We will explore the various strategies to build and expand Arabic vocabulary for beginners and even intermediate and advanced learners. The good news is that rote memorization is not the only way to increase Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) vocabulary. We will demonstrate how you can exploit the Arabic language root system to figure out the meaning of newly encountered words based only on the specific set of vowels affixed to the consonants.
Obviously, reading is the foundation of good vocabulary, but it is only effective if done on a regular and consistent basis by adopting a daily reading routine. Given our busy schedules, a bite size daily approach is better than one weekly session lasting hours.
Reading material should be varied and suitable for the Arabic proficiency level. Intermediate level students should read newspapers, magazines and manageable fiction work, such as short stories. Advanced speakers can challenge themselves by reading literary work, op-eds, and poetry.
Adult beginners, however, may face problems finding engaging reading material. As a workaround, beginners, regardless of age, can start with Arabic children’s books. Once they establish a good foundation of vocabulary, they could switch to reading Arabic blogs, Twitter accounts and local news sites. This should provide them with day-to-day vocabulary before they move on to big news sites such as Aljazeera. This TV network, owned by the State of Qatar, is known for maintaining the highest standards of MSA.
If you are looking for a textbook that would help you grow your Arabic vocabulary, I can’t think of a better book than Mastering Arabic Vocabulary. This 516-page long book accommodate all proficiency levels but more importantly teaches the best vocabulary-building technique in Arabic learning and which spares you having to rely on memory to build your vocabulary.
The daily exposure to the reading materials will not only increase your Arabic vocabulary, but will also improve your fluency as a byproduct.
2-Link the word to its root and pattern and use context!
Unlike European languages, the Arabic language works on a “root” system. Arabic words are derived from a root of three consonants that represent the base meaning of the word. These root letters are added to one of the ten common Arabic patterns to represent a different , but related, meaning in the sentence. Let us take the root letters /DRB/ / ض ر ب/ , which represent the idea of hitting. Let’s explore how the root changes :
|Root||D R B / ض ر ب/||Meaning||S R Q /س ر ق /||Meaning|
|Verb (past tense)||DaRaBa||He hit (past tense)||SaRaQa||He stole|
|Active Participle||DaRiBun||He who hits||SaRiQun||He who steals|
|Passive participle||MaDRuBun||He is hit||maSRuQun||stolen|
As you can see in the table above, you can rely on a few of 10 common patterns to figure out the meaning of new words. Notice how the /DRB/ and /SRQ/, the roots/consonants of the Arabic words /hit/ and /steal/, underwent the same vocalization patterns. The pattern Ma**u*un, for instance, stands always for the passive participle. Thanks to the predictability of these patterns and the meaning they represent, you can follow these steps to interpret new words:
a) determine the type of pattern presented in the new word you want to look up /Katibun/;
b) identify the the root in the new word (usually three consonants) /Katibun/;
c) If you know the general meaning associated with the root /K T B/ (write), you should easily figure out the meaning based on the /*a*i*un/ pattern.
d) By referring back to the table, we can see that the pattern /*a*i*un/ means the doer of the action /write/ —-> writer.
In addition to the technique above, you should make it a habit to try to figure out the meaning of new words by using the traditional way of looking at the context of the sentence or paragraph — just like how it is done in all languages. Good instructors should drill their students on these techniques early on. It is the same concept of “teach me how to fish instead of feeding a fish everyday.”
For a more comprehensive practice on the patterns, this video could be a great start. Please note that this video is packed with great information. Be prepared to consume at multiple sittings and watch it several times.
Please be warned that It could be overwhelming for beginners initially, but once you grasp the first rule, everything else will fall into place.
3-Look up the word’s semantic context, synonyms and phrases!
A great way to improve your Arabic vocabulary is to actively document new words — preferably manually– by building a small table that can be roughly modeled on the following:
|New Word||Root||Noun, Verb, Preposition||Plural/Singular||Meaning||Antonym|
|كتب||ك ت ب||Verb||Singular||write||مسح|
I noticed that many college students in the US develop this technique , and it apparently works great. One student informed me that she used it so often to the point that she started mapping new words in her mind before putting them on the table — that’s just awesome.
4-Use an Arabic dictionary!
Placing dictionary use here at the fourth bullet was intentional. You would want to get in the habit of using the previous techniques before resorting to a dictionary to learn about a new word. This is nothing against the dictionaries as tools, but they should be the last resort. And there is a reason for that. You want to develop the mental muscle of deriving meanings based on the root system and context.
Al-Mawrid has been the dictionary of choice for native speakers and learners of Arabic alike. It’s also widely used among professional Arabic translators.
The dictionary is a great item to have in your toolbox. Its organized and detailed structure makes for an easy and fun reading experience and provides examples of the various uses of the new Arabic words. It is also a great place to discover word roots and patterns, two key elements of Arabic morphology.
5-Use memorization techniques!
Rote memorization is a very popular technique particularly flash cards (paper/digital) although not everyone is fond of it. I am not a big fan, but it is just a personal preference. You are always encouraged to use what works best for you.
Visuals are always easier to memorize, and many students resort to drawing meanings/references next to the new word. This technique has proven to be quite successful as the learner associates the new term with a little icon for easier recollection.
You can also make a mental note and associate a newly encountered word with something that makes sense in your own world either from your native language or from some familiar imagery.
See also : Test Your Arabic Reading Comprehension
6- Use it or lose it!
It is very important to practice turning your passive vocabulary into an active one. Try not to worry too much about making mistakes. On the contrary, use the fact that you are a student and make mistakes so that you can get corrected.
Try to use your newly encountered words in your written and oral expression. By doing so, you will now remember it for good, and in the unlikely event you get corrected on its proper use and meaning, you will end up remembering its meaning as well.
It’s win-win for you.
If you happen to study with others, volunteer to teach them about the new words you have learned. The discussion and questions that follow your brief presentation will certainly help you memorize the words.