If you dream of bobbing in the Dead Sea, hiking in Petra, shopping in Dubai, or savoring the history in Tel Aviv, then you’re not alone. Perhaps the Middle East has piqued your interest. If so, you’re better off picking up a few helpful yet simple Arabic words to make your travels easier. And you don’t even have to be a lover of language to pronounce these 20 new words.
Reasons to Learn Arabic
- to earn serious clever points by being one of the few (especially among westerners) who can speak Arabic
- to boost your confidence in an ancient language (5th most popular language in the world!)
- to break down cultural barriers
- to travel more smoothly in Arab-speaking countries
- to enrich your life with the language of the holy land
- to show everyone you can master a difficult and exotic language
- to avoid feeling like an outsider in Arabic places
- to speak to that cute Saudi guy in your university–oh wait, maybe that’s just me 😀 (but still, you might find that learning Arabic will blossom unexpected relationships)
Learning Arabic While Living in the United Arab Emirates
I’ll never forget overhearing my name mixed in with some harsh consonants while sitting across from a group of Emirati men in a cafe.
Do they know me? I heard my name, but… there’s no way. Then again, maybe my name is Arabic? Surely they aren’t talking about me…
Come to find out, “addie” actually means “normal.” It looks like this: عادي. Aside from the time I thought random strangers were talking about me, I felt like I was absorbing so much Arabic language every day. I didn’t realize it, but I could listen in to people speaking in the market or restaurants and have an idea of what they were talking about. And of course, many thanks to Tareq, my boyfriend, for preparing me beforehand for the language differences in the Middle East.
What I didn’t expect while living in UAE, however, were the massive populations of expats who greatly outweighed native Emiratis by 89%! Could you imagine being the minority in your own country? On top of that, a majority of the expats barely knew any Arabic words. With an abundance of English speakers, it’s no wonder so few cared to learn Arabic; they didn’t need to know it. I will say this… Not all Arab countries have an excess of expats, so you can’t count on anyone’s level of English proficiency to make your travels comfortable. Be proactive, and learn some Arabic.
Here are the 20 Helpful Words
In this blog, I partnered up with Tareq, my Arabic-speaking consultant, to hand-pick the 20 most helpful Arabic words for anyone wanting to plan a trip in the Arab world.
Since Arabic operates on a different alphabet, I have personally transliterated for you. I must confess that some of the letters in Arabic don’t have similar sounds in English, but I did the best I could to use similar-sounding phonetics! Moreover, Tareq has recorded every single word and phrase for your convenience–or your entertainment. I even had him write the words in Arabic (which should be read from right to left).
1. as-salam alaykum/ السلام عليكم
Literally meaning: “Peace be upon you”
I heard “as-salam alaykum” more than any other word. It’s the formal greeting in Arabic, particularly for Muslims whenever they gather socially or in worship. Anyone can use the word to mean “hello.”
reply: wa-alaykum salam / و عليكم السلام
Literally meaning: “and peace unto you”
When someone tells you “hello,” you simply reply with “hello” back, right? Well, unlike English, your response to “as-salam alaykum” should be “wa-alaykum salam.” So, just flip it and add “wa” which means “and.”
Person 1: Assalam Alaykum! How are you?
Person 2: Walaykum Assalam! I’m fine, thanks.
2. ismee/ إسمي
Literally meaning: “My name is…”
I’ll always remember how to introduce myself because the word looks like this “is me.”
Person 1: Assalam alaykum. Ismee Addie.
Person 2: Wa alaykum salam. Ismee Tareq.
3. gahwah/ قهوة
Literally meaning: “coffee”
To set the record straight, gahwah only refers to Arabic coffee, not American black coffee. Gahwah, pictured to the right, is always golden in color, served hot, never cold. Sometimes you can add cardamom, and it’s always poured in a tiny cup.
Now that you know the basic Arabic greetings, the next natural step is for you to be offered gahwah. It’s important to note that when offered, it comes off as terribly rude to decline–yes, even if you vehemently dislike coffee. You’re better off accepting than to refuse a cup. Why? Well, it’s believed that the earliest coffee-drinkers were those in southern Arabia. Thus, it’s inherently part of the Arab culture.
4. la/ لا
Literally meaning: “no”
“No” could possibly be the most important word you know.
5. na’am/ نعم
Literally meaning: “yes”
Tareq and I don’t want you to miss out on anything, so it’s always good to know the opposite of “no.”
6. shukran/ شكرا
Literally meaning: “thanks”
If you want to say “thank you” or “thanks” in Arabic, shukran is the word you want to use. And should you want to say “no, thanks,” say “la, shukran.”
Person 1: Buy my cashmere scarf.
Person 2: La shukran, I don’t need one.
7. afwan/ عفوا
Literally meaning: “you’re welcome”
8. kayfa halik/ كيف حالك
Literally meaning: “how are you?”
A nice way to ask how someone is doing. This is a lovely variation of “marhaba,” meaning hello and welcome.
