Demystifying Arabic Grammar: How To Learn Arabic on a Tight Schedule (Part 1)

I know you’re busy. Busy working. Busy dating. Busy cleaning your apartment. Busy attending to your partner and kids.

Busy cooking. Busy getting a promotion. Busy taking care of aging parents and grandparents. Busy finding yourself.

Busy scrolling through social media. Busy binging Netflix to let off steam. Busy sleeping. Busy going to the gym.

And a lot of time, you feel like you’re too busy to learn Arabic.

I get it. A lot of the time, I feel that way too.

When I started immersing in Arabic, during the pandemic, I felt that I had all the time in the world. And I used it to become fluent in Arabic.

Until… the world opened up and all that time seemed to disappear. All masked and vaxxed up, life feels as fast as ever, and as demanding as ever.

Or, is that just me?

So how do you learn Arabic, when your life is moving at full speed?

That’s what you’re going to learn today:

  • How native speakers think about new words
  • How thinking like a native speaker will 10x your vocabulary, while saving you 10x the time
  • Why the Arabic root system should be your best friend, and a 3-part method to understand it

By the time you finish this article, your main takeaways should be:

  1. As long as I know the root of a word and I’m comfortable with the Arabic verb system, then I can figure out almost any new word, easily.
  2. Learn Arabic roots, not words.

Disclaimer 1: Even if you already know what the Arabic root system is, if you’re not actively using it in your daily or weekly immersion, then you need to read this article.

Disclaimer 2: What I’m about to introduce you to, is probably the most efficient way of learning Arabic that you’ve ever been introduced to.

The method is so simple, yet takes some time to really understand. So, I’ve split the article into two parts.

This is Part One.

Act I. THINKING Like a Native Speaker: The Most Efficient and Effective Way to Learn Arabic on a Tight Schedule

This past summer in Lebanon, I asked a Syrian friend a question that changed EVERYTHING for me.

I was staring at a text message and trying to figure out a word I couldn’t read. So I asked my friend, “How do you figure out a word you don’t know?”

He said simply, “I just look at the root and try to figure it out from there.”

Right from the mouth of a native speaker: THE ROOT. THE ROOT! (THE ROOT IS ON FIRE!)

In that instant, I realized that the understanding Arabic roots was at the root to fixing all of my vocabulary acquisition problems.

If you don’t know what the root is yet, that’s okay, I’m about to tell you.

But first, let me tell you why this was such an important revelation to me. If you follow this site, then you know just how much I love Anki and have used the app to become fluent.

But around April 2021, I hit a major wall with Anki. After more than a year of creating my own Anki cards, I was starting to feel lost. I couldn’t tell if my deck was repeating words I knew or if I was learning new things. My Arabic had reached the highest level I had ever experienced. And at the same time, I had reached a dreaded stage… the intermediate plateau.

But when I really took this native speaker’s advice — all that changed. Lemme tell you how…

Act II. Understanding the Root System in 3 Simple Steps

If you’ve never heard of the root system or you forgot its importance (like I did until that conversation!) that’s right fine.

I think the Arabic blogger, Nichole, from Arabic with Nichole explains it well:

“Arabic, for the most part, is a triliteral root language. Which means, the meaning and construction of almost all Arabic words is based on 3 letters. By simply adding a few distinct letters and changing vowel marks, new words are formed.”

Sometimes you also hear people refer to this triliteral root system as “morphology”.

But for the sake of not scaring you away from all of this, let’s ditch all the technical language and make this really simple. Here’s how to understand the root system in 3 steps.

I’ll use this picture to explain what I mean.

Step 1: Look at the trunk and roots of the picture.

In the graphic, the trunk and roots are named “ع ل م”. Although it’s not stated here, the letters also form a word, علم، which means “to know”.

(Note: This tree represents words in Fusha, not Levantine. I know that you’re here to learn Levantine, and I promise we’ll get there in Part 2 of this article next week. But right now, you need this very basic foundation in Fusha first.)

Step 2: Browse through the spelling of the words in the branches.

If you look closely, you’ll see that each word on that tree has the letters ع ل م in them, and in that order.

For example, see if you can find the below words on the tree. Don’t worry about what they mean. That’s not important.

Just notice how each word has ع ل م written in them, and written in that order.

اعلومة

عالمية

استعلم

علماني

معلّم

This is very important to recognize. The order of the letters does not change. There may be letters in between the ع ل م, but you’re not seeing ع م ل or ل ع م , etc. You’re always seeing ع ل م written in that order.

