With almost 25 countries where Arabic is designated as an official language and many others where it’s a common second language, there are many people around the world reading the Arabic alphabet.

With 290 million native speakers and over 130 million non-native speakers of Modern Standard Arabic, also known as literary Arabic, and spoken dialects, Arabic holds an important place in the modern world. Therefore, learning Arabic is of the utmost importance, and this is a process that starts with the very basics — the alphabet.

But where does the Arabic alphabet come from? What are its origins?

Historians have struggled to pinpoint the exact date when the Arabic language first originated.

But there are a few traces of the language throughout history which help us track its evolution over the centuries. We’ll go over that history below because when you learn to write in Arabic or the strokes of the Arabic script, you get a little glimpse into the past.

We'll also give you a host of different tips to learn Arabic online or via an app!

Check for an Arabic course here.

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The Arabic Language is one of the Most Spoken in the World

Before you start learning the Arabic alphabet, we think it’s important to learn a bit about the language’s history, evolution and spread.

From North Africa to the Middle East, Indonesia to Europe – Arabic is spoken all over the world!

Today, you can find Arabic speakers almost anywhere in the world. It’s estimated that there are around 290 million native Arabic speakers on the planet. And if you include all the people who speak Arabic as a second language, there are more than 420 million Arabic speakers globally.

It’s important to note that Arabic is a sacred language for Muslims. Its Holy Book, the Quran, is written in Arabic and is revered by an estimated one billion worshippers around the world.

The number of people speaking Arabic, whether at a lower level or bilingually, is enormous. In fact, Arabic is the 6th most commonly spoken language, behind English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish and French, and the 5th most common natively spoken language. In Australia, there is a sizeable Arabic-speaking community.

A number of countries use Arabic script and have designated Arabic as an official language. They are :

  • The 22 members of the Arab League: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Palestine, Libya, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Sudan, Lebanon, Djibouti, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Mauritania, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Comoros, and Algeria,
  • Israel
  • Eritrea
  • Chad.

Arabic has influenced the modern world in many different ways in the past and today the number of Arabic speakers is growing rapidly globally. Even if it isn’t as mainstream as Spanish or French in most countries, its stature internationally is drawing attention which is reflected by the increase in blogs and online courses dedicated to helping people learn the language

Similarities and Differences Between English and Arabic

It should come as no surprise that there are many more differences between English and Arabic than similarities, given the two languages originated in different parts of the world and therefore have very few connections.

Multiple differences, however, do not mean the two languages do not have any relationship with each other — and this is important because the basis of any learning is derived from the connections the learner can make with their prior knowledge and the known.

The Arabic language is known to have had a significant influence on the Spanish language, but it has also contributed to the English language more than many people realise. Commonly used 'English' words taken from the Arabic language include:

  • alcohol — from al-kuhl (meaning 'the kohl' and used because of the link with extraction from a mineral and distillation)
  • algebra — from  al-jabr (meaning 'the reunion of broken parts)
  • coffee — from qahwah (Arabia originally sourced coffee from eastern Africa, Turkey modified the word to kahve and Italy to caffè before it arrived in Britain as coffee)
  • magazine — originally from makzin (meaning 'storehouse', adapted by the French to magasin meaning 'shop')
  • safari — is a Swahili word for 'expedition', but the Swahili word came from the Arabic safar meaning journey
  • sugar — brought to Western Europe by Arabic traders as sukkar
  • zero — from the Arabic sifr (meaning empty or nothing)
How many English words come from Arabicrom
Would you like some sugar with your coffee? Both English words originated from the Arabic language | Source: Pixabay - Image by 旭刚 史

Interestingly, on the concept of 'zero', the reason we now refer to all our number digits as 'Arabic numerals' is because the Roman numerals originally used had no concept of or way of expressing zero. We can thank Italian mathematician, Fibonacci, for this as he was the person who first introduced the concept of zero to Europeans in the thirteenth century.

The other major point of similarity between the two languages is the fact they both have an alphabet. Many languages, such as Mandarin, have a character system instead. The difference between these two systems is that with an alphabet-based writing system, each letter is assigned a sound that can then be phonetically converted to produce a word.

The presence of both an English alphabet and an Arabic alphabet, however, is where the major similarities end — although, there are multiple minor points of similarity to discover and make connections with as you learn.

Some of the key differences between the two languages and their alphabets are summarised in the table below.

 ArabicEnglish
OriginSemitic language group; Afroasiastic familyWest Germanic languages branch; Indo-European family
No. of countries spoken in59137
Alphabet28 letters26 letters
Script directionright to leftleft to right
Letter pronunciationstaticdynamic
No. of verb tenses312
Assigns gender to wordsyesno
Sentence structureverbal and nominalverbal only

There is no doubt that, for many people, the origins of languages and the etymology of words can be fascinating, but it's not everybody's cup of tea. It is entirely possible, of course, to learn only the spoken form of a language and a few key written words — particularly for those people whose purpose is to be able to communicate for recreational travel purposes.

