Arabic vocabulary – how to increase it

Arabic Vocabulary learning hacks from the pro’s

This past week I interviewed two well-known people in the Arabic learning world. They are:

Abbas Al-TonsiAbbas Al-Tonsi, Senior Instructor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, faculty member at the Arabic Language Institute of the American University in Cairo, and co-author of the famous (and most widely used) Arabic textbook “Al-Kitaab fii Tacallum al-cArabiyya” (Georgetown University Press), as well as many other books.


David WilmsenDavid Wilmsen, Chair of the Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages at the American University of Beirut, and author of Arabic Indefinites, Interrogatives, and Negators: A Linguistic History of Western Dialects (Oxford University Press) , and a huge list of articles published in academic journals.

These interviews are part of a book that I am currently working on that focuses on the process of Arabic learning and teaching. Stay tuned for more on that… and if you would like to kept informed of the progress on this, sign up by clicking the button below.

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One of the questions I asked each of them was about increasing your vocabulary. What is the best way to increase your Arabic vocabulary? They had some interesting and insightful answers for me, based on decades of their own experience with Arabic learning students. I’ll give you just a brief summary (re-written in my words) of some of their thoughts they shared with me over the course of the interviews.

David Wilmsen: Multi-ordered lists are ok, but using vocabulary is the key

David: I hate memorizing lists, although I once had a Spanish instructor who had an interesting technique with lists that was effective for me at the time. This was the only time I’ve seen memorizing lists to be effective. He had us make three lists, with the same words on them but in different orders, and then you had to memorize each list using a specific time period. You would spend 10 minutes on one, 5 minutes on another, and maybe half an hour on the third. This can work.

The way that I have found most effective in keeping Arabic vocabulary in my head is to use it. Depending on what kind of Arabic you are learning, you need to use it. If you are learning Arabic for everyday life, you need to be in conversations a lot. If you are learning Modern Standard Arabic, you need to be reading a lot. Actually using the Arabic vocabulary in meaningful interactions is one of the main keys for retaining it.

Abbas Al-Tonsi: Exposure is key, grouping into meaningful categories, cards around the house

Abbas: There is a lot of research that still needs to be done in this area. Up till now, as teachers we mostly still rely on students to find their own way with Arabic vocabulary.

But in my thinking, the first area is having as much exposure as possible. You should be exposed to a huge amount of vocabulary. And as you listen, you will come across some words that are repeated again and again. If you don’t see a word repeated again and again, it’s probably not important. As words are repeated, you gain passive memory. And so the most important part of increasing your Arabic vocabulary is to read or listen a lot. When it comes to passive knowledge of vocabulary, the more the better.

When it comes to memorizing words, bringing them into your active memory, the way we remember things is in groups. So for example I sometimes use the method of grouping words according to their consonantal root 1, even though this can be a bit confusing at first for leaners. Or to group them by types of words, such as adjectives, synonyms, antonyms, etc.

For my beginning students, I ask them to write the Arabic vocabulary words on paper, with clear writing, and put them up as signs all around their house, including the bathroom. Put the word in front of the learner’s eye, as much as you can. Many times the learner will not remember the meaning, but with constant exposure you will slowly begin to remember it.

I also tell students to listen to Arabic as much as possible, even when not actively listening. Play 30 minutes of Arabic per day as you do your work, or cook, or anything around your house. This will build up your passive recognition of vocabulary.

Summary of methods for learning Arabic vocabulary

  • Exposure. Read and listen to as much Arabic as possible to increase your passive vocabulary
  • Memorize words using multiple lists of the same words but written in different orders, and spend a different amount of time on each one
  • Use the words you learn in active interactions, whether speaking or writing
  • Group words into meaningful groups when memorizing, such as by consonantal root*, or word type (adjective, noun, etc.), synonyms, antonyms, etc.
  • Write vocabulary items on cards and place them around your house where you will see them often

I will be doing more interviews like this in the weeks ahead, as well as sharing other “previews” of the things shared by these experts, prior to the book actually being released. Stay tuned!


Show 1 footnote

  1. Most words in Arabic are made up of 3 consonants that define the general meaning of the word. The pattern in the consonants are used in specific words along with vowels determines the exact word meaning. By understanding the general meaning of the consonantal root, the reader can immediately guess the meaning of a word that she has never seen before, based on the root and the pattern.

5 thoughts on “Arabic vocabulary – how to increase it”

  1. I bought the Modern Standard Arabic
    Vocab Clinic some years ago and my computer crashed, after reinstalling the program it asked for a registration code so the first one I got was msa-80-440-05 but i think I will need another code from you to unlocked the program I was wondering if u can help me with that it will be great love this program

    1. Hi Ababacar,

      Sorry for my slow reply, as I have been on the road. I am slowly catching up!

      The Vocab Clinic software was published by AUC Press and is no longer distributed. The software itself (released in 2005), was operational up until last year, but now unfortunately no longer works. So you won’t be able to register it.

      There is a possibility that I will put together a team to update it and make a working version, sometime in the near future, but no solid plans yet.

  2. hello,
    my name is maryam and i am from Bahrain. I am an IB student studying Arabic language and literature Higher level, and i got feedback from my teacher that I am very bad at writing essays and summary and even my grammar need improvement ALOT and she suggested me to move from Higher level to standard level but i don’t want that because I don’t want to change.please i hope you can help me

    1. Hi Maryam,

      I know that the advanced IB level is pretty difficult, so I commend your hard work!

      In terms of essay writing, this is an advanced skill that really flourishes with one on one help (I know because I teach writing at the American University in Cairo).

      At the same time, I think there are some good online resources that can help you with your process of organizing your thinking, pre-writing, and essay layout that apply to any language. For my writing students at AUC, I find that they can increase their marks significantly (sometimes dramatically) by simply upgrading the organization and planning of their essay. You may find some useful help here.

      For a quick reference guide to Arabic grammar, I really like Modern Standard Arabic Grammar – A Concise Guide (Azza Hassanein). If you can find that where you are, it can help you get on top of the grammar side.

      Having a qualified tutor will really help. Try searching for that in your area. I am not sure if could help – they have some good tutors that we have used before. If you go to their website and chat with the online assistant, they might be able to give you some advice.

      Hope that helps!

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