It’s always an appealing thought to travel to a far away land and learn a new language directly from the natives. When people consider an Arabic language immersion program, the image is usually of a barren desert-land, riding on a camel-back, dressed up in an Arabian outfit, sipping Arabic coffee in a tent while chit-chatting with the locals in Arabic. Well, the reality can be quite different. That’s not to discourage anyone from travelling to learn the langauge – no doubt, they have some great benefits. However, one has to keep a few things in mind before making the big move.
1. Exhaust your local resources
Before you spend all that savings on an immersion program that you have been dreaming about, make sure you’ve used all the local resources that you have in your native country to learn the target language (in this case, Arabic). Have you had a sincere interest in learning the langauge? What efforts have you taken towards reaching this goal? Have you approached a local Arabic teacher? Have you gained some basic foundation of the language? There are many Arabic courses run in most countries – check with your local madrasas.
It’s important that you have some basics before moving to a country where no one can understand what you’re saying, and vice versa. Knowing a few common phrases can save a lot of frustration and trouble.
2. Culture Shock
This is one of the most important factors to consider. Many people move to a country without doing any homework about their culture or situation. Remember that most Arabic-speaking countries are developing countries. There maybe times when you don’t have access to basic facilities like water or internet. Be aware of the religious sentiments of the people. If you’re a type of person who doesn’t like change or is not flexible, adjusting to a new place with people from a totally different culture can be frustrating and depressing. Expect the unexpected.
A friend of mine moved for a language immersion program with his wife and two kids (one of them just a month old), and found that their apartment was not yet available. They had to stay in separate dorms (men/women) for couple of days before the institute could make arrangements. Al-Hamdulillah, he was patient and always smiling even though it was extremely hard on him and his family. Not many would react in a similar fashion. Don’t expect things to be ideal. Plan for the worst, if you can stand for it – then go ahead. But of course, hope for the best!
3. Choosing the right country
With the current situation of the Arab-world, the options to learn Arabic are limited. However, it’s important to pick the right country that would help you reach your goal. From my personal experience, I wouldn’t recommend travelling to any of the Gulf countries to learn Arabic, unless you’re enrolled in a University course. You can read my post on the Challenges of learning Arabic in the Gulf countries for details. Gulf countries are mainly for shopping or work!
If you’re serious about learning Arabic, you need to consider countries that will give you maximum exposure to the language. And also, where you can practice the langauge as much as possible.
4. Budgeting and Expenses
Budgeting could be one thing, expenses another. Be prepared for the worst. Do your research on the average weekly/monthly expenses that you might incur. Budget for a bit more than that. Always keep at least an extra month’s worth of back-up fund. Falling short of money and having to work part-time might steer you away from your goal.
Seven years ago, when the revolution took place in Egypt, a friend of mine had no access to the bank or shops. One of the major institutes, where he was studying, was shut down. Phone lines were disconnected. Their government had to fly them out of the country, drop them off to Germany, and make them pay for fuel-tax charges. Good news is: he is now back in Egypt with his family to continue his Arabic learning journey (Now, that’s determination!). My point is, if things have to go wrong, they will. No place is safe. But we have to take precaution when we travel to an unknown country. Stocking up items in advance and having some cash in hand might be a good idea.
5. No institute is ideal
Don’t expect that when you enroll in a langauge institute you will automatically have access to the best teachers, best teaching-approaches, etc. Things could be far from that. In fact, many of the native teachers are not strong in grammar. They maybe great to improve your conversational skills. But, there are many non-native teachers who may be better at explaining grammar concepts since they have taken the hard route to learning it.
Even if your native teacher knows grammar well, he may wait a while until you build up your vocabulary to introduce some grammar topics. Or, he may not. You could be blankly staring at your teacher the whole time, while he goes on explaining grammar concepts with great passion (all in fluent Arabic!). That’s why, going back to our first point, it pays to exhaust your local resources first. Knowing some basic elements of the language can prove extremly helpful when faced with such situations.
Some times the language schools may even take some time to place you in the right level. Or you could have classmates who are of varying levels. Make sure you speak up and let them know. If you wait for things to change by themselves, they usually don’t. Especially in the developing countries.
6. Be prepared to work hard
Make sure your intentions are clear. If your intention is to mainly travel, that’s totally fine. You may pick up some basic phrases and maybe that’s all you want. But if you’re serious about learning the language thoroughly, then be prepared to work hard.
Bear in mind, that every day, you would be learning new vocabulary and grammar concepts for 4-5 hours a day for 5 days a week! That’s a lot of new words and things to remember. Plus you need to practice! Yes, you will be literally living the language, day-in and day-out, and that’s exactly the point of an immersion progarm. But most people don’t realise that a lot of work is expected to be put-in from the student. Check out our article on how to learn Arabic to know the right approach to learning Arabic.