However, learning more about the history of a language, and studying the written form, gives the learner a deeper knowledge and understanding of the language and, obviously, better access to all forms of communication — particularly useful if you want to expand your career options in the international market.

Our guess is that you, as the reader of this article, fall into the latter category. So, we encourage you to read on to delve deeper into this ancient and fascinating language.

Learn the History of the Arabic Alphabet in Order to Understand it Better

The Origins of Arabic Letters

Like many foreign languages, Arabic has gone through many perturbations. The first written record of the language comes from poets recording their work (we’re talking about classical Arabic, not spoken dialects here). However, the Arabic letters and their script hasn’t always looked the same as the one we know today.

Arabic historians and linguists believe that the script originated from the Aramaic script, which is itself based on Phoenician. One variation on Aramaic script Nabatenen. However, Arabic is not the only modern-day descendent of Phoenician. Their alphabet also gave birth to Hebrew and Greek, which is why all three scripts have some similarities.

It’s generally well established that the Arabic alphabet is based on Nabatenen, a variation of Aramaic. Looking at the two scripts it’s easy to see similarities, much more than if you compared Arabic to standard Aramaic.

The First Arabic Records in Syria

It isn’t until 512 AD that we have the first written record of the Arabic language — the famous ‘Zabad inscription’ in Syria. This is the first written trace of Arabic script. Prior to 512AD, if you squint, you can just make out the historical origins of Arabic.

Today Arabic is strongly associated with the Muslim religion, but in 512AD the first Islamic writings were Christian

It seems that the Nabatenen began using a form of Arabic in the 5th or 6th century BC, in the region now known as Petra, in Jordan. But there’s no hard proof that this happened.

It isn’t until the 2nd century AD that there’s any trace of Nabatenen - based on Aramaic, it contained several Arabismes. The latest recordings of Nabatenen date from 355, and then there’s nothing between 355 and the Zabad inscription in 512 in terms of Arabic history.

One justification for this lack of historical record is that the Nabatenen script was generally written on papyrus and heavily influenced the Arabic script. As papyrus is not very durable, it is very likely that the records that did once exist have simply disappeared over time.

The Evolution of the Arabic Alphabet

There are plenty of records of Arabic alphabet from the 7th century AD, and you can even notice traces of Aramaic, which was at that point mostly dead.

And it was just at this time that the Arabic alphabet underwent one of its most important developments. The Arabic letters and forms at that time weren’t sufficient to record all the complexities of the Arab language. This is when the number of Arabic letters increased from 22 to 28. There are, therefore, just 28 letters to learn if you want to learn Arabic.

It became necessary to create six new letters, which were formed by adding markings over or under existing letters. The markings helped to distinguish the new letters from the old ones. And this is where one of the main difficulties in learning classical Arabic and the Arabic alphabet comes from.

How to learn Arabic, the script, the letters and their variations

When you want to learn a foreign language — especially if you’re learning a language that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet — the vowels and consonants of that new language are the first things you need to wrap your head around. Learning the consonants and vowels and their pronunciation is key. And in the case of Arabic, you also need to know how to form the letter in Arabic script. There’s certainly something very artistic about learning to write in Arabic!

Learning all the different forms of each Arabic letter is an art form.

In order to learn Arabic, it is crucial that you learn each of the 28 letters. Each letter has its own pronunciation, some of which are relatively easy for English speakers. But others are much more guttural than we’re used to.

Above all, (and this is the most difficult thing about Arabic) is that there are three versions of each letter. Similar to Latin, where words change depending on the declination and their position in the sentence, each Arab letter changes depending on its place in the sentence. In order to learn the Arabic alphabet and its script, you should know that in written Arabic each letter has its own form depending on if it’s:

  • on its own
  • at the beginning of a sentence
  • in the middle
  • at the end of a sentence.

How you write each letter depends on where it falls in the sentence. If you’re good at maths, you’ll have already realised that you’ve run into your first obstacle to your goal of learning Arabic. The Arabic alphabet may have just 28 letters, but each letter has 4 versions. That’s 112 letters to write altogether.

Vowels are very important in the Arabic language.

Even if it might be possible to bypass written Arabic and just learn everything phonetically, improving and becoming truly bilingual in Arabic will require you to learn all the letters.

That’s all we wanted to say about the history of the Arabic alphabet and its script. Now let’s move on to studying.

Learn Arabic at School

Compulsory education (Foundation to Year 12)

The Australian Curriculum has identified 16 core languages to be taught through primary school and high school to Year 10 — Arabic is one of them. It is recommended that Arabic is learned parallel to English as, although the two languages and the way they are learned differ, each language supports and enriches the other.

