Self-Access Centre - Arabic

Welcome to the Self-Access Centre materials database. Here you can find out about the Arabic materials we have in the SAC.

If you are interested in studying Arabic at UCL, please click here.

The SAC is here to provide you with opportunities to study Arabic outside class time. You may feel extra study is necessary in order to achieve the exam score you want, or you may just enjoy studying Arabic. Either way, the SAC could be useful for you.

If you have a very clear idea of what you need to study in Arabic, use the Resources menu above to look for the study topics which are of importance to you. If you need advice and guidance on what to study, you should talk to your class tutor, who will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on what to study.

In the Self-Access Centre you can find course books, dictionaries, but also, reading, grammar and vocabulary books. You can also watch online TV or listen to radio stations. You can also watch Arabic films or course videos.

A bit about the language

Arabic (العربية al-‘arabīyah, or عربي ‘arabi) is a Central Semitic language, thus related to and classified alongside other Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and the Neo-Aramaic languages. In terms of speakers, Arabic is the largest member of the Semitic language family. It is spoken by more than 280 million people as a first language, most of whom live in the Middle East and North Africa, and by 250 million  more as a second language. Arabic has many different, geographically-distributed spoken varieties, some of which are mutually unintelligible.  Modern Standard Arabic is widely taught in schools, universities, and used in workplaces, government and the media. It derives from Classical Arabic, which has been a literary and liturgical language of Islam since its inception in the 7th century.

  • Map of Arabic Speaking World

Classical, Modern Standard, and Colloquial Arabic

Classical Arabic is the language found in the Qur'an and used from the period of Pre-Islamic Arabia to that of the Abbasid Caliphate. Classical Arabic is considered normative; modern authors attempt to follow the syntactic and grammatical norms laid down by classical grammarians and use the vocabulary defined in classical dictionaries.

Based on Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic is the literary language used in most current, printed Arabic publications, spoken by the Arabic media across North Africa and the Middle East, and understood by most educated Arabic speakers. "Literary Arabic" and "Standard Arabic" are less strictly defined terms that may refer to Modern Standard Arabic and/or Classical Arabic.

Colloquial or dialectal Arabic refers to the many national or regional varieties which constitute the everyday spoken language. Colloquial Arabic has many different regional variants; these sometimes differ enough to be mutually unintelligible and some linguists consider them distinct languages. The varieties are typically unwritten and are often used in informal spoken media, such as soap operas and talk shows, as well as occasionally in certain forms of written media, such as poetry and printed advertising.

The sociolinguistic situation of Arabic in modern times provides a prime example of the linguistic phenomenon of diglossia, which is the normal use of two separate varieties of the same language, usually in different social situations. In the case of Arabic, Arabs of any nationality can be assumed to speak both their local dialect and their school-taught Standard Arabic. Arabic speakers often improve their familiarity with other dialects via music or film. The situation with the Literary Arabic vs spoken varieties of Arabic) differs from country to country but every Arab country's official language is "standard Arabic". There is no consensus on which version of Arabic should be taught to foreigners. The debate continues about the future of the Arabic language, both among Arabic linguists in the Arab world and outside it. Some prefer the status quo (existing diglossia). The other suggestions are: to promote Modern Standard Arabic to be used colloquially, outside the formal situations, on an everyday basis by introducing more audio-material, enforcing the usage on mass-media; or to upgrade the individual dialects or merge dialects into one spoken Arabic, thus formalizing spoken Arabic as a standard. This is an ongoing debate in the field of Arabic linguistics.

Influence on and from other languages

Arabic has lent many words to other languages of the Islamic world. During the Middle Ages, Arabic was a major vehicle of culture in Europe, especially in science, mathematics and philosophy. As a result, European languages have also borrowed words from it and its influence is easily seen in Mediterranean languages, particularly Spanish, Portuguese, and Sicilian, owing to both the proximity of European and Arab civilization and 700 years of Arab rule in the Iberian Peninsula. Like other languages, Modern Standard Arabic continues to evolve. Many modern terms have entered into common usage, in some cases taken from other languages or coined from existing lexical resources. Structural influence from foreign languages or from the colloquial varieties has also affected Modern Standard Arabic.

  • Status of Arabic as official language:
    Arabic as official language (green)
    Arabic as one official language (blue)

Arabic and Islam

Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and is often associated with Islam, but it is also spoken by the Arab Christians, Mizrahi Jews and Iraqi Mandaeans. Most of the world's Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native language, but many can read the script and recite the words of religious texts.


