Alif Baa with Multimedia: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds

3 Arabic, Books, Multimedia, Websites

Revised April 7, 2013

Authors  Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal, Abbas Al-Tonsi
Publisher  Georgetown University Press
Publication Date  2004
Price  $39.95
Skill Level  Beginner

Alif Baa with Multimedia, which consists of a book and an accompanying DVD, is designed to help you learn the sounds and writing system of Arabic. Methods include print-based, audio, and video instruction.

Before you read further: I used the second edition, and a third has since been published, so I don’t know how much has changed since my 2009 encounter with this product. However, if you do buy the second edition, you will need to buy the second edition Answer Key to Alif Baa with DVDs.

The second edition was still being sold, as of April 2013, through Georgetown University Press’s website and elsewhere, so I will proceed with the review of this edition, followed by notes on what to do if you are contemplating the third. 

In using Alif Baa’s second edition, I veered between hate and like. It reeks of a college or high school class. I mean, it is issued through a university press and is used at colleges, so that’s not unreasonable, but it’s not my taste as an adult.

Also, I hate being on the computer more than I have to, and for this I had to be on the computer. However, it is kind of a cute and earnest product. There are video clips of a cheerful calligrapher who draws letters for you while talking entirely in Arabic. He was awesome. I could barely understand a word he was saying, but he was awesome. 

At times Alif Baa reminded me of the activity books I loved as a child: directed self-study with lots of varied, short, discreet activities. I had a nostalgia-infused sense of accomplishment as I went through each self-contained exercise.

My favorite part was the dictation exercises on the Alif Baa DVD. They reminded me of dictation quizzes back in the day at Carlthorp Elementary School in Santa Monica, California. Correctly rendering in writing what I heard spoken was inherently pleasurable to me as a kid, and remains so. But ultimately I enjoyed those grade-school activity books a lot more than I enjoyed Alif Baa.

One cool thing for English speakers: this may be one of the first books you’ve owned that opens on the back cover and finishes on the front cover.

One major annoyance: for certain letters they tell you the handwritten versions are different from the versions you’d see in print, but then when they actually give you handwriting exercises involving those letters, they provide the answers in print form, i.e., what you would see in a published book. The letters haajim, and kaa, for example, all look radically different depending on where they fall in a word and whether they are in print or handwritten form—so they should really offer the answers in handwritten form. Otherwise it’s impossible for a neophyte like me to check her work! 

Another gripe: I found it hard to use the Alif Baa book/DVD/answer key combination ergonomically. I was running the DVD off a laptop, which I had on my lap, and was holding the workbook in front of the laptop, and was keeping the answer key to the right. Holding the workbook mid-air made my writing sloppy, because I didn’t have a firm surface. Even if I had done this on my desktop computer, it still wouldn’t have been comfortable, because the keyboard would have been in front of the workbook. The newer, third edition presumably eliminates some of those problems by offering more content electronically.

I abandoned this tool prematurely; it just didn’t draw me in, though I feel I could have learned a lot from it had I made it to the end.

The third edition of Alif Baa came out in 2010, the year after I used this product. If you buy the third edition (I can’t encourage you to stick to the second when there is a newer one out there), then make sure you buy the third-edition answer key as well—unless, that is, you decide to purchase 18 months’ access to the companion website for the third edition, which costs $24.95 and renders the answer key unnecessary.  

According to a Georgetown University Press contact, on the website you will get features such as all the audio and video needed to complete the exercises (not clear to me whether those are on the DVD that is included with the book anyway); all the exercises in the textbook (plus extras) in an interactive, self-correcting format; searchable English-Arabic/Arabic-English glossaries; and more.

And now, an observation: Writing this review took me about five times longer than any other review in this directory of hundreds of reviews and probably 10 times longer than most. The information on the publisher’s website and on distributor websites about this product is unbelievably confusing; I spent forever trying to figure it out. I read bewildering product descriptions, browsed tons of conflicting comments, sent confused e-mails to the publisher, etc., but there are just too many options and editions, and figuring out how much each costs, what each truly offers, where they overlap, how they differ from one another, which ones you really need, which ones override each other, and so on is very, very difficult.

That’s a real turn-off for me; I believe language products should not be confusing before you have even pressed “Buy.”

I am exhausted and have to go rest now. 

Alif Baa, Second Edition, with Accompanying DVD
Alif Baa, Second Edition, with Accompanying DVD

Comments (3)

Meera • Posted on Sat, August 16, 2014 - 6:05 pm EST

Hello Ellen! I loved this review.I am going back to school for Arabic and we use Alif Baa and Al Kitaab. I don’t really have many complaints about Alif Baa but I could already read the script. I have to say though the next book up Al-Kitaab (I dont if you used it) is HORRIBLE. And sadly it is the standard in all Arabic classes and Colleges. The book is dreadful and will confuse you more than you already are which isn’t good for a language like Arabic :P

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, August 16, 2014 - 8:32 pm EST

Thank you, Meera! I haven’t heard much about Al-Kitaab in the past, but what I have heard was not exactly effusive. What a shame! I just posted about it in the Polyglots group to see what other users’ experiences have been.

talia • Posted on Sat, September 12, 2015 - 12:44 pm EST

Great review. We are using this book at UC Berkeley plus the Al-kitaab book (both books for Elementary Arabic 1a).

I ordered the companion component. The access key should arrive soon via media mail. I will post again to let you/others know if the companion is worth the money ($30 with shipping).


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