The scholar, Ibn Taymiyah, may Allah have mercy on him, wrote, “The Arabic language is the symbol of Islam and its people” (Iqtidaa al-Siraat al-Mustaqeem, 1/519). Truly, Arabic is a blessed language, for it was in Arabic that the final divine scripture was revealed. It was also the mother tongue of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. It is the language that we use for our five daily prayers, and it serves as a unifier for the global Muslim community. To fully understand the beauty of the Quran, the wisdom of the Prophetic teachings, and by default, our very faith, it becomes necessary to learn Arabic and teach it to our children.
Still, learning the Arabic language can be overwhelming, especially if you are a non-native speaker. Everything is new – the alphabet, the script, the structure, phonemics, etc. It is no coincidence that as adults, we may feel exhausted after an Arabic class. Its unique sounds can challenge our vocal cords in ways we have never experienced. However, for our children, whose brains are still fresh and programmed to absorb information constantly, learning Arabic can be easier. Moreover, our children have fewer responsibilities and less inhibitions about practicing a new language.
To get started in teaching children Arabic, the first step is putting aside the time to incorporate the language into your everyday routines. Even as little as 15-20 minutes of Arabic study a day, can have your children well on the path to understanding. As in everything that relates to our faith, the formula is persistence. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was reported to have said, “Take up good deeds only as much as you are able, for the best deeds are those done regularly even if they are few” (Ibn Majah). Next, prepare yourself with the right tools.
Tips for Learning Quranic Arabic
Here are six important things to remember when you start learning Arabic and/or teaching it to your children.
1. Put your trust in Allah.
Allah chose the Arabic language for His final revelation to mankind for a reason. This is a great reminder for children if the question of why should arise: “But why do I have to learn Arabic, Mommy?” There are plenty of reasons and examples in the Quran and the Seerah.
One of the most beloved chapters in the Quran, Yusuf (Joseph), begins with the following two verses: “Alif, Lām, Rā. These are the verses of the clear Book. Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran so that you might understand” (Surah Yusuf 12:1-2). Even when we are unable to read, speak, or comprehend Arabic, when we listen to the Quran, our hearts are moved by it. This is the case with some non-Muslims, as evidenced by social experiment videos in which they become emotional while listening to recitations of the Quran. Although we may feel that we cannot learn the language, we already know more than we think. Every day, we pray using Arabic and we have incorporated Arabic phrases in our vocabulary like “Alhamdulillah,” “SubhanAllah,” and “Allahu akbar.” So, we can explain to our children that rather than approaching the language as something new, we will build on what we already know.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was an illiterate man, who was hesitant when he was commanded to read/recite the revelation. Although he insisted that he could not do it, Angel Gabriel pressed him with the words of Allah, “Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous. Who taught by the pen — Taught man that which he knew not” (Surah al-’Alaq, 96:3-5). Allah reminds the believers that He is the One Who facilitates knowledge, so if we are sincere in seeking it, we will be successful.
2. Begin with baby steps.
I recently wrote an article about nurturing native languages and I emphasized the importance of starting early. The same applies for the Arabic language – getting a head start will go a long way. Think about how children learn their native tongue through interaction. Babies mimic the gestures, lip movement, and sounds they see and hear from their caregivers. Their babbling is how they try to repeat what they hear daily, and what will eventually become their first words. They learn vocabulary first, then simple sentence structure. If you are a parent or educator and have interacted with toddlers or young children, you may have observed that they ask endless questions or request you to read them the same book multiple times. Although it can drive any sane person mad, this behavior is not indicative of them being spoiled or obnoxious. Their need for constant repetition is the way they acquire language organically.
When it comes to learning Arabic, I recommend starting with vocabulary. When we are new to a language, we are learning just as a baby learns. Think about how our father, Adam, peace be upon him, acquired language. In the Quran, it was revealed that after Allah created Adam, “He taught Adam the names of all things” (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:31). The most widely used and successful Arabic textbooks focus on this method of introducing learners to vocabulary and slowly building up grammar to form sentences.
