How’s your Arabic literacy?
Maybe you’re already reading blogs in Arabic, or blogs that teach you Arabic.
Okay, now how about your cultural literacy?
Normally, language learners focus on their grammatical and speaking skills.
The values, priorities and touchstones of Arab culture begin to emerge.
You’ll need this kind of meaningful knowledge before you can have truly profound, passionate and philosophical conversations in Arabic.
So how can you grow that knowledge? And how can you absorb it while you’re still learning the language?
How can you find the Arab counterparts to English-speakers’ cultural mainstays—like “The Three Little Pigs,” “Romeo and Juliet” or “To Kill a Mockingbird”?
These gems can be accessed in audiobook collections that we’ve scoured the Internet to find for you. By exposing you to the sounds of the language as well as its meaning, audiobooks make for great learning tools.
Enjoy the high quality items on the list below—mostly for free!
How to Incorporate Audiobooks into Your Arabic Studies
Audiobooks, written in Arabic as كتب صوتية or كتب مسموعة, bring all the features of audiobooks you might listen to in your native language. So approach them as entertainment instead of as a huge study chore. Have fun, and keep these tips in mind for effective learning:
- Embrace the fact that audiobooks are not curriculum. Treat audiobooks differently from your textbook’s audio lessons. Listen to the stories for enjoyment. Then, the next time you sit down to study, try to incorporate a word or idea you remember from the audiobooks. Retell part of the story in your own words, and if you get stuck, only look up the keywords you’re missing. If you do create a vocab list, base it on the words you’re reaching for, not the words you “should” know.
- Approximate immersion by filling your time. If you were living abroad, Arabic would seep into every moment of your day. It would be the medium through which things got done, rather than an end in itself. Downloading a few audiobooks to your mobile device will give you constant access to great Arabic materials, while you’re on the bus, doing the dishes or working out. That consistency will also motivate you to dig back into your other study materials, like podcasts and Arabic learning apps, to increase your comprehension.
- Focus 80% on what you know… You might have been intimidated by statistics that say you need to know most of the words in a text (up to 98%) in order to understand its meaning. However, even with a small vocabulary, you can understand a little, and as your vocabulary grows, you can return to old materials and understand more each time. So enjoy the parts of the stories you do understand.
- …and only 20% on what you don’t. In fact, there’s no benefit to focusing all your attention on new vocabulary. Not only does this burn you out and discourage you (there will always be words you don’t know), but research shows you don’t learn new words from new materials—especially if they’re not repeated in the material. Rather, new materials help to reinforce what you learned from formal lessons or curriculum. You can, however, create your own study materials from these audiobooks after you’ve enjoyed them, and then get a positive reinforcement cycle going by listening to new audiobooks.
8 Arabic Audiobook Resources for Literary Learning Bliss
So how can you get some Arabic audiobooks in your earbuds? Here are eight rich sources of audiobooks to provide you hours of informed enjoyment—most of them for free.
Basic and Children’s Texts
UNESCO and Birzeit University joined forces to create this free audio library for children. The stories are of both Western and Arab origin—including 3-hour adaptations of “قضية الدكتور جيكل والسيد هايد الغريبة” (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and “كونت دي مونت كريستو” (The Count of Monte Cristo). With over 200 videos, you’ll have plenty to listen to, ranging from “علاء الدين” (Aladdin) to “هايدي” (Heidi). There are no transcripts available, but this can help you to avoid the temptation to study these stories too hard—just listen and absorb instead.
This is a collection from five stories out of “Kalila and Dimna,” a famous book of Arab fables. Monkeys and crocodiles are friends, until jealous wives come between them. The stories are fun, read in clear Modern Standard Arabic with all the إعراب (grammatical case endings), and each about five minutes long. Listen to the story first, then dive into the study aids one at a time. Each story includes the full text in Arabic (no English translation—truly, this is better for you), a cute animated video with the same audio, a vocab list in English and comprehension questions.
