1 – Work through an English-Arabic textbook, or two, and learn the vocabulary and grammar systematically.
The majority of people tend to start either with a basic classical Nahw text (like al-Ajrumiyyah) or a modern Arabic textbook for teaching Arabic to foreigners (e.g. al-Kitab al-Asasi or The Medina University course). My experience of learning Arabic and seeing how much progress people who have taken various different routes to the language have made, has demonstrated to me beyond doubt that both of these approaches are grossly deficient.
Classical Nahw texts were written by Arabs (or scholars of the Arabic language) who spoke fluent classical Arabic, for Arabs who spoke fluent classical Arabic, as a means to analyse the language. It was never intended that texts like al-Ajrumiyyah would be used to teach foreigners Arabic! This is clear from even a cursory look at the way the books present the information – the focus is entirely on abstart theorising of grammatical categories, rather than practical usage.
As for al-Kitab al-Asasi etc., quite apart from the several errors in these books, they were written for use by modern Arabic teachers, who can’t speak the languages of their internationally diverse students. Using them, when one has recourse to much more accurate, much more systematically laid out and much more complete grammars of the Arabic language written in one’s own mother tongue, is I believe a terribly inefficient way to start.
I would suggest Haywood and Nahmad – the grammar covered is to a good level and is systematically presented. You should aim to get through at least the first 35 chapters, which means memorising the vocabulary and being able to do the excercises in your head. Note that this may require you to do the exercises and go over the grammar a number of times (e.g. six, seven or even more). In particular, you should understand and memorise the weak verb tables (e.g. (i) doubled verbs – you should know the difference in verb conjugation between verbs on the patterns radda yaruddu, farra yafirru and malla yamallu, (ii) defective verbs – you should know the difference in verb conjugation between verbs on the patterns nasiya yansaa, da’aa yad’u and ramaa yarmee). As a second textbook, Teach Yourself Arabic, Tritton (published around 1950, not the modern textbook) is very useful – it will reinforce the rules you learn from Haywood and Nahmad, as well as provide extra vocabulary and useful phrases.
2 – After about Chapter 23 of Haywood and Nahmad, you should be able to start reading (with some difficulty at first, and with the help of a dictionary) stories for children in Arabic.
In particular, Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi has a number of books in this genre, such as Qisas al-Nabiyyeen and al-Qira’at al-Rashidah; both series are written especially for foreigners learning Arabic by someone who was an expert of the language. As your reading becomes more fluent, and once you’ve completed up to about Chapter 30, you should start reading as much modern and classical authors as you can. Try various authors – it’s vital at this stage not to pick someone who’s style one finds too difficult, as that can be off putting. It’s important also to vary what you read – it’ll help maintain interest and increase your vocabulary.
Three authors deserve special mention, namely Ramadan Buti, Yusuf Qaradawi and Mohammad al-Ghazali – all have a lot of literature on a fairly wide range of subjects, and, though one might not necessary agree with all of the ideas expressed in their works, as the topics they address are contemporary and interesting, it will certainly help your Arabic. If you want to read something more classical at this stage, then both Abu Hamed al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya should be considered, as they both have a very readable and relatively easy style (except of course in their more technical works, like Ghazali’s al-Mustasfa, his work on Usul al-Fiqh, which should be avoided). May I suggest something like ‘Minhaj al-Abidin’ by al-Ghazali as a starting point? In addition, any small monographs you find on subjects of interest to you would be useful at this stage.
It is imperative, when reading, to take down and memorise the useful vocabulary you come across (i.e. vocabulary that will help you express yourself and converse at a high level with other students and, later your teachers – too high a focus on concrete vocabulary items, such as the names of various vegetables, flowers, will at this stage be a hinderance). Keep the vocabulary sheets for the different books you read separate – this will help you, later on, to indentify the preferred style of different authors, as well as notice mistakes in the lexical usage of modern authors (e.g. many authors like to use the verb tasaa’ala to mean ‘to wonder’, wheras, in fact, it has no such meaning in classical Arabic, and is an entirely modern, and therefore, stricly speaking, incorrect use).
