If your Arabic studies don’t include some heartbreak, you’re doing it wrong.
No, not the heartbreak of confusion, frustration or forgetfulness.
Those are just some natural outcomes of challenging yourself, and they can be alleviated by looking back on old study materials to remind yourself just how far you’ve come.
But the heartbreak which can’t be cured is the heartbreak of poetry and song, of lost love, bitter consolation and withheld forgiveness.
You won’t really understand Arab culture until you get to know the art form of Arab music—which conveniently also happens to be a powerful language learning tool.
So let’s take a closer look at how you can use music to learn Arabic, and then I’ll share eight emotional songs you can use to boost your Arabic today.
How to Learn Arabic with Songs
Apart from when lovelorn lyrics shatter your heart into a million pieces, listening to Arab music can be a mostly painless way to study. I once had an Arabic instructor who was so nostalgic for her home in Beirut that she idled away the first half of every class period playing Lebanese music for us.
However, sitting around listening to the music didn’t teach us any language skills. After listening you need to examine lyrics and challenge yourself to recognize familiar vocabulary and expressions (known as “activating” your knowledge—a concept that sounds as good as it feels when you know you know something).
Also, you need to take in new information about vocabulary and expressions. Otherwise unknown vocabulary will just pass over your head—and unless you’re Antonio Banderas in “The 13th Warrior,” you can’t pick up a language just by listening to it without any instruction.
So here are some tactics for moving beyond entertainment to actively learn with songs in Arabic:
- Choose lyrics of an appropriate difficulty level. As always in language learning, if you focus on materials that are too challenging for your current level, you can get discouraged and not build your knowledge incrementally as you should. Ask a native speaker (in person or on an online forum) to weigh in on whether a song is in formal Arabic (which is what’s taught in most classrooms) or in a regional dialect.
They will also be able to tell you if the lyrics are eloquent or everyday, and how the verbs are conjugated (past, present, commands, etc). If you know a song contains lots of material from lessons that you have yet to cover, you can set it aside for now to avoid frustrations.
- Use guided podcast lessons. The fun-loving duo at Arabic Pod present some of their Arabic lesson podcasts using songs as the subject, rather than their usual dialogues. They play the songs a couple times, repeat them slowly for your listening benefit, translate them and then explain the grammar of each line. This includes folk songs, kids’ songs and jingles, all labeled for level of difficulty.
You can listen on your commute or while you’re doing the dishes, but once a week, sit down and go back over one podcast. Recite the song or write it out—this way your brain engages the same content in different way. When you can output something instead of only receiving it as input, you strengthen your memory and understanding of it.
- Follow blog post song lessons. Chris Gratian’s blog Egyptian Arabic Dialect Course is an excellent introduction to Egyptian Arabic through song. For 15 different songs, Chris has broken down each sentence, pulling out useful vocab and explaining idioms.
This lyrical “course” is designed to get progressively harder, starting with lengthy explanations of grammar and pronunciation, then reducing the hand-holding as different songs repeat the patterns already presented. The songs are selected for their pedagogical value, and not necessarily for mass popularity, so you’ll want to learn from this resource but then press on to truly discover the classics.
- Turn on subtitles or find lyrics. You can find lyrics in Arabic and their English translations at Lyrics Translate or Arabic Song Lyrics and Translations. Try to avoid the Arabizi, or transliterations of Arabic into the English (or French) alphabet, and instead encourage yourself to read the Arabic script. The next three tips are specific ways to use these lyrics.
- Listen and write. One method is to listen to the song several times, pausing as needed, while writing down what you hear in Arabic to the best of your abilities (even spelling out words you don’t recognize). Then, check this against the Arabic lyrics afterwards (no peeking beforehand). This exercise teaches your ear to hear how letters are pronounced in context, and can help you link up a word you already know from your reading.
- Translate into English. Take another approach to challenge your translation skills. Look at the Arabic lyrics and write out your best translation of the song into English. When finished, check it against the official English translation. This way you can see if your translation was too loose or too literal with the meaning of words and phrases. You can do the same thing using subtitles, if the music video has them.
- Read aloud for pronunciation practice. You can also use lyrics/subtitles to practice your reading and pronunciation. As each line changes, pause the video before it’s sung and read aloud from the subtitles. Then play the video and listen for how close you were. Practice single lines until you can copy the singer’s exact pronunciation and tone.
- Learn efficiently with FluentU. All of the suggestions we’ve seen so far become way easier to implement if you simply use FluentU to learn language from music videos.
