Arabic: Learning to Read Arabic

Some 17 years ago, I was standing in the kitchen at Jerusalem University College talking with one of the cooks. I had a can of something in my hand that had Arabic writing on it. I asked him what was inside, and was amazed that he could read all the scribbly lines. To me, they really appeared to be scribbles, but to his eye, they said much.

In the last 3 weeks, things have changed for me. I’m not going to say that I’m amazed that all those scribbly lines now have meaning to me, but I am happy to say that I can actually read in Arabic. Most of the time, I still don’t know what the words are, but I can read them. Sure, in many cases, I’m still sounding out the letters like my 5 year-old daughter does in Hebrew, but I can identify the letters and the sounds they make.

Though I don’t mean it as such, it may sound like bragging when I say that I can actually read Arabic better than many of the Arab men who sit at Damascus Gate throughout the day. It was actually somewhat of a surprise to me, to find out how many older men and some teens can’t read. Obviously, they know what the word means when I read it, so they are still FAR ahead of me. Let’s be clear about that!

After class, I had some time before I had to be at my daughter’s school, so I decided to sit in the shade outside Damascus Gate and do my homework, which was to translate some sentences from English to Arabic. For example, I am Karim and she is Rina.

The assignment wasn’t difficult, but I wasn’t certain how to spell some of the words, so I asked a 40-ish year old man sitting next to me if he could help me. He was interested until I asked him how to spell I, you ( m, f), he, she, we, you (pl) and they in Arabic. I never considered that he might not know how to spell those words, but felt bad when he didn’t. He directed me to another 40-50 year old man, who also didn’t know how to spell. Without going blow by blow, I can say a number of men couldn’t spell, so I was directed to a teen age boy who had trouble going beyond the first three words: I, you (m), and you (f). Now, this wasn’t one of the boys who quit school and went to work at 9 or 10. He simply couldn’t spell these basic words. I thanked him for his efforts and did the best I could.

For those who are still interested in the process of learning to read in Arabic, the first thing to know is that Arabic is read from right to left. You should also know that there are 28 letters, which have four forms, depending on where they come in the word. They have a stand alone shape, and then a shape if they are the first letter, a middle letter or the last letter in the word. Since the shape for the last letter position is basically the same as the stand alone shape, some say there are only three shapes for each letter. I say four because it sounds like I’ve learned more.

Here is an example of the letter nun (N in English) in four forms:
1. Stand alone: ن                        
2. First letter: نبيل        
3. Middle letter: كنيس           
4. Final letter: شن

(NOTE: Mixing English and Arabic on the same line will probably affect spacing in your browser.)

Okay, I’ll stop the language lesson here. Don’t confuse me for an Arabic teacher: I just thought some may like to know something basic about the language.

I have formally studied English, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic, and I believe Arabic is a bit harder than Russian because it is more tonal. But these are the two hardest I’ve studied.

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