Of course, language learning is not only about reading and writing. It also encompasses listening and speaking, as well as a host of cultural understandings including social interactions.

University or other higher education institutions

A number of universities throughout Australia offer Arabic as either a full degree course or as a major within another degree. Some universities, such as The University of Melbourne, also offer exchange opportunities where you have the chance to complete a portion of your studies in an Arabic-speaking country.

Each school or university independently determines the language or languages it will offer — this may often depend on teacher availability, location of the school or a program run through all schools in the local enrolment zone. What this means is that your (or your child's) school may not offer Arabic as one of their languages, or you may not find a nearby university that offers Arabic.

If this is the case, and you are keen to learn Arabic, there are other options.

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Learn Arabic Letters Online

Learning Arabic online has become a totally achievable goal these days. It’s still difficult, but not impossible, thanks to all the Arabic classes now available on the internet. But before you sign up for a more hardcore class, it’s best to learn the Arabic alphabet.

Luckily, there are plenty of easy ways for people just starting to learn Arabic to master all of the letters. There are some great tables that go through each symbol and letter in detail, as well as their pronunciation and the different versions of each letter depending on their place in the sentence. It’s a great way to quickly learn the Arabic alphabet. And it isn’t too bad. As you may have realised already, the different versions of each letter all relate back to the stand-alone form.

Most online teaching hubs will have a combination of pronunciation and symbols for each letter.

In order to write in Arabic on your keyboard, you can download a new keyboard or order new key covers to make it easier.

Al-Dirassa

This site lets you download entire books for free Arabic classes, and is great for total beginners, or people hoping to improve their level of Arabic. The lessons on Arabic writing cover:

  • the letters of the alphabet
  • short vowels
  • double vowels at the end of words
  • long vowels
  • missing vowels
  • double letters
  • combined letters
  • reading in Arabic.

The method for each lesson is the same and marries writing with pronunciation. It is possible to listen to the pronunciation of each letter, vowel, consonant, word and combination of words to get the right sound.

The website also offers lessons in Arabic literature, studying the Quran, and Islamic conversions or you can sign up for personalised classes for a fee.

Advantages:

  • Simple and easy to use site
  • Free
  • Marries writing and pronunciation

Fun with Arabic

This website is perhaps more appropriate for children but easily walks you through the different Arabic letters and numbers with a downloadable flash app.

There’s also a video of people singing the Arabic alphabet, and lots of games and quizzes to help make your learning more fun.

Advantages:

  • Basic site
  • Child friendly
  • Fun and interactive

Arabic Studio

This website has a free complete course to walk a complete beginner through the first steps of learning to read and write Arabic script.

There’s a downloadable PDF, as well as a series of videos that help you master the pronunciation of all the letters. There’s also a follow-up course in basic Arabic grammar

Advantages:

  • Clean and modern website
  • Videos help with pronunciation
  • Clear and easy to understand

Lexilogos

The whole Arabic alphabet is available with:

  • letters
  • names of letters
  • the different forms for the different letter positions
  • the pronunciation.

The site also has videos to help you work on the shape of your mouth and the muscles to use for each letter and explains how to write each letter properly in Arabic script.

Advantages:

  • Simple site
  • Explanatory videos

Learning the Arabic Alphabet on YouTube

There are also many different YouTube channels that can help you learn Arabic. Vloggers and teachers talk you through the basics of each letter of the alphabet and its pronunciation.

Arabic Khatawaat

Rajaa's YouTube channel features over 50 instructional videos of about 20 minutes each. The videos cover Arabic letters and pronunciation, parts of speech, numbers and prepositions. Additional content includes a grammar course series, clips focusing on Arabic language practice and a playlist series with narrated Arabic stories and documentaries suitable for beginners and intermediate learners.

Advantages:

  • Comprehensive and structured with lessons that complement each other
  • Learn how to write the letters correctly
  • Clear and simple explanations

ArabicPod101

ArabicPod101’s YouTube channel offers a complete series of 20 videos to learn the Arabic alphabet. Taught by a native Arabic speaker, lessons are broken down into small segments to make learning all 28 letters and their variations nice and simple. It’s a great way to learn without trying too hard.

The teachers walk you through the strokes of the Arabic script as well, so you aren’t just learning how to read and recognise the Arabic letters, but how to write them too.

Advantages:

  • Simple and easy to follow
  • Learn the proper stroke order to write effectively in Arabic

You can also find lots of other videos online to help you learn the Arabic alphabet, but these two channels are our favourite because you’re getting professional advice from a teacher.

Other videos are more suitable for children (things like learning the alphabet by singing) but they can still help you learn this sometimes tricky alphabet.

Learn Arabic online with Superprof.

