Do you know the main difference between classroom and online Arabic studies?
They’re both hard work, but there’s a keener satisfaction that comes from self-directed studying online.
That’s because there’s no hand-holding when you use online resources to guide your own studies. You learn how to make a bootstrap effort to motivate yourself, celebrate your achievements and find resources that actually work for you.
Self-motivation isn’t exactly taught in school. In classrooms, encouragement comes from daily instructor feedback. I’ve always been delighted to hear an instructor bestow a !برافو عليكي (Bravo!) on me, but I can praise myself and propel myself forward too.
How? By tailoring my study materials to my learning goals. When my time is better aligned with my goals, I reach my milestones sooner. Then it’s up to me to write !ممتاز (excellent!) on my own work.
Selecting the right resources is the key to making yourself proud.
Online learning provides a wealth of these materials, without making high demands on your time, money or proximity to a university. So, dig in to the opportunities for practice, growth and community.
7 Resource-rich Websites for Learning Arabic Online
Without classroom guidance, you’ll need to gather piecemeal materials into your own personalized study portfolio.
Trial-and-error results in a little wasted time, but in the aggregate it aligns your studies with your personal skill level and goals. To start you off on the right foot, here are some top-notch resources that have enriched my studies, all for free or doable on a shoestring budget.
Simplified (but Still Authentic) Material for Practice
Children’s stories present a useful subset of daily expressions, and you’ll be amazed at the gaps they reveal in your practical vocabulary. This website has 30 digitized books in Arabic that will keep you busy for quite a while.
You can filter the books by age group, length and even animal characters!
Reading is a much better way to gather new vocabulary than encountering new words out of context. In the Finbo the Whale story, for example, I finally got a grasp on spelling حوت (whale), which was a word I’d heard before but struggled with. Which letter H? ح or ه? Which letter T? ت or ط? By reading it several times in context, the correct spelling now just “looks right.”
AlJazeera Learning is a great middle ground if you’re not ready to switch your Facebook or to-do lists into your target language—because it’s bilingual!
The site’s goal is to spread worldwide literacy in Arabic, and you can catch up on current events while participating. Each simplified Arabic news article under their “Daily Training” section comes with a list of ten vocab words and five comprehension activities. There’s a translation app built right into the page, as well as a notebook for logged in users.
Even if your learning goals aren’t focused on being able to discuss politics, you can still get a lot of useful vocabulary out of reading the news. When I told my tutor I’d had a hard week because of the كارثة (disaster) at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I was glad to be able to use a strong word to express the weight of the situation. I remember learning that word from reading a sleepy article on global warming, but I was able to use it in a context of my choosing.
Beware the “difficulty” level on this site—as far as I can tell, every piece is marked Level 2 out of 6. If you find the level of challenge is inappropriately high for your studies, you can fall back on the gentler (but still rigorous) National Capitol Language Resource Center’s 2009 archive of news.
Syrian author Zakaria Tamer writes “real” Arab literature—not targeted at children or language learners—but written in the style of fables. That simplified language can be your first exposure to the depth of ideas Arab writers have contributed to human intellect.
Unlike the layered verbiage you’ll contend with when you’re ready to read novelists like Naguib Mahfouz or Ahlam Mosteghanemi, you have a chance at understanding the meaning of Tamer’s sentences. For example, in “النمور في اليوم العاشر” (Tigers on the Tenth Day), the parallel sentence structures give you a chance to follow the progression of the story from day one to day ten as the tiger gives up the pieces of his freedom and dignity. Hey, I didn’t say they were happy stories.
The website isn’t the prettiest of the bunch, opting for function over form, so consider printing it out or copying the text of these short stories into another app for improved readability.
Online Lessons to Grow Your Comprehension
Now you know where to find practice materials in three important categories—kids’ books, news, and literature. Add an element of structure to your learning process with lessons in grammar and syntax.
All the examples above have been for reading. Make sure you’re exposing yourself to the sounds of the language with FluentU—that’s right, the Arabic portal is rolling out soon.
If you’ve tried watching Arabic videos or listening to audio clips and popular Arabic music, you might be frustrated by how you can plateau and only be able to recognize a few words. You can get discouraged by all the new vocab in a given recording and get distracted trying to look up every single word.
FluentU has fully captioned authentic Arabic videos, with correct translations at the sentence level instead of just the definitions for individual words. Every video is made approachable to every learner with interactive captions—just hover your cursor over (or tap) anything you don’t understand in the captions, and you’ll bring up an on-screen definition complete with authentic pronunciation, an image, in context usage and examples from other fun videos in the program.
The kicker is that it keeps track of which words you already know, so for each video it can tell you the percentage of words you’re going to understand. It’s completely personalized and you can watch videos that are at the right level to challenge your current skills without overwhelming you.
Plus, you can actively practice what you’ve picked up from the videos in FluentU’s learn mode, which boasts dynamic activities, fill-in-the-gaps and multimedia flashcards. Stay tuned to the FluentU Arabic Language and Culture Blog for updates on the official launch!
I find the Desert Sky grammar lessons easy to understand, whether it’s your first time encountering a concept or you just need a refresher. They’re differentiated for Egyptian dialect and Modern Standard Arabic. The site also includes extensive and incredibly useful phrasebooks, particularly for Egyptian colloquialisms.
It would be a mistake to try and consume too much of this new information at once—it’s too dense and it won’t stick with you. Take a single section on each page and spend a week creating your own examples and keeping your eyes peeled for that grammatical structure to appear in your practice materials.
This blog rewards any investment of your time.
It’s divided into 15 lessons, each based around a contemporary Egyptian song. The author presents key vocab, cultural context for the song and a link to the music video.
The lyrics in Arabic are written out in full for you to follow along. Then the grammar for each sentence is unpacked—in great detail in the first lesson, then progressively less in later lessons for concepts you’ve already tackled. It’s a window into Egyptian grammar through the cultural powerhouse of music, with a gentle and smart guide explaining it all to you.
There’s nothing better for activating your grammar and vocab knowledge than using it to communicate with a native speaker. And there’s nothing better for your memory than making mistakes and getting corrections.
With a tutor, you can practice incorporating language features you’ve seen or studied into your own speech. italki gives you access to low-cost Arabic tutors from around the world, many of whom offer a trial lessons, so you can meet with a couple tutors before you decide on one whose style is a good match for yours.
You can also use the free side of italki to find language exchange partners and get corrections on your writing.
Give Yourself a Gold Star
Safe-guarding your motivation is the biggest challenge in any mode of learning Arabic. For you to persevere, you have to have a spark inside you that keeps you willing to return to your lessons. Discouragement can snuff out that spark. Success will keep it bright.
These study resources will noticeably advance your language skills—after a couple weeks of effort, look back on the materials you started out with. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it has become to understand them. This will feed your confidence too.
You’ll run across new resources and build your online “library,” tailoring it to your personal interests. Your sense of satisfaction with lessons that are relevant to you will help you sustain momentum and study consistently.
Remember that you’re responsible for celebrating your own milestones.
So, set a goal, work your way through some lessons and then tell your selfie !احسنتي (Well done!).
Reinforce that message with baklava if necessary.
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.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Arabic with real-world videos.