Good pronunciation is crucial for communication. Many people, who are learning Arabic, have experienced that sinking feeling when they try a well-constructed sentence only to be met with a blank face, or – even worse – with laughter.
Why is this?
Languages are essentially built on sounds. If I speak English and live in an English-speaking country I expect a speaker to pronounce sounds in a certain way. In German or Spanish I would expect to hear different sounds. When we can’t identify the sound we try and adjust the way we are listening, similar to tuning a radio, but if we cannot guess the sound, the chances are we won’t comprehend what the other person is trying to say.
The Two Blocks of Pronunciation
There are two different elements to good Arabic pronunciation: the pronunciation of individual sounds and words on the one hand and the “melody” or prosody associated with the pronunciation of whole sentences. Both of these are important.
1 Individual sounds
Try pronouncing all the Arabic letters. Notice how your mouth and tongue are moving to produce the sounds. If you can’t figure out how a sound is physically made you will find it very difficult to say it.
Sounds that are the same
Arabic has a lot of sounds that do not exist in English but it also has plenty of sounds in common with other languages.
Start by going through a list of the Arabic letters and make a mark next to the ones you find difficult to pronounce. Pay extra attention to these. Try and physically make the sound and observe the movement of your mouth and tongue. Say the alphabet. Look at how children use the alphabet song in English to help them remember the alphabet, doing the same in Arabic will also help you memorize the letters and sounds.
By the way, this here is an awesome “nasheed” version of the Arabic alphabet song:
Read out aloud
Get a short piece of Arabic text from a course book or website and read it out aloud. This technique has two advantages. First, you are testing your ability to pronounce all individual sounds. Secondly you are practising the sounds that you expect to hear and you become used to the sounds of Arabic.
2 Sentence Melody
Arguably, this aspect of pronunciation is the more important one. Many people learn how to pronounce the individual letters and sounds of a language, but still they have a very “foreign” ring to them when they communicate.
This is because their sentence “melody” is not quite right. Italian, for instance has a strong rising and falling rhythm to it, whereas English is somewhat “flatter”. The best way to get your Arabic sentence melody right is to do a lot of listening to recordings by native speakers.
Try to listen repeatedly to the same short recording of one minute length or so and pay extra attention to the way the sentences rise and fall. After a while try to speak along with the recording, only barely making any sound in the beginning and getting louder as you repeat the process. In the end, your own voice should be louder than the actual recording. This process works best with headphones.
When is your pronunciation good enough?
In other words, when to stop focussing on pronunciation? For many Arabic learners getting by in the language is satisfactory. If we can say what we want, simply, slowly and the person we are speaking to is able to understand us, then our pronunciation is probably good enough for basic communication. How much better you want to become is up to you after this. Some people have an innate talent for pronunciation and will become very close to sounding like a native. But, even those of us who are not that gifted can achieve a very good level of pronunciation, where the people we speak to will not notice our accent after a few minutes of talking. With the methods described here you too can achieve this level of success with Arabic pronunciation.
Don’t forget that you can learn all the Arabic letters and the Arabic script with my special method here.