3 – At some point (but not before you’ve learn’t Arabic!) you will have to start working through an Arabic grammar book – probably something like ‘al-Durus al-Naywiyyah’, three books in a single volume, which will introduce you to the grammatical terminology used by the Arabic grammarians, as well as introduce you to the science of I’rab (parsing sentences, which the beginner should not concern himself with, despite what any well-meaning Arabic teacher would have you believe!). I suggest that you do books one and two well – memorise all the information and be able to parse the example sentences without difficulty. I strongly advise against studying anything classical at this stage (e.g. ‘Qatr al-Nada’) – it will be far too detailed, and it’s unlikely that you’ll derive significant benefit. At a more advanced stage, as far as advanced Arabic-English grammars go, you should consider ‘Wright’s Grammar’ and ‘A Grammar of Classical Arabic’ (Fischer).
4 – In terms of dictionaries, for the moment I Imagine Hans Wehr is sufficient – it covers all the usages that you are likely to encounter at the start of your Arabic education, and is very well laid out. It should be noted however that this is, strictly, a modern Arabic dictionary, based on the usage of Arabic in the media and by modern writers. As such, it is replete with errors from a classical Arabic viewpoint, and should not be relied upon by the serious advanced student (although, for the reasons mentioned earlier, he will continue to find it useful). My advice is that once you attain some degree of fluency in you reading, you should use Hans Wehr in conjuction with a dictionary for advanced learners, namely Hava. The latter will give you the classical signification of a term, but the definitions given are sometimes, due to their berevity, not entirely clear, and at other times unwieldy. You should also start using an Arabic-Arabic dictionary as soon as you feel able. I have found ‘al-Mu’jam al-Wasit’ to be the most helpful – it’s published by the Cairo Arabic Language Academy. At a more advanced stage, you should Lane’s Lexicon for Arabic-English dictionaries (an unparrallelled work in 8 volumes), and ‘Mukhtar al-Sihah’ for Arabic-Arabic dictionaries.
Last year I completed the third year of Abi Nur’s 3 year Arabic program for foreigners (Ta’hili); although it has a number of shortcomings, the most patent of which is the ridiculous number of subjects (seventeen!), many of which are of little to no benefit, I would still recommend it to anyone who wants an overview of the Islamic Sciences and what they involve from a traditional perspective. Subjects covered include Hadith (memorising most of Nawawi’s 40 Hadith and reading a modern commentary), Usul al-Hadith (‘al-Bayquniyyah’), Fiqh (Shafi’i – ‘al-Fiqh al-Manhaji’, a modern text by three Damascene scholars) Nahw (‘Tahdheeb Qatr al-Nada’) and so on. In the second year, one is expected to memorise Juz 29, and in the third year an equivalent of another 2 Juzs from various parts of the Quran (I don’t know about the first year as I went straight into the third year, but I suspect that you have to memorise Juz 30); opting out of any of the subjects is not an option. The main benefit for me was being able to listen, for 6-7 hours every day, to reasonably good Classical Arabic from the teachers.
Abi Nur also does a 6-level program for beginners, with each level lasting 2 months. I’m afraid I don’t have much detail on this program, but I know it is ongoing. Although Level 1 is in theory for complete beginners, you should work through at least some of the steps above before enrolling to really benefit. The focus is solely on Arabic, although one is obliged to attend Tajwid lessons too (there is no Quran memorization).
As with any course, how much the student gets out of these above-mentioned programs is really down to his dedication, intelligence and organization. Students have been known to start speaking very good Arabic after only a few weeks of studying, and others cannot manage it even after a number of years.
The other option is to study privately, i.e. one teacher to a small group of students, usually in the teacher’s house or else in a mosque. Most long term students tend to try combining studies at an institute with private studies. Short term students usually go for one or the other, depending on how much they’ve done before coming to Damascus – really, to study privately with a good teacher, one would need to have a good grasp of spoken Classical Arabic. The advantage over studying at an institute is that one can just focus on the subjects which are to one’s interest, the quality of the teachers is generally higher, and one gains a much better feel for what studying traditionally would involve. However, it isn’t necessarily very easy to find good private teachers; one needs to be fairly well connected with people who’ve been here a while, and even then people are often reluctant to ‘share’ their teachers with others. Even once one has started studying, there is every possibility that things like financial or time constraints on the teachers, or even government restrictions (all private teaching has to be approved!), will mean that the lessons are cancelled, meaning that you have to find another teacher.
There is actually a lot more that could be said on these topics, but I think that’ll do for now! I hope it’s of some use.