Learning Middle Eastern Languages Online
Learning a language can be a great way to break down cultural barriers, but it can also be intimidating. Truth be told, there is a great amount of fun in starting to immerse yourself in a language, fun that really cant be achieved elsewhere. Fortunately there are many free resources online to help get you started. I'll be focusing on Middle Eastern languages in this article, but many resources in this article on the basics of learning languages online apply to any language you might want to learn.
Major Middle Eastern Languages
Arabic is the 5th most widely spoken language in the world, with around 300 million native speakers, and many non-native speakers. It is the official language or one of the official languages in 26 different countries, and is one of the six official languages of the UN. It also has many, many dialects; some of which are mutually unintelligible. It is the most widely spoken Semitic language, and is written from right to left.Turkish is the most widely spoken of the Turkic languages, with about 80 million native speakers. In addition to Turkey, Turkish is also an official language of Cyprus. In 1928, Atatürk, the first President of Turkey, replaced the Ottoman Turkish alphabet with a modified Latin based alphabet. However, Turkish grammar is very different from most Indo-European languages and uses vowel harmony, agglutination, and subject–object–verb word order.Persian has over 70 million native speakers, with over 120 million total speakers. Persian is generally separated into Western Persian or Farsi, Dari, and Tajiki but they are all mutually intelligible. These are spoken respectively in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Despite being written with a modified Arabic script, Persian is an Indo-European language and has many similarities with other Indo-European languages including English, French, and Spanish. Along with its simple grammar rules, this means it is actually considered very easy for western speakers to learn.Pashto the language of the Pashtuns, an ethnic group centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has about 50–60 million native speakers. Pashto is an Indo-European language with similarities to Persian, and is also written right to left with a modified Arabic alphabet.Kurdish has around 30 million native speakers and is the language of the Kurds, spread mainly through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Although Kurdish is an Indo-European language, it is considered very hard for western speakers to learn based on its lack of loan words and unique grammar rules.Hebrew is one of the two official languages of Israel, along with Arabic. There are around 9 million native speakers, and it was revived in the 20th century after dying out in common usage somewhere around 200-400 AD. Much of modern Hebrew differs substantially from Biblical or Ancient Hebrew, although there are also many similarities. Like other Semitic languages, it is written from right to left.
A Note On Arabic Dialects
Fus-ha, sometimes called Modern Standard Arabic or MSA, is generally what people start with when learning Arabic, the problem is that it's not really spoken anywhere. Fus-ha is the language of formal written Arabic and sounds extremely strange when spoken. There are a lot of different opinions around whether people should start with Fus-ha or a local spoken dialect. My advice is if you are interested in talking to people in one dialect, such as Palestinian Arabic, search out resources for that. If you want to learn multiple dialects or if you want to be able to read Arabic, then go with Fus-ha. If you want to be generally understood around the Arab world but aren't concerned with reading as much you might actually want to learn Egyptian Arabic, since, as a result of the proliferation of Egyptian media, most people can understand it fairly well. You can read more about Arabic dialects here.
Step 1: Learning the Alphabet
I've found that learning another alphabet is actually easier than I expected. I recommend splitting the alphabet up and not trying to learn it all at once to make it easier for yourself though. To learn the Arabic alphabet, I found this site really helpful, which quizzes you and shows you the letters in words as you learn them. It also has an app for your phone, although it's not free. The site Omniglot has letter charts for basically every written alphabet, and you can browse their written language index to find what you're looking for.
Step 2: Getting the Basics Down
Depending on your target language, you'll want to look into one or more of the following sites to help you take your first steps.DuolingoDoulingo provides an incredibly addicting lesson based approach for a growing number of languages. I highly recommend you see if they have the language(s) you're looking for. The only Middle Eastern languages currently available are Turkish and Hebrew, but an Arabic course is planned to follow sometime late this year, and other Middle Eastern languages such as Persian, Pashto, and Kurdish may come after that.MemriseMemrise has hundreds of thousands of language courses available as the result of allowing anyone to create lessons. The upside is you'll almost always be able to find multiple lessons for your target language, the downside is the lessons might not always be the best quality. Many lessons are excellent though, and it's definitely worth looking into especially if you can't find your language on Duolingo.YouTubeYou can find people teaching lessons on almost any language here, and you can also watch various videos of people speaking in the language with or without subtitles to improve your listening skills, which makes YouTube a valuable resource for any level learner. For example: CGE Jordan is a good channel for learning the Levantine dialect of Arabic.Language TransferLanguage Transfer has an innovative way of teaching which tries to simulate immersion and teaches Arabic in the Egyptian dialect, Turkish, Greek, and a few other languages. Their audio lessons are great to download and listen to in the car.OmniglotThis site has tons of information on almost every language imaginable, and even many dialects. You can find basic phrases by searching this index. They also have many audio files to hear pronunciations.ForvoThis site is for learning to pronounce words in other languages. Just search for a word, and you can hear a native speaker say it.Anki CardsAnki is a flash card program. This makes it a good supplement for the other sites if there are words you feel you need more practice with. It also has a mobile app for practice on the go.HiNativeThis is a cool Q&A app which lets you ask questions about a language (such as what does a word mean, what's the difference between two words, does a sentence sound natural, etc) to native speakers of that language. It's a great resource if you're teaching yourself and don't have a personal tutor.Language Learning DatabaseIf the resources I've given you here aren't enough, the Language Learning Database has lots of free language specific websites and resources available.
Step 3: Immersion
A lot of people take languages in school, but don't end up retaining very much. This may be because many schools never offer students an immersive experience where they are forced to communicate in a target language without slipping into their native language. Most multi-linguists would agree that immersion is the best way to learn a language. And there are a number of sites and apps which attempt to give this type of immersive experience, so as soon as you feel ready, jump into one of the following methods.HelloTalkThis free app will allow you to find language partners around the world. You can talk via text, voice, or even video. The design is great and it's got a huge community of learners so it's easy to find language partners. It also has over 100 languages available, so you're bound to find one you're interested in.iTalki or VerblingBoth of these sites allow you to chat with native speakers like with HelloTalk, but with professional teachers instead of other language learners. On one hand that means it isn't free, on the other hand you're getting someone who really knows how to teach you and whose only focus is to help you learn their language.MeetupSometimes you can find groups who all share the goal of learning your target language right in your area. This can be a great way to have conversations and get to know other language learners in person. Also, check to see if there's a Euphrates Chapter in your area as well, as you're bound to find some likeminded people there who would love to be language partners.NatakallamThis is only available for learners of Arabic. The idea behind this site is to pair Syrian refugees with Arabic learners over Skype so you can support a refugee while learning about their language and culture.TravelOf course, just because you can use these immersion resources at home doesn't mean you should limit yourself to them. Many of our Euphrates Chapter members have traveled to the Middle East and many of them have learned some of the local language or dialect there. It's an enriching experience that despite our advances in technology you still can't completely replicate at home.Any linguist will tell you that languages have words that either don't directly translate, or have cultural meanings you wouldn't understand from a direct translation. I find that learning these cultural idiosyncrasies can be one of the most fun and interesting parts of learning a language, and this is something best learned in an immersive setting.
If you're ready to take the plunge into a more intense immersion program then you might want to check out some of these programs: The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), The Boston Language Institute, or Fellows for Peace.