My First Impressions After Learning The Arabic Alphabet

Last weekend I decided to learn to read Arabic. I'm not talking about learning any words, building any vocabulary, or even being able to communicate or understand anything. I just wanted to learn how to read this strange-looking language.

I split my study into two sessions, about an hour on Saturday, and approximately the same on Sunday. It might be possible to do it all at once, but without a teacher here to show me the right way, I'm stumbling through this and probably making it a lot harder on myself than it needs to be. I used the explanations at Learn Arabic Online, a site that suggests you can master the Arabic language in 6 to 9 months.

Writing in Arabic

The first interesting fact about Arabic is that it is read right-to-left. This sounds scary, but it's actually not that hard to get used to. In fact, within mere minutes I was already instinctively looking to the right first when I saw a new word.

The next thing worth noting is that each word is connected from beginning to end, with the exception of small breaks allows by a small number of non-connected characters. This is very similar to learning the scripted or cursive handwriting of any other language... except for the fact that there is only one way of writing in Arabic. It's all scripted. There is no print.

So far, this actually doesn't sound so hard. These are minor details that are easy to get used to. What's perhaps a bit more intimidating about the writing is that each letter has four possible forms. It's written one way at the beginning of a word, another way in the middle, and another way at the end. And then, just for good measure, there is a separate way of writing a letter when it stands by itself.

Looking at the letters in print, it's not immediately apparent why one form equals another, but when you consider how you would actually write each letter, it becomes a bit easier to sense their relation.

The Arabic alphabet

Finding that the Arabic alphabet has 29 letters wasn't scary to me, since I had learned the Russian alphabet (which has 33 letters) in a matter of only about an hour. (Granted, the Arabic alphabet is a lot more foreign than any Cyrillic characters.) However the intimidation started to set in when I learned that there are no vowels in the Arabic alphabet.

Apparently, there are actually three vowels used in Arabic, but they are not part of the alphabet, and they are never written. Or, to be more accurate, they are only ever written in childrens books and learning materials.

So how do you know what vowel to use, and when? After my brief introduction, it appears safe to say that there is almost always a vowel separating each consonant, though this is not strictly true all the time. For a stark beginner, it's a good first assumption.

There are a few consonants in the alphabet which are "glides", or abbreviated forms of vowel sounds, used as consonants. (In English, "w" and "y" are glides of the "oo" and "ee" sounds.) In addition to those two sounds, Arabic also adds a glide for the "aa" sound. And there is also one consonant which makes no sound at all, but facilitates words which begin on a vowel sound since, as I said, vowels are not written.

If you imagine the English language written without vowels, it might look something like what the kids are sending each other on chat or SMS, and you will quickly realize that, while at first a bit strange, it's not impossible to read or understand. For instance, the word computer might be written as KMPWTR. When you sound it out, you get "ka-ma-pa-oo-ta-ra", which sounds pretty close when you speed it up. Vowels actually fill themselves in pretty naturally.

Still a bit frustrating

Often with learning, it isn't immediately apparent where the pitfalls will be, and what would make your learning easier. What I found in my short time searching was a wealth of printed, readable explanations of the alphabet and its letters, and descriptions of their sounds, but no actual practice words (with audio) to help you sound out real words. This would be invaluable in helping to remember the letters as you see them — especially when so many letters look like each other, and the only difference sometimes is whether there is a dot above or below the letter.

I was able, somewhat, to over come this by searching YouTube for some basic Arabic vocabulary, but doing it this way requires you to have already memorized the alphabet. It would be so much easier with the ability to learn to recognize and pronounce words incrementally as you learn the letters.

In the end, after a few hours of study, I feel that I have a reasonable understanding of the workings of the Arabic alphabet, but while I was able to read a few words on my own, I still don't have much confidence that I could successfully more than a few syllables from an Arabic text if it were placed in front of me.

Maybe at some point in the future that will change!