Step 3: Browse through the meaning of the words in the branches.

If you notice, you’ll see that all the words have similar or related meanings.

For example, as I mentioned علم means “to know”, معلِّم means “teacher”, اعلامي means “informational”, etc.

And actually, all of the words on this tree are related to the idea of “knowing” or “knowledge”.

All of them!

Act III. Okay, So I Know What Roots Are Now. But I’m Still Busy! How Will This Help Me Learn Arabic Faster?

This will help you learn Arabic faster because, the branches on this tree represent almost every possible word in Arabic that can be formed from “ع ل م”.

Every possible word.

Yeah, like I said: Every possible word.

Think about it this way:

  • If almost every Arabic word is based on a 3-letter root,
  • then if you learn the Arabic roots,
  • wouldn’t you instantly have access to a whole tree of words
  • a tree of 40+ words,
  • and wouldn’t that save you hours of studying time
  • because you’d be learning related words in bulk
  • instead of individual and unrelated words, like you’re doing now
  • and like you’ve been taught to,
  • because that’s how words are learned from an English perspective?
  • But this isn’t English, is it?
  • So should we be learning Arabic, the way we learn English,
  • or should we think like native speakers
  • and start learning Arabic faster than ever?

That means that if you learned every single word on this tree, you would have learned every word that has “ع ل م” as the root. And after that, there’s nothing more to learn about “ع ل م”. You could move on to another 3-letter root and never look back. Ever.

Final Act: I Get It! Roots are Important, so Where Do I Go From Here?

If you’ve reached this point, then you should be asking yourself: I get the gist, but how do I know what words form the branches on this tree? How do I create this tree on my own?

That answer is why I created this series, Demystifying Arabic Grammar, and I’ll explain this answer over the next weeks. It will take time.

But for now, know this: Arabic words are created based on reoccurring patterns that determine how words are spelled and pronounced. These patterns are set. They do not change.

Since you likely don’t know these patterns yet, you probably didn’t recognize that every word on the tree is created based on these patterns. But trust me, they are.

And one more thing about pronunciation: Understanding the patterns is also what will help you understand how to pronounce new words.

One of the most challenging things about Arabic for English speakers is that the vowels are not written in. I used to struggle with this so badly too.

The fact of the matter is that the vowels don’t need to be written in. If you understand the patterns of Arabic, then based on the spelling of the word and context, you should be able to automatically discern the pronunciation of that word.

We’ll start learning the patterns starting next week, so don’t fret. I got you.

For now, the takeaway is this: Learn Arabic roots, not words.

If you learn Arabic roots, you will be able to quickly understand dozens of Arabic words.

Arabic is not like English. So we should not learn Arabic like we learned English. Or else, we run the risk of being incredibly inefficient.

In English, we have to learn every single word separately. There is absolutely no correlation between the spelling and pronunciation of “know” and “teacher” and “informational”.

But in Arabic, it’s glaringly obvious.

If you want to learn Arabic on a tight schedule, you’ll stick with my Demystifying Arabic Grammar series, learn the roots, and learn the recurring patterns Arabic uses to create words based on roots.

But if you always want to be too busy to learn Arabic, then you’ll learn every word individually, unaware of how much easier vocabulary acquisition could be.

Meet me in the comments: Do you see how understanding Arabic roots can help you learn Arabic faster? Where do you still have questions?

Get your free copy of 10 Things You Need to Know if You Want to Learn Arabic Fluently.

5 Comments

  1. Nicole Printy

    oh my god, UCHECHI, life changed. Why have I not thought about this until now, it seems incredibly simple and obvious! Thank you!!!

    Reply
    • Uchechi

      Ooooo yes! I’m glad that you’re really starting to see how transformative this is.

      Reply
  2. Jackjizzle

    Fantastic post. Really got me thinking about how I approach learning the vocab. I’ll definitely try to take advantage of the inherent logic and patterns going forward. Thanks a lot 🙏

    Reply
    • Uchechi

      Absolutely! I’m glad this is making sense for you!

      Reply
  3. bpz

    A good way to do this is to use the Hans Wehr dictionary where you look up the root. It gives all the related verbs, though you have to know the forms (but that’s not too hard). It also gives related nouns and adjectives under the same root. For me, it can sometimes be too much, because I don’t know which related verbs and nouns are actually used, or at least used the most. But I agree – it’s the best way to learn, and also a good way to remember a new word.

    Reply

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