Learning The Arabic Alphabet The Hacker’s Way

Take a look at this method in learning the Arabic alphabet and how it could give you an intuitive start into reading and writing in Arabic.

The main goal of this website is to find more interesting and intuitive ways to learn Arabic. And, over the years, I’ve noticed that many of my students used to struggle with learning the Arabic alphabet and consider it one of the hardest steps. In fact, some even request using English letters and transliteration to avoid learning the alphabet altogether! What a shame, right?
Well I’m here to tell you what they’ve later found out:

It doesn’t have to be that hard.

I guess the main reason behind the notorious difficulty of Arabic text is the fact that Arabic letters are always written connected to one another. Cursive writing is the only way to write in Arabic.

Let’s take a look at why that’s an issue and how most people address it.

The Classic Way

If you’ve ever tried to learn reading or writing in Arabic, then you’re probably familiar with this crazy table on the right. The table shows you how each letter changes its shape depending on its location in a word; Some letters change slightly and some significantly.

And since Arabic text is only written in cursive (all letters connected), this overwhelming table is indispensable… or is it?!

a table showing how each letter in the Arabic alphabet has 4 shapes: initial, medial, final and separate.
The 4 shapes of each letter in the Arabic alphabet

The Smart Way

This method comes from the realization that most Arabic letters don’t change that drastically. Therefore, a student is encouraged to notice the patterns in the previous table instead of memorizing it. Here are some useful rules of thumb that come up:

  1. All letters can connect from the right, i.e. with the previous letter.
  2. All but some letters (6-8 letters) can connect from the left, i.e. with the next letter.
  3. The number and location of dots that some letters have don’t change at all.

This helps in linking the Arabic letters… Great! but what about remembering which letter sounds like what?
Here is where mnemonics are recomended.

Mnemonics are like memes.. kinda.
They are a great way to memorize letters and even words by linking the shape of the letter to something that you’re more familiar with (Maybe a letter from your own mother language or a whole word).
Oh, and the funnier and sillier the link is, the easier it is to remember.

 a mnemonic showing how the Arabic letter "ba" looks like a Boat.
a mnemonic showing how the Arabic letter “ba” looks like a Boat.
Check this link to get more mnemonics.

These concepts are great and save a lot of time compared to studying that table, but there’s still room for more simplification and efficiency.

The Hacker’s way

This method offers very interesting possibilities and unexpected rewards and it relies on two overlooked facts:

  1. Reading is more needed than writing.
  2. Even when writing is needed, in most cases, typing is what’s actually needed nowadays.

I’m sure these statements don’t sound compelling to everyone, but I urge you to consider them for a moment here.

random arabic words being typed and connected automatically by the computer
Random words being typed. Notice how each letter adapts to the letter after it.

The interesting possibility that typing offers is that computers connect the letters and change their shapes automatically and in real time. I mean, while you type a letter after another, the computer quickly connects them properly saving you the worry about remembering which letter connects how.

Ok, so how can we make use of all the above?

Consider the following guidelines:

1. Study the letters in small digestible groups.

Notice how some letters look alike or have similar shapes.

a table showing the Arabic letters A,B,T,E,N and how they are similar.
a suggested group of letters that look similar in writing, with simple mnemonics.

The image above shows four letters that can be grouped together because they look very similar in writing. Only the dots change from one letter to the other. Furthermore, they lie in one row on your keyboard 😉

2. Practice typing first

Because… FOCUS!

Learning to type is a great place to start because it takes so much less practice and effort compared to handwriting or even reading. Our Typing Practice, for example, is designed in a way to make use of all of these hacks and put away a part of the challenge for a while until you’re more familiar with the shapes of the letters.

a gif image showing how the typing exercise works

You see, typing helps you generate correct text without having to master all aspects of drawing and linking letters. It’s half-automated writing, so to speak.

Furthermore, when a box lights up green or remains white, it’s an instant feedback for the first basic reading skill, which is identifying the connected letters.

You’re not gonna rely on this automation forever though. After a few exercises the letters will become familiar enough to remember even when handwriting.

3. Learn words before you read them

Or, in other words: read only the words you already know.

I know this doesn’t sound right, but bear with me for a second.
This is especially important if you are learning a colloquial dialect, but I’d argue it’s the case with MSA (Modernd Standard Arabic) as well.

You might know that Arabic words are full of dynamic short vowels called diacretics [Harakat] that are not shown in the vast majority of available Arabic text. So, it takes an intermediate student to guess the diacretics on an unfamiliar word and more like an advanced speaker if we’re talking about a dialect.

As a result, it’s not just useless, but perhaps even harmful to start learning from a book unsupported by audio material. Even Google translate doesn’t always do a great job reading the words out. You have to understand that written colloquial Arabic is only as accurate as writing half-words in English, and that you can’t rely on reading alone to be an input to your vocabulary.

Conclusion

As I’ve said, I’ve been testing this approach with many students and it’s going pretty smoothly. They don’t feel frustrated with how impossible it seems to sound natural when they read; they can focus on pronouncing words correctly when they hear them, using writing just as a backup; and most noticeably, they all agree now that learning to read and write in Arabic can be much simpler than they had thought.

Oh and, as a bonus, they can find the letters on the keyboard (without stickers)!

If you try our free Typing Practice, find this article helpful in anyway or if you have a comment, feedback or a question, please don’t hesitate to comment below or write to us here.

And good luck learning Arabic 🙂

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