The Qur’an is the pinnacle of lyrical and eloquent Arabic rhetoric—so your understanding is going to be much lower than for contemporary texts, even those in Modern Standard Arabic. But it’s so important for Arabic students to become aware of—it can even be argued that the Arabic language would not have developed and spread as it did without the distinction of being the language of Qur’an.
This online resource has super comprehensive audio and text features. Start by just pressing the play button at the top. The Arabic recitation plays verse by verse, with English translations. Learners may not be interested in تجويد (tajweed—rules of pronunciation specific only to Qur’an recitation), but in the audio settings (click the gear icon) you can add Arabic “word-by-word” audio and you can test yourself to see how many of the words you understand.
The original books of the Judeo-Christian Bible were written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. However, as the most translated book in the world, you can be sure it’s available for you to listen to in Arabic. The writers and subjects were all living in the Middle East at the time, and there are still many Arab Christians today, particularly in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.
To hear the audio, click the speaker icon on the Arabic side of this Arabic-English parallel text version. There are a number of translations of Bible into Arabic, but this كتاب الحياة (The Book of Life) translation modeled after the NIV English translation should be easier to understand than some older versions, while keeping the pretty poetic elements.
Like Islam, the Baha’i faith also wrote its sacred texts originally in Arabic. Founder and author Bahá’u’lláh lived (and was imprisoned in) many places around the Middle East, and today the Baha’i faith is a minority religion on every continent. For those reasons, you may find it interesting to listen to one of their sacred texts along with those from the major religions. As a relatively young religion—it was founded in the late 1800s—the language should feel a bit easier than the Qur’an’s to grasp right away. You can read along in Arabic and in English.
Literature and Non-fiction
Read to Me is a broadcast company that makes many kinds of audio content available via their apps, but you can access 100 of their audiobooks on YouTube. The collection is a mix of literature and self-help audiobooks from both Western and Arab authors—from George Orwell to Dale Carnegie, Ahlam Mosteghanemi to Sherif Arafa. This is probably the most familiar “audiobook” category—books to listen to in the car during your commute, full of good ideas whether in the form of fiction or non-fiction.
While I highly recommend all the resources in this list to you, I admit I have a favorite. The recordings in Al-Mirgab audiobook library are of high quality audio, with dramatic background music, and a reader with an amazing voice and an abundance of style. The dozens of titles available here cover Arab literature by the likes of Taha Hussein, but also stories in translation, such as by Edgar Allan Poe. Two caveats: Check your spam filter for the email with the download link, and note that the site does not have sample clips before you buy. However, you can listen to free copies of complete select titles on the podcast and archive of their associated company, Mijobooks.
The first English-language version of “1001 Nights” was printed in 1706, but this “book” is actually a composite of stories, some of which date back to the 9th-century Arabic writings and even earlier! Plenty of the stories are enjoyed in their own right outside of “1001 Nights,” such as “Sindbad the Sailor.” Because of this composite nature, there’s a wonderful mix of adventure, eroticism and Islamic philosophy across the stories, all framed by the tale of storyteller شهرزاد (Scheherazade) delaying her own execution each night by leaving her listeners with an irresistible cliffhanger.
You can listen to an ambitious Arabic recording of “1001 Nights” as an audio drama, complete with a full cast of talented, romantic voice actors. In many collections of these tales, “1001” is not a literal count of the nights Scheherazade speaks, so you can enjoy this 700+-video playlist without fear of missing out.
At the end of the day, when voices from Arabic audiobooks have seeped into the crevices of your schedule, be sure to reverse roles, from being the listener to being the speaker.
Good oral tradition doesn’t leave you alone to be a passive consumer—the story is being imparted to you so that you can impart it to others. Give in to tradition and try to retell the story—to your tutor, your friend or your stuffed animal.
Telling the stories in both your native language and in Arabic will acquaint you with them further, increasing your language skills and cultural literacy, as well as feeding your soul with the sweetness of human expression.
Laura loves hearing about people’s life stories and day-to-day lives in both English and Arabic. She maintains a research blog on the creative efforts by Americans to turn the tide against Islamophobia.
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