Smartphone Apps to Help You Learn Arabic Writing

In order to easily learn the Arabic alphabet and begin speaking Arabic, it can be a good idea to try out some less serious options — after all, you never learn as well as when you’re having fun at the same time. Why not try out an app on your smartphone or device?

Unlock your Android or iPhone and check out all the apps to help you learn Arabic.

Arabic Alphabet

There are many different apps to help you learn Arabic but one of our favourites is Arabic Alphabet. This app does just what it says on the blurb and has dedicated itself to teaching the Arabic alphabet, the 28 letters, and all of their variations.

The app was notably created by a native-Arabic speaker and is designed to make learning the alphabet as fun and easy as possible. You see each letter in a flashcard-like format, before hearing its pronunciation. For each letter, you’ll also learn a word that begins with that letter in order to start building your vocabulary.

Advantages: 

  • Free
  • Available on iOS
  • Doesn’t require an active internet connection
  • Fun and easy to use

Tengu Go Arabic Alphabet

Generally meant for children and young students, this app can also be helpful for learners of all ages.

The app uses quizzes and flashcards to keep you engaged and help you memorise the letters of the Arabic alphabet, whether you’re 5 years old or an adult. It also covers Arabic numbers and fun facts about the language’s history and usage and has integrated audio examples and pronunciation from native Arabic speakers.

There are lots of useful websites to help learn the Arabic alphabet.

Advantages:

  • Free
  • Makes learning the alphabet fun
  • Simple and easy to use

Cute Arabic Alphabet

This app doesn’t just help you to read Arabic and learn the letters of the alphabet but also teaches you to write the script. An innovative app, it is kid-friendly but also helpful for mature learners of Arabic.

Like most of the other apps, Cute Arabic Alphabet walks you through all 28 letters and the numbers, their different forms and their pronunciation.

The uniqueness of this app comes in its ability to also teach you Arabic script by tracing your finger on a touchscreen. Best done on a tablet, the app even corrects you as you go to help learn the best 'writing' position possible!

Advantages:

  • Free
  • Teaches you to write Arabic and corrects you too
  • Recognise all letters and numbers, and learn pronunciation

While you are exploring some of the apps in the app store, it’s worth keeping in mind that there are also many other apps to help you learn Arabic. Different apps can help with Arabic grammar, conjugating verbs, vocabulary, phrases, pronunciation and translation — basically, whatever you need, you can be pretty confident there's an app for it.

Take Arabic Lessons with a Private Teacher

Private classes are often the best way to learn at your own pace!

It’s often quite difficult to teach yourself something — even with the best apps or YouTube clips. At some stage, you are likely to struggle to stay motivated, misunderstand information, find yourself unable to keep to a schedule and feel defeated just trying to learn the basics. In these cases, it’s a good idea to find a private teacher who can help you learn to read and write Arabic properly.

You can easily find a teacher near you on our Superprof platform as we have a wide database of Arabic teachers. You’ll find that private classes are often a great way to learn Arabic quickly. Lessons are totally adapted to your needs and level, and you can quickly start to see improvements while also tackling your weak areas.

Arabic lessons with a private teacher, will help you avoid all the interruptions and disruptions of group classes. And when faced with a professional Arabic speaker, you’ll be forced to stay focused. It’ll also be easier to learn the Arabic alphabet before you move on to learning Modern Standard Arabic.

On Superprof, students can find teachers based on cost, location, or level of knowledge.

In Summary

  • Arabic is considered sacred for many Muslims and is spoken by more than 420 million people globally. The Arabic alphabet is based on Nabatenen writing and underwent several changes over the centuries before assuming the forms we’re familiar with today.
  • If it seems easier to learn French than Russian, Chinese or Arabic, a lot of that probably has to do with the alphabet. As an English speaker, it’s generally easier to learn another language that also uses the Latin alphabet.
  • In order to learn Arabic, it’s really important to learn the alphabet, widely recognised as one of the most difficult in the world. It isn’t just learning the letters, but you also need to understand the different symbols and recognise the different forms of each letter depending on where they fall in a sentence.
  • It is possible to start learning Arabic via a website to start to get a feel for the alphabet and some basic vocabulary. Try Arabic Studio for a complete course in writing.
  • The YouTube channel of Salahad Din is a great resource to help learn the pronunciation of the different letters. Watching a teacher pronounce each word will help you do so too.
  • There are also many apps to help you learn Arabic! Our favourite is TenguGo Arabic Alphabet.

Finally, if you feel like learning Arabic on your own is a challenge too far, or if you need any more information, don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our teachers at Superprof who’ll be happy to help you learn one of the most popular languages in the world.

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Kellie

Kellie is an editor, a children's writer, blogger and a teacher. Any remaining time she has is spent on a dragon boat.