Learn Arabic, Part 1
20 March 2010
السلام عليكم
What? You can't read that Arabic just above? It says: As-Salāmu ʿAlaykum, which is the Muslim standard polite greeting, meaning "Peace be upon you". (Of course, if you can't even SEE the Arabic words above, that's another issue — it may mean you have an older browser, or some other problem.)
Seeing that your future is Islamic, and Arabic is the language of Islam, it might be a really good idea if you started to learn!
I just started learning Arabic a couple of weeks ago. It is definitely one of the more difficult languages to learn, but I have been making some progress, thanks to some great tools and resources which I want to highlight for you in this article.
One of the most venerable names in language learning is Rosetta Stone. So the first purchase I made was their Arabic Levels 1, 2 & 3 Set with Audio Companion, Homeschool Edition. From the very beginning you jump right in, listening, reading and speaking, even if you have absolutely NO idea what you are doing! It's comparable to a conversational language class. Or, if you have learned a musical instrument, it's a similar concept to the Suzuki Method. And the Homeschool Edition has a few extra features that the regular version does not have, all for the same price.
If you are like me, you might like to supplement Rosetta Stone with material that is more analytical. I really want to study the Arabic alphabet, since that seems the foundation of any language. I don't just want to learn to say something; I want to completely understand WHY things work the way they do. Back to the Suzuki Method analogy — my daughter did great with it, but on the other hand, she didn't learn any music theory, nor how to read notes properly. To be a good musician, you need to understand the theory part too, not just how to play.
So I'm taking a two-pronged approach. In addition to the intuitive, right-brain Rosetta Stone approach, I'm using some other resources to attack the problem from a more analytical, left-brain approach.
I have found The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read & Write It by Nicholas Awde and Putros Samano to be incredibly helpful. And I'm not alone: it has an average rating of 5 stars on Amazon.com, with over 100 reviews!
It's a thin book (only 95 pages), but it is chocked full of information about each letter and symbol in the Arabic alphabet, including detailed instructions on how WRITE it properly, how to USE it properly, and how to PRONOUNCE it properly. As I have dug deeper into it, and compared the information with some of my other books, I think that I have found a few errors. But since I am just a beginning learner, I don't want to be too confident about that yet. Even so, that in no wise detracts from the value of this indispensable and inexpensive book. Highly recommended!
I have found the Arabic alphabet article on Wikipedia to be immensely helpful as well, with additional and expanded information which is not found in the above-mentioned book. From that page, you can click to tons of other useful information.
Naturally, once I started to get a grasp on the Arabic alphabet, I wanted to begin writing words in Arabic, copying them from Rosetta Stone or one of my reference books. Being the computer geek that I am, using a keyboard to type Arabic seems a lot more interesting at this point than learning how to write Arabic by hand. Rosetta Stone comes with keyboard stickers that you can stick to each key of your keyboard. But I was wanting something a bit more ... um, shall we say ... elegant?
On eBay I found a TEAC Hebrew-English-Arabic USB Slim Keyboard — straight from Israel! Seeing that I would love to learn Hebrew one day too, I thought that this was the perfect keyboard for me. If you are interested in finding an Arabic keyboard for yourself, try this search on eBay. (A lot of the results are laptop keyboards, so you have to look carefully. I've excluded the words "stickers" and "sticker", so that hopefully just real keyboards will show up. But if you want stickers, you can search for that too.)
Before I go any further, I need to tell you that a lot of what I'm going to share in the rest of this article is specific to Mac computers, not Windows. After my Windows machine died about a year ago, I couldn't bear the though of using Vista, so I switched to a Mac. I'm so VERY happy with my Mac, even though I had been a Windows user for over 15 years (since 3.1!), that I could never imagine going back to a Windows-only machine. Anyway, back to Arabic...
