who we share our stories with, and who share their stories with us, no matter how mundane.
But in Beirut, I realized that when I wanted to tell a story, I didn’t know how to accurately talk about when events had happened.
For example, if I wanted to say —
“So I went to the store yesterday and I see this girl. She’s wearing a pink dress, just like one I had bought last year just before I went to a Beyonce concert…”
— I knew all the vocabulary, but I couldn’t seamlessly move through tenses.
What was the difference between “do” and “am doing” or “did”, “done”, “was done” or “when I did”, “while I did” or “used to”?
I knew the differences in English. But in Arabic, I couldn’t talk about when without fumbling, stumbling, or just paraphrasing the story to only use tenses I was familiar with.
In the end, I got a teacher in Beirut who completely opened up grammar to me. Or rather, I was finally able to receive the messages about grammar that my teachers tried to share with me so many years ago.
These days, I’m not just learning Arabic to speak. Rather, I want to be able to express life through another language. And I finally realize how mastering grammar is a key component to reaching that goal.
So do I still believe in learning grammar naturally through immersion?
I’m convinced that Arabic grammar has only become interesting, exciting, and intuitive (most importantly!) for me because of the thousands of hours I’ve spent immersing in content. I’m also convinced that immersion is why I can simplify grammar that once seemed completely confusing.
If this were a question of which comes first on your fluency journey — grammar or immersion? — I’d always say immersion. But I’d also say to never be afraid to start learning or at least take a peek at grammar, as you forge ahead.
So now, I can faithfully say that grammar is my road dog. I don’t go anywhere without her.
And if you’re ready to start befriending grammar too, hop abroad. I’ve saved a seat for you. Yalla, let’s go!
Part 2. The Tenses Explained (+ Sentence Audio Recordings)
The most important takeaway: In Levantine Arabic, the present tense is used as the foundation to express all other tenses, except for the past tense.
For example, take the verb “to work”: اشتغل
Notice how the present tense of the verb, which is بشتغل, plays the main role in constructing all other tenses, except for the past tense.
I work: بشتغل
I am working: عم بشتغل
I was working: كنت عم بشتغل
When I was working: لما كنت عم بشتغل
I used to work: كنت اشتغل
I will work: رح بشتغل
I will not work: ما رح بشتغل.
I worked/ have worked: شتغلت
So as long as you know the present tense, you can quickly express 95% of all other tenses.
Let’s see what this looks like in a bit more detail.
I. Present Tense
Ia. I do something…
Grammar point: present tense conjugation only
Pro tip: Use this form to express things you do in general.
I drink coffee every morning.
انا بشربقهوة كل يوم الصبح
Ib. I am doing something (right now)…
Grammar point: present tense conjugation + عم
Pro tip: Use this to express something happening at this moment.
I am drinking coffee right now.
انا عم بشرب قهوة هلق
II. Past Tense
IIa. I did something… or I have done something…
Grammar Point: Use the past tense conjugation
Pro tip: Use this to express that an action is fully completed.
P.S.: The idea of “have done” has more to it than this, but in many cases did/have done are interchangeable.
I ate lunch at my boyfriend’s house yesterday.
اتغديتعند بيت صحابي مبارح
I have eaten lunch at my boyfriend’s house many times.
اتغديت عند بيت صحابي كذا مرة
IIb. I was doing something…
Grammar point: present tense conjugation + كان + عم
Pro tip: Use this to express that an action that happened continuously in the past.
Last week, I was eating lunch at my boyfriend’s house every day when my mother was on a trip.
الاسبوع الماضيكنت عم بتغدى عند بيت صحابي كل يوم لما ماما كانت برحلة
IIc. When I was doing something…
Grammar point: present tense conjugation + لما + كان + عم
Yesterday, when I was eating lunch at my boyfriend’s house, my mother called to ask where I was.
مبارح لما كنت عم بتغدى عند بيت صحابي امي دقتلي
IId. I used to do something…
Grammar point: present tense conjugation + كان
I used to eat lunch at my boyfriend’s house, but my mother found out, so I stopped.
كنت اتغدى عند بيت صحابي كل يوم بس امي اكتشفت هذا الشي فا بطلت
III. Future Tense
IIIa. I will…
Grammar point: present tense conjugation + رح
I will see you at 5pm tomorrow.
بكرا رح اشوفك عالساعة الخامسة
IIIb. I will not…
Grammar point: present tense conjugation + ما + رح
I will not see you at 5 pm tomorrow.
بكرا ما رح اشوفك عالساعة الخامسة
IIIc. When I do something, something (else) will happen…
Grammar point: رح + present tense conjugation + بس
Tomorrow, when I get out of work, I will see you.
بكرا بس اخلص من الشغل رح اشوفك