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!
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.