3. Use the Quran as your introduction to the Arabic language.
Of course, the best of all books for learning Arabic is the Quran itself. As stated in the article on nurturing native languages, the keys to language acquisition are reading, rhyme, and repetition. One wonderful thing about the Quran is that it rhymes! Dr. Devin Stewart, professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Emory University, pointed this out in his lecture, “The Effects of Rhyme in the Quran.” According to Stewart, about 86% of the verses of the Quran exhibit end-rhyme. He also concluded that the attention to rhyme in the Quran “produces an improved understanding of the text.” Rhyme improves the ability of the reader to remember, memorize, and understand the Quran.
Look at Allah’s wisdom, when He said, “And We have certainly made the Qur'an easy for remembrance...” (Surah al-Qamar, 54:17). Our Lord has already promised us that He has made the Quran, and by default, Arabic, easy for us. Then, He challenges us to put forth our best effort by asking, “... So, is there any who will remember?” He has already given us the tool. All that is left is for us to try!
But you may be thinking “ the Arabic in the Quran is so complex!” The objective is not to have kids memorizing the whole Quran in one sitting. Think about the first surahs young children learn. Usually they are the three “Quls,” or the last three chapters. Combined with their short length, the end rhyme in the first two and the repetition in the last make them very easy to memorize. We can dissect these verses and have children learn the meanings of each word.
Begin Arabic with children just the same as they learn to read English, with letters and sight words. One tool that builds upon knowledge through slow exposure is the Qaidah Nooraniya, which is perfect for learning the alphabet, sight words, and short verses of the Quran. There are also a multitude of videos with Arabic alphabet songs that can help with vocabulary memorization and recognition of letters and sounds. (Sound Vision’s Adam’s World videos are a great resource and can be found at adamsworldapp.com.) Also, have children look at the mushaf, appreciate the intricacies of the Arabic script, and copy it on their own notebooks if they are able.
4. Immerse yourselves.
It is obvious that moving to a country in which your target language, Arabic, is spoken, is the most effective way of learning and retaining the language. However, let’s be honest and say most of us living in the West will not have that opportunity. I moved to Egypt after I had my first child, hoping to live there for at least two years and gain fluency in Arabic, but it was short lived. Circumstances out of my control had us return to the U.S. a year later and I never got to enroll my son in an Arabic program. That does not mean that language immersion is unattainable here.
There is a Spanish proverb that states, “If the mountain does not come to Muhammad, Muhammad will go to the mountain." Simply put, that means that if things do not align with our plan, then we have to find another way. Bring the Arabic to you! Find Arabic classes on-site or online for yourself and your children. There are many options like weekend schools, classes in the masajid, private tutors, Arabic institutes, etc. My children have taken Arabic classes on and off here and they are able to read Arabic and recognize some vocabulary words.
With the internet and cell phone apps, parents literally have the Arab world at their fingertips. Download apps like Google Translate, Duolingo, and Rosetta Stone to your mobile device. There are also apps and computer games for children to learn their Arabic alphabets and countless videos on Youtube (Adam’s World videos are there, too). Streaming platforms like Alchemiya, Sling, and Netflix also feature Arabic shows and movies. Watching TV in Arabic with subtitles can expose learners to native speakers and help them with vocabulary. So, cozy up with your family and learn together! Practice new vocabulary while you are out running errands or at the dinner table. “Pass the salt, من فضلك.” [be sure the Arabic word holds]
5. Incorporate manipulatives.
Some of our children are kinesthetic learners, so we need a hands-on approach, even for language learning. One of the things I have done with my children is use manipulatives to form Arabic letters. We have used things like playdough, Legos, magnets, pipe cleaners, shaving cream, and bits of paper. You can get creative and even go outside and find your own materials like leaves, twigs, rocks, acorns, etc. Having our eager, little learners form the Arabic letters with their hands helps reinforce what they learn. And, of course, never forget those handy flashcards and post-it notes that can be used to label everything in your house with its Arabic name. Make it a game or activity for the whole family. Test each other on the names of things around the house. Incorporate a reward system and prizes to reinforce what the children learn. Creating these positive memories will foster a relationship of love between your children and the Arabic language.
6. Make duaa for Allah’s help.
Last, but not least, remember this duaa to ask Allah to guide you and your family on this sacred path — “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge” (Surah Taha, 20:114). Don’t forget to teach the duaa to your children. Patience and prayer go a long way when it comes to learning any language. Celebrate small achievements and push forward, understanding that knowledge takes time and, as Muslims, young and old, we are all life-long learners.