9. reply: alham-du-il-allah/ الحمد لله
Literally meaning: “thank God”
Probably one of my favorite words, “alhamdulilallah” shows thanks to God even through its spelling. God, in Arabic, is spelled Allah, as you can see at the end of the word. You’ll find several other Arabic words that weave “Allah” into its spelling. While living in UAE, I was amazed how every expat group–Hindus, Westerners, Asians–used this word.
Person 1: Kayfa halik!
Person 2: Alhamdulilallh.
Literally meaning: “where?”
Person 1: Wain hotel?
11. kim seh’er/كم سعر
Literally meaning: “how much…”
There are many instances inside the Spice Souks (markets) or along the Dubai Creek that non-native English speakers might know how to speak Arabic better than English. I had to use “kim seh’er” to ask a Pakistani man how much my abra ride would be.
Person 1: Abra ride?
Person 2: Na’am. Kim seh’er?
12. ana areedu an athab/ أنا أريد أن أذهب
Literally meaning: “I want to go…”
Not all taxi drivers are fluent English speakers. This phrase will also help you save time.
13. lesh/ ليش
Literally meaning: “why?”
When traveling in another part of the world, we often need more information. To ask why something is what it is, use “lesh.”
14. fa-himt/ فهمت
Literally meaning: “understand?”
Now that you have a few greeting words under your belt, you may want to ensure your conversation partner understands what you’re saying.
15. ana-asif/ أنا أسف
Literally meaning: “I’m sorry”
Arab speakers can talk fairly quickly, so if in doubt say, “ana-asif.” This signals they need to repeat or slow down.
16. ma’asalama/ مع السلامة
Literally meaning: “stay in peace”
When people leave, you are literally telling someone that you wish peace to stay with them. “Ma’salamah” is a very polite way of saying “goodbye” in Arabic. While there are other words that mean goodbye too, this one is the easiest to learn and most commonly heard.
Person 1: See you later.
Person 2: Ma’salamah!
A few of the most versatile, helpful Arabic words
17. hallas/ خلاص
Literally meaning: “enough”
Hallas is a word you will hear in your first hour on Arab soil. Depending on the tone, it can be used flippantly, seriously, or gravely. It can mean anything from “finished,” “stop it,” “end this,” to “ok, we have a deal.” Pay attention to the voice infliction; it’s one of those words that can be and is used in every situation.
Person 1: Hallas! I’m done talking about this.
18. yallah/ يلا
Literally meaning: “Let’s go!”
The word literally means “come on,” “hurry up,” or “quickly,” and it’s wonderfully complex in use.
19. insha-Allah/ إن شاء الله
Literally meaning: “God willing” or “if God wills it”
Again, do you see the word “Allah” at the end? Insha’Allah is one of those words used in abundance. In fact, expats in UAE laugh at this word and its hidden meaning. Although Arabic speakers don’t like to admit it, “insh’Allah” is a way for people to skirt their responsibilities or squeeze out of commitments. I had a supervisor in UAE who often said “insh’Allah” when I’d ask him questions about work and deadlines. I cringed every time. Read the example below.
Person 1: Will you update tomorrow’s teaching schedule, so I can prepare what I’m going to teach tonight?
Person 2: Insh’allah. (aka: nahh)
20. masha’Allah/ ما شاء الله
Literally meaning: “God has willed it”
The closest translation is “God has willed it,” but I sometimes think of this as “because of God.” The meaning of masha’Allah can be used in exclamation, like “wow!” It is most commonly used when admiring or praising something or someone.
*Tidbit from Tareq: if you see something impressive, like someone’s shiny 2019 Range Rover, you should always say “masha’Allah” because little bad genies could pop out and do something bad to that person’s new car. I found that this superstition is universal among Muslims.
Person 1: My little baby boy was born three weeks ago!
Person 2: Mash’allah! Congrats, Areej.
21. bonus word: yawn-ee/ يعني
Literally meaning: “kind of ” or “like”
I purposely ordered “yawnee” in last place because it’s my biggest. pet. peeve. ever. This is the most overused word, particularly if you’re an English teacher. It quickly showed up on my radar when I had my Arabic students repeat it over and over again. It’s equivalent to verbal pauses in English: “um,” or “like,” or “I mean…” Similar to how kids in America overuse “like,” kids in the Middle East overuse “yawnee.” So, why know this word? Well, quite simply, it buys you time.
Person 1: Can you speak Arabic?
Person 2: Na’am–yawnee, yawnee, yawwwwnee… (so it shows you’re thinking of the next Arabic word to say…)
Suggestions for Serious Arabic Learners
Learning Arabic involves a caveat. There are countless dialects and even sub-dialects funneling into this catchall “Arabic” language. It’s true that an Arabic speaker from Oman can visit a restaurant in Morocco and struggle to order lunch–even though everyone involved is Arabic-speaking. Crazy, right?
So, choose a dialect and stick with it. There are many types: Levantine Arabic (Palestinian), Iraqi Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, North African Arabic, and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Not sure where to start? Decide which part of the Arab world you’re most interested in, and focus on that particular variety (you wouldn’t want to divide your attention over two vastly different dialects).
And to the Arabs, I became an Arab.-Lawrence of Arabia
From souks to supermarkets, learning Arabic will help you navigate your way around the Arab world, thus appreciating it more.