Wrapping your Head around the Arabic Alphabet

This is the first of my 'educational' posts, where I try to explain and contextualize some of the challenges that face Arabic language learners. Trust me, I know them from experience.

To begin, learning Arabic is hard. The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. State Department ranks it among the 5 most difficult languages for Native English Speakers to learn (along with four Asian languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean). There are a lot of reasons for this difficulty ranging from the nature of the language itself (its grammar, syntax, etc.) to the lack of opportunities to learn Arabic before the University level and shortcomings in the curriculum and approach to learning Arabic in the U.S.

One of the first hurdles the Arabic language learner must overcome is the Alphabet.

I remember one time when home from college over Winter break, I was at a Holiday Party talking to a friend of my parents. I mentioned I was studying Arabic, which shocked this person a bit. She asked me, "Isn't that like learning Chinese? (read: infamously difficult to learn)" and I said, "No, because Arabic has an alphabet." She looked confused and asked incredulously, "Arabic has an alphabet?"

Confusing Script

It's easy to understand why someone just barely familiar with Arabic would think it, like Chinese, is an ideographic language: each character representing ideas rather than sounds. Arabic has a script alphabet, unlike all print and most handwritten English or other European languages. Similarly, reading Arabic is like reading letters from your grandmother written in cursive, and for the untrained eye it's hard to identify the letters than make up individual words:

كتب محمد كتابا =  ك  ت  ب     م  ح  م  د     ك  ت  ا  ب  ا
In the example above, the sentence on the write is written normally. It reads: Muhammad wrote a book. On the left, the letters of each word are separated. As you can see, Arabic has an alphabet just like English. It's just hidden in the script.

When students learn the alphabet they learn the shapes of each letter as it looks at the beginning, in the middle, at the end and standing alone. They also learn the appropriate way of writing the letters, a lot like how we learned English script in the 3rd grade. As with anything new, it's a little tedious, but considering how fundamental reading and writing are, the more time and focus a student gives to mastering the Alphabet, the better they'll be in more Advanced topic areas.

28 Letters, 28 Sounds

There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet corresponding to 25 consonant and 3 long vowel sounds. Like Hebrew, a fellow Semitic language, Arabic is written right to left. 

The great thing about Arabic is that it is a phonetic language. This chart shows the letters and their corresponding sounds, or phonemes:


Most of these sounds are found in English, but many are not. Therefore, mastering the alphabet requires a student not only to memorize new symbols but also to learn new sounds. 

Some of these seem very strange to native English speakers. We all know about Spanish's rolled r's and French's nasal vowels. What about Arabic's غ'ghayn', which resembles the sound of gargling water, or the ع'ayn' which you know you're doing right if it feels like you're swallowing your tongue? The foreignness of Arabic's sounds only makes it more difficult to learn the alphabet.

But the good news is that once a student learns the symbols and the sounds, pronunciation is easy. Because Arabic is phonetic, words sound like they are written. This is a big difference from English. (Think about 'ough' in through and then in though)

But where are the vowels?

Well, I may have lied a little bit saying that pronunciation is easy. 

It is true that Arabic words sound like they are written, but like Hebrew, Arabic script does not include short vowels, it only includes long vowels. Though they are not written, short vowels proliferate Arabic, as they do English.

The long vowels are ا Alif, و Waw, and ي Ya, which roughly correspond to the English sounds: a, u/w, and i/y respectively. 

ا Alif can be seen in the Arabic word for 'book':

We can transliterate this word into English as kitab. But as you can see, the only vowel written is Alif. The i sound between the first two consonants goes unwritten, like all other short vowel sounds.

So how do we know how to pronounce words if the short vowels are not written? We learn some through memorizing vocabulary and some through learning grammar.

Camilea told me that studying in Moroccan public schools, she spent a couple of years just learning how to pronounce the different letters of the Arabic alphabet. Then she started to learn حروف الشكل which is how to read and write the short vowels in Arabic words. As an elementary school student, she would study from books that had the short vowels written out with diacritic markers (you can see them below). She says that she learned the correct pronunciations over the course of this study, which lasted for two years. This is not dissimilar from how elementary school students practice their reading using graded readers in America.

However, the Arabic language student in an American university doesn't have four years to dedicate just to learning pronunciation and basic reading. Learning pronunciation by memorizing individual vocabulary words is important. But there is a shortcut that students can make.

Many Arabic forms follow certain patterns called the أوزان 'awzan'. These patterns determine the 'structure' of the word - the specific combination of letters - and the short vowels used in them. This is because Arabic words are based on roots, which are then derived formulaically into all types of verbs and nouns.

Memorizing these patterns and learning to recognize them can help students not only pronounce but understand a whole range of unknown terms.

For example, all of the active participles of a certain form of verb follow the same pattern, meaning they all have the same short vowels:

Pattern 1: مُتَفَعِّل mutafa33il (3 = ع)
Examples: متقدم متطرف متميز

As a further example, all of the past participles of a different for of verb are also identical in form:

Pattern 2: مَفْعُول maf3ul
Examples: مكتوب مبروك مرسوم

So if you know the pattern and can identify a specific word as falling within it, then you can pronounce it without any problem.

Learning these patterns, and thereby the rules for pronouncing a vast majority of words, is part of the grammar studies native Arabic speakers go through around the Arab world as children.

This approach is different from how American students learn Arabic. The most popular Arabic language curriculum in the United States does not introduce roots and word forms until the end of the first book, usually semester 2 or 3 of a university course. Even then, roots and forms are not emphasized in the same way as they are in schools in Arab countries. But that's a discussion for another day.

Keep at it, it's worth it.

The first time I tried to learn the Arabic alphabet, I had to teach it to myself. After that, with the supervision of my professors, I kept practicing and practicing and practicing. I can't emphasize how important mastering the alphabet and the sounds is to good Arabic language proficiency. It's the key to understand what you're reading and listening to. It's also essential for expressing yourself clearly in speech and writing. However, for most early Arabic students, learning the alphabet seems overwhelming and tedious. 

Just stick to it. Keep practicing and memorizing until it all becomes second nature. It pays off in the end, trust me.