FluentU is an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, music trailers, vlogs and inspirational talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Choose any video that strikes your fancy! You’ll see how many Arabic vocabulary words you can learn from it, and you can even look at the transcript of the dialogue and practice vocabulary before watching the video.
For any video you watch there, each word comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more. You can then use FluentU’s unique Learn Mode to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the music video through fun questions.
You can even review the words in a review session that uses video context to help embed the words in your memory. You’ll be able to create vocab lists and track your progress as you advance through video after video.
FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
The best part? You can try FluentU for free.
FluentU is coming soon for Arabic, so stay tuned!
- Listen to both the classics and the latest hits. Get recommendations from native speakers in this Reddit thread, which asks them which Arabic songs are the most popular of all time. You can also listen to Arab music radio stations (like these on tunein.com) or music video channels (like Rotana) to stay up to date on what’s new and popular. Finally, you can also check out the Top 10 charts at Arabsounds.net, which are posted weekly.
The right music can augment your classroom studies or be a part of your quest to learn Arabic online for free. No matter your situation, here are eight great songs to get you going.
8 Emotional Songs for Learning Arabic with Music
1. “ألوان الرياح” (Colors of the Wind) from “Pocahontas”
A gentle introduction starts somewhere familiar. Revisit your childhood and find out what Pocahontas sounds like with an Egyptian accent. (Weren’t you curious?)
The lyrics here are a little different from the ones you know by heart. The translations aren’t literal, since they’re intended to “work” in another cultural context, as well as sound natural in Arabic and in some cases rhyme.
For example, the line “You think you own whatever land you land on/The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim” becomes, in Arabic, “You think that the land you’re on is yours/This (land) is owned by none other than God.” The translation is a variation in both grammar and culture. Luckily, you can reference the English in the video to pick up on what’s different.
Listen a couple times, read the translations and of course, try to sing along. You might take notes for this song by pulling out key words or phrases you intend to start using in your own speech or writing. See if you can find the following words, for example:
Many Disney animated films are dubbed into Egyptian or formal Arabic, and while Amazon isn’t forthcoming with the DVDs, the magical songs are on YouTube. Listening to these songs will expose you to both proper pronunciation and headstrong princesses.
2. “حوار الحجاب” (The Hijab Conversation) by Toyor al-Janah
Once you’re comfortable listening to Disney musicals, you can advance to…kids’ stuff!
This crowd-pleaser is about a girl coming of age and announcing to her father she’s decided to start wearing hijab, showing him the scarf she went with her mom to go pick out. It’s precious and—luckily for Arabic learners—repetitive.
You can find even more children’s songs at Toyor al-Janah (Birds of Paradise), a Jordanian children’s music channel full of innocence, good behavior and fathers telling their daughters how proud they are of them.
Toyor al-Janah is a great pop culture reference to bring up with Arab 20-somethings or folks with kids, because it’ll earn you points for knowing what’s on TV in the Middle East today.
Some of the songs are pretty catchy, and you’ll hear more natural Arabic expressions since the lyrics aren’t a translation like the Disney songs. Listen to see which expressions you catch. Translating these songs would be a great activity to work on with an online tutor or via an Arabic learning forum.
3. “The Sea Creatures Song” by Arabian Sinbad
Another type of children’s song are those designed to teach young kids their colors and letters in Arabic. These are usually in formal Arabic instead of a dialect (another such example would be “Sesame Street”). Having these songs in your head will help your ability to recall these basics, and continue to introduce you to the cultural differences of original Arab media.
For example, while listening to this adorable song about sea creatures, the use of plural for some animals and singular for others invites you to step out of listening passively or just for entertainment. Crack open your dictionary/translation app and enter both the singular and plural forms into your notes or flashcards.
For more songs like this, the “Related Videos” feature on YouTube is a great way to see how deep the rabbit hole of children’s videos goes.
The goal in these first three types of songs on our list is to prepare yourself to listen to traditional and modern Arab music—which we’re about to visit next. Music that is culturally relevant in the Arab world spans all Arab countries, dialects and the last 100 years of recordings.
