How I Taught Myself to Read and Write Arabic!

Toward the end of our European journey, I was bored on a long train ride, and thought, since we’d soon be in the Arab world, I could make myself useful by learning a bit of the language. Chris had always told me that the Arabic alphabet was SUPER difficult to learn, but I wanted to see for myself.

I can already read and write Hebrew. Hebrew is difficult in its own way. There is the alphabet; but in addition to the alphabet, there are cursive forms of the letters which take completely different forms from their print counterparts (I couldn’t even begin to read cursive Hebrew script); and there are vowels, which are not individual letters, but marks (dots and lines) surrounding the letters to indicate a particular vowel sound occurring immediately after the written consonant. The problem is that in the real world, the vowels are left out! You have to know the language to be able to infer the word’s pronunciation. This renders someone like myself useless, since my knowledge of the language ends at the written form.

Arabic is a different ball game. The letters are ALWAYS written in cursive. The form of a letter is totally different when written in isolation as opposed to the form it takes when combined with other letters to form a word.

So, for each of the 28 Arabic letters, you must learn its unique form when it occurs at the beginning, middle and end of a word. Often the beginning and middle forms are the same, but when a letter occurs at the end of the word, it takes on its original (isolated) form.

Also, certain letters don’t connect from the right, and some don’t connect from the left. If these occur mid-word, you must stop connecting letters and use the beginning form of the next letter in the word.

So many rules! It’s rough to start, but it’s really not that hard once you get the hang of it. It’s even easier to read, but it’s also true in real-world Arabic that it’s up to the reader to infer pronunciation based on their own knowledge of the language in context. There are pronunciation marks, but they aren’t used often.

In Egypt, I would try to read signs for Chris to interpret, and sound like a blabbering idiot on the side of the road saying all the possible pronunciations of a word until he recognized one. Sometimes, the words I read were impossible for him to discern altogether, due not only to my failed attempts at pronunciation, but to the fact that written Arabic is formal, and doesn’t align with the heavily colloquial, region-specific dialects that characterize the spoken form of the language.

I used this YouTube channel, Learn Arabic with Maha, to learn the alphabet, the forms of each letter, and the sound each letter represents. Her lessons aren’t flawless (I wish she’d go over the previous lesson’s “homework” at the beginning of each lesson, so that I could see if I wrote

the words properly. My solution was to download the Arabic language keypad on my phone, and use that to check my work).

Maha breaks down the alphabet into 6 different lessons, teaching 5 or 6 letters per lesson. I would just write down each letter and its 3 forms along with the video, and practice writing and sounding out each word a couple times. Once we arrived in Egypt and I started seeing signs written in Arabic everywhere, it became really easy to remember.

Learning to speak Arabic is a different story….that will be another feat somewhere in my near-distant future, because lord knows that Chris’ mom won’t let me off the hook much longer.


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