Review – Arabic

In this article, I’m going to review the language learning website–specifically its Arabic program.

This is tricky. I like giving positive reviews; out of all the language services and books I’ve reviewed, the only negative review I’ve given was for Rosetta Stone. Being negative doesn’t get my site any more traffic, and in fact, I try to focus on the good because that’s just the way I like to do things.

Also, I’ve talked to some of the team at, and they’re really impressive. They are intelligent, they have more knowledge of linguistics in one pinky than I do in my entire head, and I get the impression that they’re true language lovers.

But unfortunately, I cannot recommend’s Arabic program until some serious adjustments are made. I think the service has great potential, but right now it will do more harm than good to the Arabic student.

Why I hate to be negative about

Like I said, the folks at are great. And I wanted so bad for this to be good, for so many reasons:

  • The service is completely free (which is awesome).
  • They don’t ignore less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) like Arabic, the way many other language companies do.
  • The interface is intuitive and easy to use.
  • Their blog is amazing. You should seriously check it out.

Additionally, I really think the core idea behind their service can work. It’s clever, and I have no doubt it’s based on linguistic science. The basic idea is that you:

  • Read authentic materials, like newspaper articles, in your target language.
  • Double-click words you don’t know to a) see their definition and b) add them to your “Words collected” glossary.
  • Take vocab quizzes on your collected words.

I’ve also been told there are a lot of back-end things going on, where the system looks at your patterns and predicts which words you know and don’t know. (And it boggles my mind how much work and technical acumen has gone into developing this.)

The Problem

The core problem is that the Arabic is wrong. “Wrong” is a strong word, so maybe I’ll tone it down to “misleading.” But the Arabic definitions are so misleading that beginning students will absolutely be messed up. I’m pretty well-versed in Arabic, so I was able to identify this kind of stuff pretty quickly. But students unfortunately won’t, and they won’t have any idea which information is valid and which to ignore.

I’ll just walk you through this so that you know what I’m talking about.


Here’s an example of an authentic Arabic text that showed me. I had clicked the “Translate” button so that you can see the machine generated English translation of the Arabic sentence above it: “and were chosen ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ to win the award as the best work of fiction publishing during the last twelve months.”

Okay, that’s definitely awkward, but it’s not that bad a translation. A little knowledge of Arabic will get you something more polished, like: “‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ was selected to win the award for best work of fiction published during the last twelve months.”

Again, though, the original machine translation is pretty close–which is what makes the rest of this so puzzling.

So I double-clicked the first couple words: و جرى (pronounced wa jara)

This is admittedly a tricky word to define. It technically means “carried out,” but it’s used with a verbal noun to turn that noun into a verb. (Isn’t Arabic fun?) The suggested definition is “execute,” which isn’t quite right in this context, but I’ll give a pass.

But then going down the sentence, I got to an easy word: في (pronounced fee)

This means “in” and is pretty basic. But when I double-clicked it, I got this suggestion:


That green check means that “thereof” is the default definition, and the definition you will be quizzed on later. You can choose another definition, but I can’t imagine that most students who are using this as a learning tool would do that. Additionally, for the first thirty minutes I used the program, I had no idea that there was an even an option to select another definition after I double-clicked the word.

I have no doubt that “thereof” is a definition of ‘fee,” but not in this context. And it’s definitely not the most common meaning. What I think is going on is that since “adverb” comes before “preposition” alphabetically, the adverb “thereof” is the default meaning.

So this gets added to the glossary and then the student drills and learns that “fee” means “thereof,” and that the name of the novel in the article is “Frankenstein thereof Baghdad.”

Just to speed things along, here are five more examples in one graphic:


The word روائي is an adjective, but the dictionary is defining it as a noun. You could debate whether it means “fiction” or “novel” (as an adjective) in this context, but it’s definitely not “story-writer” or “romancer.”

The word نشر is a verb that means “to publish,” and in this context it’s used in its passive form (which admittedly would be tough for the dictionary to identify). But “gazette” is not an appropriate default definition.

The word فضل here is actually missing a letter that’s in the text. In the text it’s أفضل and that is an adjective that means “best,” not any of the options in that dialog box.