Many Arab folks have a deep and abiding passion for certain musicians that goes beyond enjoyment to being soulful. I’ve kicked myself for lost opportunities to connect with folks over what stirs their hearts—all because I didn’t know enough Arab music. Building your vocabulary is just as important as building your repertoire of songs you can sing along to on a weekend road trip to the desert. So without further ado, let’s continue:
4. “مع جريدة” (With a Newspaper) by Majida El-Roumi
Here’s a song that isn’t too hard on the grammar front and has the added benefit of turning your emotional well-being to mush. It’s sung by the divine Majida El-Roumi, and somehow manages to make the sentiment of “he has no idea I even exist” seem mature and tragic. Check the video description on YouTube for the Arabic and the English translation.
Majida is one of many singers who put to music the poems of Syrian writer Nizar Qabbani. The advantage of choosing these songs to study is that the lyrics are readily available and they are in formal Arabic, so you’ll get to apply your classroom grammar and pronunciation skills.
Notice the beautiful parallels in the lyrics: “without noticing … and without concern”; “he dissolved two sugars … dissolved two roses … dissolved me”; “reading the news … reading me.” It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes Arab poetry make you weak in the knees.
5. “حبيتك بالصيف” (I Loved You in the Summer) by Fayrouz
Fayrouz is one of the two most classic and beloved Arab singers. She hails from Lebanon, and her music spans a ton of genres, including jazz, if you’re looking for some variety.
Here’s one song that’s often suggested for beginners to listen to, since’s it’s a lovely chance to practice your seasons while you reflect on unrequited love—and on what man in his right mind could abandon Fayrouz.
Check out more Fayrouz, and try out the Arab style of enjoying her talent by making her music the soundtrack to your mornings.
6. “انت عمرى” (You Are My Life) by Umm Kalsoom
Along with Fayrouz, Umm Kalsoom is essential to your education, and they both span themes from simple love songs to nationalist anthems. Umm Kalsoom cannot be rushed, and it’s probably best to listen to her hour-long live concerts, but the recording here is a mere 10 minutes.
This is a little harder on the beginner, since her pronunciation is more aesthetic than instructional. However, the lyrics are so sad and beautiful. She knows how burdens can break you while making you unbelievably strong. Just let her voice instruct your soul.
But eventually circle back to this song on a day you’re feeling driven and dig into the lyrics. The Egyptian sentence structure is richly on display here, but if that’s overwhelming, look at the possessive and object pronouns:
- your eyes
- your light
- my heart
- (they) returned me
- before you
- what has passed us
You can also examine the verbs, which are mostly in the past and imperative tenses.
- (it) never experienced (never “saw”)
- I’ve begun
- I forgot
Note that the letters ى (alif maqsura) and ي (yaa) are used interchangeably here.
You should listen to more Umm Kalsoom, but also check out what the next generation is creating in Arab music studios.
7. “آه ونص” (Yeah and a Half) by Nancy Ajram
Nancy Ajram is a popular Lebanese singer, and one of her hits—where she says not just “Yeah,” but “Yeah and a Half” in a speech to her lover—is paired with a silly flirty music video.
In these lyrics, check out the use of pronouns ده (this—masculine), دي (this—feminine), and كده (like this), as well as the terms she uses to address him: “kid,” “darling” and “shame.”
There’s more music coming out of Lebanon than anywhere else in the Arab world, but if you’re infatuated, keep listening to more Nancy Ajram.
8. “نور العين” (The Light of the Eye) by Amr Diab
Amr Diab will sound a little more familiar, particularly with this piece of Arab clubbing music from the ’90s. He’s an Egyptian superstar, a pioneer of Arab music videos, and he’s still producing new music.
Check out the rhyming words in these lyrics, and notice other parallels. “يا نور العين يا ساكن خيالى” is translated as “Light of my eye, you live in my imagination”—but in the Arabic those two phrases are both ways he’s addressing his beloved, more literally: “Oh (you) light of my eye, oh (you) resident of my imagination.” Notice how the translation into English can’t do justice to the poetry in the original.
With a career spanning decades, there’s always more Amr Diab.
While examining beautiful music, you may discover hidden gems of poetic expression, opening the door to appreciating it even more. The heady rush of realizing that you’ve understood something gets addictive.
Music is a productive choice for your studies, but it’s even more important for your cultural education. Interacting with different people—and appreciating their masterpieces—is a big reason why you started learning a language, right? Just because conjugating all those verbs requires your full mental faculties doesn’t mean you should close off your emotions while you study.
You can help your own unique taste in Arab music to develop by always being open to something new you’ve never heard before. Whenever you hear a song you like playing in a taxi or restaurant, be ready to ask, مَن المُغَـنّي؟ (Who’s the singer?) It might help connect you with a song that’ll be breaking your heart for years to come.
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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