Arabic Language Learning Tools

By Sarah Standish, Academic Program Manager and Arabic Language Instructor

A review of five resources to support your Arabic language learning

So you want to learn Arabic, and you know there’s no substitute for going abroad and speaking to people, but that’s going to have to wait until you have some money saved up or earn a scholarship.  Until then, there are a lot of great resources online for language learning that can help you prepare for that future study abroad trip, or just excel in your day-to-day class.

Resource #1: Memrise

Good for: building your vocabulary

Level: beginning/intermediate

Move over, flashcards.  Memrise is the vocabulary-learning web app that knows what words you’re struggling with–and makes you study them more often.  Designed by a computer programmer who wanted to make studying as easy as playing Angry Birds, Memrise is designed to capitalize on three concepts in the science of learning:

  1. Cramming doesn’t work: You’ll remember more from short, frequent study sessions, so Memrise is designed to be used in 2-5 minute intervals.  The best way to take advantage of this? Relax in front of the TV, then study vocabulary on Memrise during every commercial break.
  2. Focus on what you don’t know: Memrise asks you more questions about words you’ve gotten wrong in the past.
  3. It’s easier to remember things when you connect them with a picture: For each vocabulary item, you can choose a pre-loaded picture to remind you, or upload your own.

You can choose from a wide variety of pre-loaded Arabic vocabulary sets including Arab countries, Moroccan Arabic, and Quranic Arabic Surah by Surah, or create your own tailored to the vocabulary you’re trying to learn.

Resource #2: Alif Baa Online Companion

  • Good for: Mastering the alphabet
  • Level: Beginning

While there are many free resources for learning the Arabic alphabet, none offer the range of resources that the Alif Baa online companion website ($25 for an 18-month subscription) does to help students master the alphabet’s shapes and sounds, from videos of a calligrapher writing each letter to numerous examples of words containing letters that sound identical to native English speakers–ق and ك, or س and ص, or د and ض.  Such drills ask you to choose which letter you hear and let you know right away if you identified the letter correctly, making the most of the fact that the first step on the road to pronouncing a strange sound is hearing it.  This comprehensive website is the best resource to get help with learning the alphabet if you are learning on your own or in a large class where you can’t get much individual help from your teacher.

Resource #3: Verbling

  • Most useful for: Speaking
  • Level: Beginning/intermediate

Can’t find many native speakers of Arabic to practice with in your community?   Verbling leverages the power of video chat to connect you with native speakers around the world. When you create an account, you’ll list the languages you know well and the languages you’re learning, then you’ll be paired for a 10-minute video conversation with someone whose language interests mirror yours–say, if you’re learning Arabic and speak English already, your partner will be someone who speaks Arabic and is learning English.  The site will prompt you to spend exactly half of your 10 minutes speaking Arabic and half speaking English.  The greatest problem with Verbling is that depending on your time zone, there may not always be someone with your chosen language combinations available, and even when they are, technical difficulties sometimes interfere.  The site offers paid lessons and tutoring as well if you want a more predictable experience.

Because the conversations are short, this site is perfect for the simple exchanges that beginners and intermediate learners are learning to master.  The other benefit of such quick conversations?  If you make a mistake, your chance to try again is less than 10 minutes away.

Resource #4: Mango Languages

  • Most useful for: pronunciation, some vocabulary
  • Level: Beginning/intermediate

Mango Languages is a language learning computer program, free with a Seattle Public Library account, that’s similar to a traditional “language on tape” program: You learn to say memorized phrases, broken down word by word, which you may or may not be likely to actually use in real life.  What makes this program more useful than average is having the ability to record yourself saying individual words and compare your pronunciation to a native speaker’s…and then say it over and over again until you get close.

Resource #5: ُ Arabic Almanac

  • Good for: Reading and understanding
  • Level: intermediate/advanced

When you reach a certain level of reading in Arabic, you realize that Google Translate is just not cutting it for you anymore, but paper dictionaries seem so…old-school.  Plus, you’re a little hazy on the exact order of the Arabic alphabet.

Enter Arabic Almanac, where you can type in an Arabic root and see the relevant pages in several venerable Arabic references: Hans Wehr of course, best friend of college Arabic students everywhere, but also the even more erudite and scholarly resources: Lane’s Lexicon and Lisan al-Arab.  In short, when you’re reading for detailed meanings… is the best way to find out what an eloquent author really means.

The more time you put into your language studies, the better you’ll get–and faster.  That’s why it’s important to find the study tools that fit your learning style: You’ll be more successful when you study in a way that fits you, so take the time to check out several different tools and use what you like.  The ultimate reward will be increased language skills that give you a window into another culture.

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