The word شهر can indeed mean “to proclaim,” but its more common meaning–and the meaning used here in the sentence–is “month.” Again, not an option, even if you did want to change it.

And finally, the word اثنا عشر means “twelve,” but the program took عشر as its own word and tells you that it means “inseminate.” (That’s especially odd, because the much, much more common meaning of عشر is “ten,” which isn’t an option.)


I know that was a little dry, but I had to show you what I’m talking about. In a sentence with seventeen words that you were supposed to build a vocabulary bank from, at least six of them were defined shakily.

And these weren’t all tricky words. I’m talking about words like “in,” “best,” “month,” and “twelve.”

So these go into your glossary, and then you drill, learning that شهر means “to proclaim,” with no idea that it also means “month.”

And this was one sentence. Imagine a page of this stuff.

A lot of this confusion has to do with the fact that Arabic words have double, triple, and quadruple meanings, and you have to infer these meanings from context and pronunciation. (And I’m not even going into the pronunciation problems I encountered in, because I don’t want to keep piling on.) But if you build a glossary bank with less-common definitions of common words, with definitions that were used out of context from the sentences you encountered them in, and with words that are sometimes defined flat-out incorrectly, then I don’t see how you can make any progress.

Whatever translation technology was used to generate the original machine translation should be used to gloss the words. That would likely solve a lot of these problems.

Finally, I noticed one last thing I wanted to mention. Each vocabulary word has a picture associated with it, probably to help you remember it better. I saw this:


I added that red box because dude there was butt naked, and I didn’t want to have pictures of naked people on my site. But I’m really just scratching my head at what’s going on, or how this picture is supposed to help me remember the Arabic word for “thing.” …oh wait, I get it.

Wrapping Up

I think has some great ideas, and admittedly I haven’t tried their programs for other languages. But I cannot recommend the Arabic program in its current state.

Hopefully, some adjustments are made and this tool’s potential can be reached.




  • Natalie

    Boo, I hate it when language learning resources have misleading mistakes like the ones you described. Especially in the beginning, it’s important to be exposed to native, accurate content.

  • Tobias

    Hi Ron, could you recommend any other online program for Arabic? I commute quite a long time every day and I am looking for a great app which I can use on my Android tablet during my train ride. Best, Tobias

    • Ron G.

      Hi Tobias! Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of options out there. Pimsleur Arabic is good. I’ve tried Eastern and Egyptian, both of which are decent. I’m guessing Pimsleur MSA is good too. I don’t know how that would go over on a train, though.

      Bliu Bliu ( is a great app. It’s better, in my opinion, if you’re past the rank beginner stages.

      Finally, you can try some podcasts. Check out this article with links, including a couple to Arabic podcasts:

  • toasttoyou

    I think this review is written from the point of view of a beginner and that’s a shame. You’re expecting to do more than it suggests it would. No one has yet perfected auto-translation! I am an intermediate-advanced student of Arabic, and finding it invaluable. Of course it offers weird/inaccurate/plain wrong words sometimes, but nonetheless, it allows me to work through the gist of the article and fill in the gaps with my own knowledge of Arabic grammar. And really, you shouldn’t be attempting to translated full length articles targeting native speakers without a strong grounding in basic vocab and grammar. As an intermediate to advanced student of arabic, it has allowed me to become far more fluent.

    • Ron G.

      You’re right. I’ve worked for several years as an Arabic-to-English translator myself, but I did write this with beginning students in mind because they compose the majority of language learners.

      I don’t want to defend my review too much and rehash what I said, because I don’t want to pour it on Really, I just want them to tweak their product, make millions of dollars, and help out language learners. Their site absolutely has the potential to be a useful tool. It’s the only serious site I’ve used, though, in which the actual language content is so suspect. ReadLang uses Google Translate as a base and that’s not by any means perfect, but the difference in accuracy was night and day.

      I’m glad you find useful, though.

      • Ron G.

        By the way, if anyone from is reading this and wants me to take the review down, just ask me. I had mentioned that I’d be more than happy to re-review the site when some of the kinks were worked out, but I haven’t heard anything since last year.

        This is now the only negative review on my site, but I left it up because I felt it was constructive. Maybe I was too tough on a product that was still in progress and I should’ve politely declined to offer my opinion when I realized the situation.