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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • I realize I'm about two months late finding this, but I wanted to say that learning to read Arabic is almost useless without also learning to speak the language. I've learned that from experience, and had to really fight with my Arabic "teacher" to even spend time learning to write and read the letters.
    My husband is an Egyptian and fluently bilingual in Arabic and English (American style), and as I've started and stopped over the last 12 years trying to learn Arabic, I've learned that there are some things about the language that are important to know if you're going to learn it.
    Written Arabic is commonly the "Classical" style. It's got lots of dashes and dots and squiggles that are all the vowels in the words (there are only a couple of actual vowels in the alphabet, and the alif is a multidirectional letter that can be almost any vowel with the right accent mark). The thing about the classical language is that no one actually speaks it (at least in Egypt, which is where I'm headed). It's just how everything is written, and everyone who is literate knows the Classical, but would read certain words aloud as "Colloquial" words. One example is the number three. It is written "theletha," but pronounced "teleta." Or the written word bortoqali (color orange), which is actually said as borto'aeni (borto'aen is AN orange).
    Unless you know or learn both at the same time with native speakers, you might end up speaking a very formal language (very well, probably) and no one in the Middle East would really get what you're saying.
    The other thing about learning to read the language first but not spending time speaking with natives is that people talk very fast and run words together. A common phrase like "Insha'allah" (God willing) is said so quickly that to the untrained ear it sounds like "inshala," While people will still actually understand if you say "insha'allah," you would sound very slow.I don't want this to sound discouraging, my goal was to just share some observations I've made on the language, and maybe when you are beginning to speak the language as well as read and study the written word, you will be able to catch the differences, but a phrasebook like the Lonely Planet books is going to help you to see the difference between the formal, written language and what is spoken. (Get the "Egyptian Arabic" guide. :-) )Sadly, I'm not at any advantage to learning Arabic, though. My husband has no accent, he has near-perfect American English (written, not so much), and his mother is a trained English teacher, so his entire family is also fluent in English (with Egyptian accents), which means no one speaks Arabic to me. My goal this next 4 months is to totally change that!I love Arabic, written and spoken I find it to be a very beautiful language. I'm picking it up slowly, as I've been for 12 years, but I can already see the process speeding up as I see my husband becoming more involved in the process and helping me pronounce and teach words to our kids!Love your blog, by the way, thanks for sharing your language learning.

  • This is so interesting. I've always been curious how the Arabic alphabet works, the script looks so overwhelming! I didn't know about the omitted vowels, I guess it's like Hebrew that way? I'm learning Hindi, but I don't know how difficult it is to learn a new alphabet because my mom taught me the Sanskrit characters when I was young and they're pretty much the same in Hindi.

  • It's really not so difficult once you get your head around the way the script works. Of course, I'm still doing that! :)There are just a few basic shapes -- a bump, or a squiggle, or a line, and not much more than that. The biggest difference is in the number of dots above or below the line.Of course this all still says nothing about making those sounds or learning those words... hahaha But I can honestly say I'm sounding out words I see in Arabic. That's pretty cool.

  • Learning to read a language without spending time learning that language isn't useless. Sure, the ability to read isn't going to make anyone capable of communication, but it can at least give the ability to read a street sign, or the name on a building. And every language has loanwords and cognates. I'm willing to bet "taxi" is pronounced the same in Arabic. :)

  • there are vowls in arabic
    here are two youtube videos that proves arabic has vowls :D :

  • if you love arabic so much why are you spouting so many lies about it?

  • Let's try to keep the comments constructive.

  • Actually, there _are_ separate print and cursive for the Arabic alphabet. The normal script used in Arabic is called Naskh and it was introduced about a thousand years ago, replacing the Kufi script, which was blockier than the current Naskh. Cursive, everyday writing Arabic is much smoother; while siin and shiin in Naskh has two curves, while in Ruq'ah (most cursive Arabic) they are written without the curves. Thereby, it is much faster to write.Another thing: the only thing I hate about Naskh (or really printed or computer Arabic) is that it looks so ugly, blocky and uneven - whereas handwritten Naskh (like in the Qur'an) is quite beautiful.

  • I attended Arabic class for a year, had class twice a week. On the days I didn't have class, I practiced learning and writing vocabulary as well as conjugating verbs for hours. Our teacher insisted on our learning the alphabet, and if you start off slow (a couple of letters each time), you don't get as confused. It also helps if you are a visual learner as opposed to an auditory one. I would think about the words and conjure them up with my "inner eye," then write them.What good does it do to only learn an alphabet? Randy is right, you never know when you might actually travel to a country that speaks that language and need to read street signs (the Russian alphabet helped me in Greece, and years later I actually did end up travelling to Morocco.).Indeed it is hard to read words without vowels when you are a beginner, but when your command of the language gets better, it gets easier, and the context will tell you which is the correct word (after all, an English speaker knows that apt. is an apartment, No. means number, n/a is not applicable or not available, etc. etc.).What I found particularly frustrating at the time was the lack of good learning material here in Germany. A friend of mine had actually programmed his own vocabulary trainer for Arabic due to lack of software. Perhaps the situation has improved since then, that was a while back.

  • Yes, the word Taxi is pronounced the same in win.
    I am a native Arabic speaker

  • Hooray! What's my prize? :)

  • Hello I have one of the best free method for learning arabic alphabet specialy for people from Europe and USA yust look: https://www.arabic-alphabet....

  • Cześć. Jestem z Warszawy. Studiuję arabski sześć lat. Ostatnio dobrze mi w tym pomaga Myślę, że easy arabic learning można osiągnąć tylko z nosicielami języka.

  • Learning Arabic may be that easy for someone who already have some background and some ideas about this. This will going to give them another way of how to learn and on how to use this kind of knowledge that they have on their work or on their studies.

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