Published 20th April 2017

3 Common Problems for Arabic Learners of English

Even though learning English can be problematic for speakers of any first language, some languages offer some respite due to the similarity between the two languages. With these languages, it is possible to understand a few words or have good pronunciation because there are connections between the language and English. With other languages, there are no similarities between the two languages. Arabic is one such language. Arabic is one of the Central Semitic languages, along with Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician, while English is an Indo-European language. In this piece we will look at problems for arabic learners of English.

Arabic is spoken as an official language in 25 countries and a national language in six more countries. With the fact that there are over 300 million Arabic speakers in the world and with English becoming more and more popular to learn, there is a good chance that at some point in your teaching career you will find yourself teaching Arabic speakers. Of course you would expect to teach Arabic learners in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey and Morocco, but you can also expect to teach Arabic learners in the U.K., the U.S., South Africa, Australia and many European countries. 

3 Common Problems for Arabic Learners of English

If you have no familiarity with and no understanding of Arabic, it might seem overwhelming to teach students who speak the language. But we should all know by now that you don’t need to be able to speak the language of your learners in order to be able to teach them English. However, it’s always helpful to get a few tips to help us out, so here they are: three common problems for Arabic learners of English.

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Problems for Arabic Learners of English

Read more: Do I Need to Know the Language to Teach English as a Foreign Language?

The alphabet

First of all, the alphabet. English uses the Latin alphabet and is written (and read) from left to right. Arabic uses Arabic script and is written right to left. It doesn’t differentiate between upper- and lower-case letters and does not adhere to punctuation rules as much as English does – for example, there are no capital letters in Arabic. 

In terms of spelling, Arabic spelling is directly linked to its pronunciation. In other words, if you can read Arabic you should, for the most part, know how to pronounce the words. English, on the other hand, is not phonetic at all, as we can see from the different pronunciations of the letter –o in hot and month. 

For Arabic speakers, then, learning English is not just learning new words but learning to read and write all over again.

How can you help?

Even if you are teaching adult learners, you will need to spend time focussing on letter formation, handwriting and reading. This can be a delicate balance between teaching adults and teaching literacy so if you are in this position, make sure you are prepared. Teaching adults to read and write is not the same as teaching children to read and write! If you have a class of mixed nationalities, bear in mind that your Arabic learners may need more time for reading or writing. 

Grammar

In terms of grammar, there are numerous constructions in English which don’t exist in Arabic. The most important of these is the verb to be. It exists in Arabic but is used far less frequently than in English, with the result that many Arabic speakers will often leave it out in their language production. This is the same with the auxiliary do, as well as modal verbs and the indefinite article. This can result in sentences like I going home; He happy; and You like pizza?

Similarly, Arabic students will have problems with the present perfect tense in English because there is no distinction between actions completed in the past and those completed in the past with a connection with the present, which is what the present perfect does. Because of this, Arabic learners will use the past simple tense in place of the present perfect, for example I finished. Can you check?

Read more: An Explanation of the Present Perfect 

In Arabic, adjectives come after the noun they qualify, whereas in English they come before the noun. This will lead to Arabic learners having problems with word order and saying, for example, the pen red rather than the red pen.

In Arabic, there is no indefinite article. What’s more, the definite article in Arabic is not utilised the same as the definite article in English. This will lead to issues when it comes to articles, such as I like the chocolate or You have pen?

How can you help?

Because the verb to be  and the auxiliary do are problematic, this is a problem which needs to be dealt with at a very early stage. There’s not much you can say in English without the verb to be! So when you are teaching Beginner students, make sure you spend time on the foundations of English grammar before moving on.

Pronunciation

If you listen to somebody speaking Arabic you will realise how different the sounds are to those we use in English. English has about three times as many vowel sounds as Arabic, which makes English vowel sounds problematic for Arabic learners. This is especially noticeable when it comes to differences between long and short sounds, for example as in ship and sheep. It is also a problem when it comes to differentiating words with short vowel sounds, for example pot, pet and pat. 

There are problems with other sounds which don’t exist in Arabic. For example, there is no /p/ and /v/ sound in Arabic so Arabic speakers will often pronounce these sounds as /b/ and /f/ respectively. Similarly, Arabic speakers may also confuse /t/ and /d/. 

Also English has more consonant clusters than Arabic does. As a result, this causes problems with pronunciation. For example, Arabic does not have three-segment initial consonant clusters like spr, skr, str, and spl. Arabic speakers often insert a short vowel sound to help them say the sound. So spring may become sipring

Such consonant clusters are also common at the end of a word in English, which is not in Arabic. Again Arabic speakers will add in another sound. For example months becomes monthiz. 

In terms of stress, Arabic is a stress-timed language, which means its stress patterns are predictable. English is a syllable-timed language which means its stress patterns change according the syllables of words. Because of this Arabic learners may struggle to pronounce word or sentence stress correctly. 

How can you help? 

With the pronunciation of individual sounds, make sure you spend time practising the shape and movement of the mouth, teeth, tongue and nose when pronouncing a sound. This will help your learners understand the sound better. Minimal pair activities are a great tool to help with learning to differentiate sounds. 

Read more: 3 Activities to Help Your Students with Pronunciation

As you can see, there are various difficulties Arabic learners may have learning English because of their first language. When dealing with learners of English, it is important to make yourself as familiar as possible with their first language. Doing this will help you anticipate particular problems they may have learning English and so help you prepare lessons which will take this into account.Of course, you also need to be aware of any challenges your learners may face which is not related to their language, but to their culture and your culture. If your culture or the culture of the classroom is very different to that of your Arabic students, that is also something you need to bear in mind and deal with.