The earliest surviving texts in Proto-Arabic, or Ancient North Arabian, are the Hasaean inscriptions of eastern Saudi Arabia, from the 8th century BCE, written in variants of the epigraphic South Arabian musnad. These are followed by 6th-century BCE Lihyanite texts from South-Eastern Saudi Arabia and the Thamudic texts found throughout Arabia and the Sinai. The Safaitic inscriptions date from the beginning of the 1st century BCE. From about the 2nd century BCE, a few inscriptions from Qaryat al-Faw reveal a dialect which is no longer considered "Proto-Arabic", but Pre-Classical Arabic. Some notable examples of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, and inscriptions in the Arabic alphabet date back to the 4th century CE from the courts of Arab kings.

  • The Arabic Version of One Thoudsand and One Nights

Arabic literature emerged in the 6th century with only fragments of the written language appearing before then. It was the Qur'an in the 7th century which would have the greatest lasting effect on Arabic culture and its literature. Arabic literature flourished during the Islamic Golden Age and continues to the present day. Arabic literature, poetry and scholarship were not only influential for the Arab world, but also for the European civilization. The translation of ancient texts, mainly Greek, penetrated the scholar environment of Europe and had a great impact on its development.  Works on non-fiction literature (manuals and compilations, biographies, geography compendiums, history and literary criticism) were written alongside extensive fictional literature. Some of the better known fictional literature pieces include One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), the story of Alladin or Ali Baba.

Dialects and descendants

  • Dialects of Arabic Dialects of Arabic

Colloquial Arabic is a collective term for the spoken varieties of Arabic used throughout the Arab world, which differ radically from the literary language. The main dialectal division is between the North African dialects and those of the Middle East, followed by that between sedentary dialects and the much more conservative Bedouin dialects. Speakers of some of these dialects are unable to converse with speakers of another dialect of Arabic. In particular, while Middle Easterners can generally understand one another, they often have trouble understanding North Africans (although the converse is not true, in part due to the popularity of Middle Eastern—especially Egyptian—films and other media).

One factor in the differentiation of the dialects is influence from the languages previously spoken in the areas, which have typically provided a significant number of new words, and have sometimes also influenced pronunciation or word order; however, a much more significant factor for most dialects is, as among Romance languages, retention (or change of meaning) of different classical forms.

The major dialect groups are:

  • Egyptian Arabic, spoken by around 76 million in Egypt. It is one of the most understood varieties of Arabic, due in large part to the widespread distribution of Egyptian films and television shows throughout the Arabic speaking world.
  • Gulf Arabic, spoken by around 34 million people in Arab states of the Persian Gulf and eastern Saudi Arabia.
  • Iraqi Arabic, spoken by about 29 million people in Iraq.
  • North Mesopotamian Arabic, spoken by around 7 million people in northern Iraq, northern Syria and southern Turkey.
  • Levantine (or Mediterranean)  is spoken by almost 35 million people in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, and Turkey.
  • Maghrebi Arabic, heavily influenced by Berber in pronunciation is spoken by around 45 million North Africans in Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Niger, and western Egypt; it is often difficult for speakers of Middle Eastern Arabic varieties to understand. The Berber influence in these dialects varies in degree.

Other varieties include:

  • Andalusi Arabic, spoken in Spain until 15th century, now extinct.
  • Bahrani Arabic, spoken by Bahrani Shia in Bahrain and in Oman.
  • Central Asian Arabic, spoken in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, is highly endangered
  • Hassaniya Arabic, spoken in Mauritania, some parts of Mali and Western Sahara
  • Hejazi Arabic, spoken in Hejaz, western Saudi Arabia
  • Judeo-Arabic dialects
  • Maltese, spoken in Malta, is the only one to have established itself as a fully separate language, with independent literary norms. It is the only Semitic tongue written in the Latin alphabet.
  • Najdi Arabic, spoken in Nejd, central Saudi Arabia
  • Shuwa Arabic, spoken in Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Sudan
  • Sudanese Arabic, spoken in Sudan
  • Yemeni Arabic, spoken in Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, and Somalia

Writing system

The Arabic alphabet derives from the Aramaic script. Traditionally, there were several differences between the Western (North African) and Middle Eastern version of the alphabet; however, the old Maghrebi variant has been abandoned except for calligraphic purposes in the Maghreb itself, and remains in use mainly in the Quranic schools of West Africa. Arabic, like all other Semitic languages, is written from right to left. There are several styles of script.


  • Calligraphy Calligraphy

After Khalil ibn Ahmad al Farahidi finally fixed the Arabic script around 786, many styles were developed, both for the writing down of the Qur'an and other books, and for inscriptions on monuments as decoration.

Arabic calligraphy has not fallen out of use and is still considered by Arabs as a major art form; calligraphers are held in great esteem. Being cursive by nature, Arabic script is used to write down a verse of the Qur'an, a Hadith, or simply a proverb, in a spectacular composition. The composition is often abstract, but sometimes the writing is shaped into an actual form such as that of an animal.

Source: adapted from www.wikipedia.org