Once my keyboard arrived from Israel, I plugged it in — there didn't seem to be any damage during shipping. OK ... so far, so good. Then I had to switch to the proper keyboard layout in the "Language & Text" section of System Preferences. There were three to choose from: Arabic, Arabic-PC, and Arabic-QWERTY. After a bit of experimentation, I found that Arabic-PC was the closest to my actual keyboard. Depending on the keyboard you buy (or where you put the stickers on your current keyboard), your choice might be different.
After exploring a bit further, I found that the key above the TAB key was not producing the proper characters. So I Googled around, and found a fix. I downloaded and installed his modified keyboard layout configuration file, and that solved the problem. But then I realized that there was another Arabic character that was not on the keyboard.
It's a long story (see the Arabic Alphabet book above for the full explanation), but there are cases when writing Arabic that you need what is called a hamzatu l-waṣl, which is the Arabic letter ’alif with a waṣla sign above it. If that other guy could modify his keyboard layout, maybe I could too, and add that missing character.
After Googling around a bit more, I found an awesome Mac program called Ukelele which lets you modify and create keyboard layout configuration files. It's so easy to use. After using the Mac Character Viewer utility to find which character I needed, I was able to assign it to the same key that is used to type ’alif, except you have to hold down the alt/option key to get this new character. Very cool! Click the following link to download a copy of my modified Arabic 101 keyboard layout configuration file. (I have zipped it to make it easier to download, but it is a very small file.)
Also, the Mac's Keyboard Viewer utility is indispensable. I keep it up on my second monitor while I am typing, and I can easily see which Arabic characters are assigned to each key when no modifier keys are pressed, and when shift, control, option and command, or any combination of them, are included with the keystroke. This utility definitely makes life easier!
So, now I was all set to type in Arabic. Or was I? I fired up Open Office Writer, modified the preferences to enable "complex text layout" support (for Arabic), and started typing. Arabic characters were showing up, and they were going right to left like they should (mainly because I chose right-justification), but the cursor was not following along with the characters. An even bigger problem was that the characters were not linking together properly.
Arabic is a cursive-style script, and many of the letters take on different forms, depending on where they appear in a word: at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. Plus, it uses quite a number of diacritical marks (I counted 12) which are added above or below letters, and are necessary to spell many words properly. They are placed in slightly different positions, depending on the letter they appear with.
As you can begin to imagine, those are a lot of specific details that a word processor needs to deal with in order to render Arabic words properly. Maybe I'm missing something, but Open Office just does not seem up to the task. But is there an alternative? Once again, Google came to the rescue!
I found an terrific Mac-only word processor called Mellel. As they say on their Web site: "Mellel offers full support for writing in Arabic, Persian and any other language based on the Arabic script, exceeding anything you'll find with any other word processor". From what I have seen after a few days, their boast is very well founded — it works impressively well! Quite astounding, actually! After trying the free 30-day trial download for only an hour, I was completely convinced, and was very happy to pay the reasonable $49 for the download version. It is definitely money well spent! And the fact that the money is going to an Israeli company is icing on the cake!
My first project in Mellel was to create some 4x6-inch, double-sided, Arabic alphabet flash cards. I've made 39 so far, and they came out great! And I'm eager to share! You can download the original Mellel-format file, or an exported MS-Word or RTF file. I opened these two exported files in Open Office Writer, and they looked fairly good, but they definitely need some work to get things properly placed again on each card. You will need to fine-tune each page depending on what font you use (I used Times New Roman, unicode of course), and your printer margins. As before, I have zipped each file to make it easier to download, although they are very small files. Also, I have included a PDF version, which should look properly laid out on your computer, in case you just want to print the cards without modifying them. I hope these are useful to someone besides me. If they are, please send me an e-mail to let me know. Thanks! Well, I guess that's enough for today. I've been gathering a lot more Arabic resources (the UPS delivery man is definitely taking notice!), so once I get a chance to use some more of them, I'll write additional articles to let you know which ones are worth investing in, as you learn the language of your Islamic future.