7. Have patience
Last, but the most important – is to have patience; and language learning requires a lot and lot of it. Without patience, it’s impossible to succeed in learning any language, or in anything for that matter. The most important thing that will keep you going during the tough moments, is reminding yourself of why you started in the first place.
Was is just a bad phase? Or was it a true dream? What was your true intention of learning the language? Was it to please Allah (SWT)? Was it to understand the Quran and be a better Muslim? If yes, know that you’re being rewarded for every struggle; and carry on. What’s worth having, never comes easy. Constantly reminding yourself of the goal that you want to achieve, is what makes the journey possible.
Benefits of Arabic immersion program
Now that we have covered some of the possible challenges that you may come across while studying Arabic abroad, let’s look at some of the benefits.
The benefits of learning in an immersion program are plenty. Following are a few of them:
1. Spiritual benefits
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: “Whoever travels a path in search of knowledge, Allah makes easy for him a path to Paradise.” [Sahih Muslim 2699]. This Hadith alone is sufficient to motivate any student of knowledge.
There are many other benefits to learning Arabic. See our post on Top 5 reasons to learn Arabic for details.
2. Your survival depends on the language
This statement is literal, especially when you have to order food at a resturant where they only speak Arabic. This is a great way of practicing what you learn in class. For example, when you learn about how to order food at a resturant in class, you can actually go out and use it. You don’t have that opportunity in non-Arabic speaking countries.
Make the most of this opportunity while you’re abroad. Don’t go to big-chain fast-foods like McDonald’s, KFC or Starbucks where you can find an easy way out by pointing at your favorite meal. Instead, try the local restaurants and taste the local cuisine. Middle east has some excellent items on the menu (not just kebabs and falafel).
3. Practice with the locals
You have plenty of opportunity to meet the locals and practice the language with them. Most locals will be happy to correct your pronunciation and teach new phrases or idioms. Welcome any opportunity to interact with the locals.
One way to maximise this opportunity is to find a decent homestay. When you live with the locals you’re forced to use all of the little Arabic you know. This will make you use the words creatively and give you confidence. Like a child who just learnt to walk, you will be taking your first baby-steps towards success.
4. Your confidence will develop faster
When you’re ordering your food, asking for directions, etc. all in Arabic, you’re actually gaining confidence in using the language. Also, when you keep listening to the langauge everyday, you start opening up and getting comfortable with the language. This is something you may lack by studying in a non-Arabic speaking country.
Confidence is key to speaking the language. No amount of studying grammar can make you do that. When you’re immersed in the target langauge environment you have no choice but to make attempts to speak the language. You either learn to swim, or drown.
5. You’re constantly absorbing the language
Whether you realise it or not, you’re constantly absorbing the Arabic language while you’re in an Arabic-speaking environment. It’s like filling a bucket with water, and many taps (faucets) are running simultaneously. Even if the bucket has a crack in it! It keeps filling up until you fix the crack. Even if you turn off one of the taps, the others could be still running.
You will always be exposed to Arabic from every angle when you live in an Arabic-speaking country; billboards, advertisements, radio, newspaper, etc. Whether consciously or unconsciously, you will absorb the langauge to some extent with or without any effort. Make sure you keep an open mind and let them all in. Don’t resist.
6. You preserve what you learn
There’s a common saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” I learnt French in college for two years and never used it after that. Now, I can barely introduce myself in French! It’s true for any language. Especially when you’re learning a language seriously, you will be learning so many new words everyday; and it’s important that you use them. If you don’t, then you lose them!
That’s why revising helps. But nothing can beat, having the opportunity to use the language on a regular basis. This is the most effective way to remember things. Your mind records things easily when presented with context.
One of the most important things that you can gain from an immersion program is the time to focus on the langauge. When you normally try to learn a language part-time, you’re easily distracted by work or other errands. But when you decide to travel just to learn a language, that’s when you can truly focus!
If you set your mind to anything, you can achieve it with the help of Allah. And doing that requires great courage and sacrifce. Actually making the move to learn Arabic will finally give you the boost required to learn Arabic. Use the time wisely.
To conclude, I will clarify that I haven’t written this article to discourage anyone from moving overseas to learn Arabic full-time. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s to help those who are considering the move. I just want to make them aware of the reality. If you think you’re ready to take up the challenge, I wish you the very best – May Allah bless your journey and make it easy! (Ameen). Regardless of all the challenges you will face, you’re going to enjoy it as long as you keep a positive attitude and stay focused on your goal.
I, myself, moved overseas with my wife to learn Arabic, and it’s been one of the best things that ever happened to us. We enjoy every bit of the journey! Al-Hamdulillah. But at the same time, after Allah’s help, we were able to face some of the challenges we faced because we were equipped for it. Never climb the mountain unequipped. Trust Allah (SWT), make your plans and put in your efforts; He will never let you down.
For your reference, we have highlighted the key points discussed in the article above.
If you know someone who is planning to travel abroad to learn Arabic, or already learning Arabic, don’t forget to share this post with them. Allah bless!