Problems with teaching Arabic to beginners

, by Peter McCree


Why do our children find Arabic lessons difficult?

It is a strange yet true fact that our children find it easier to learn to read and write in a foreign language than in their own.

So we must ask two questions:

  1. Why is this so?
  2. What is the remedy to this situation?

In other words, how can we make it easier and more attractive for our children to become literate in their own language?

The main reason for the difficulty our children find in learning to read and write Arabic does not lie, as some think, in the complicated grammar, nor in the fact that spoken and written Arabic are not as close to each other as are, for example, spoken and written English or French. It lies firstly in the method of teaching the Arabic alphabet, which is now used everywhere; and secondly in the way Arabic is printed.

In order to learn to read English or French, the child only has to learn the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet in one basic shape. At the same time that he is learning to read them, he is also learning to write them in this basic shape, for example:

or "the cat is on the mat"

The first basic alphabet is called “PRINT” and the process of learning to read and write in “PRINT”, does not, for the average child, demand more than a few weeks. Once he has acquired this basic skill, "The world of the book" is open to him and he begins to acquire knowledge.

At the same time that he is beginning to read books, he also begins also to learn handwriting: that is, a cursive style of writing.

This presents no great problem as he already knows the alphabet and can read; he has only to learn a few more shapes of letters, but basically the problem is one of holding the pen or pencil correctly.

In short, the child learning English or French starts by learning simple letters, and goes on later to more complicated ones, and eventually can understand and use four different alphabets: the capital and the small letters used for print, and the capital and small ones used for handwriting.

But the poor child learning Arabic according to present methods, starts with the complicated and never reaches the simple way because there is none! He must try to learn not just the basic twenty-nine letters of the Arabic alphabet but also all their variations, as they occur in handwriting, and all simultaneously!
Of these variations, there are not only three or four depending on their position in the word: For some letters such as "meem" ( ?)

There are dozens of variations!

In what is considered to be one of the most advanced schools in Lebanon, the programme for teaching the child to read Arabic is spread over two years! But it may take him another two or three years before he can write correctly!
During all this time therefore "The world of the Arabic book" is practically closed to him, and if he is to start to learn, to acquire knowledge, it has to be through the medium of a foreign language, and a vocabulary which is not of his mother tongue. By the time he has learnt to read Arabic, he is already far ahead in his ability to read the foreign language, and thus has even begun to think in that foreign language.

In other words, the process of relegating his own language to a secondary place in his education has already begun, and will probably persist throughout his entire education.


The Arabs have not yet discovered the printing press.

In the previous part, we said that the child learning English learns first of all to read and to write letters which we call PRINT before going on to learn handwriting. In other words he becomes literate before he masters handwriting. But the child learning Arabic has no such advantage: he is plunged into the complicated world of handwriting before he can even hold the pen or pencil correctly.

Why can he not go in the logical way, from the simple to the complicated?

The answer is – incredible though it may sound – that the Arabs still have not discovered the printing press: the Arabs only use the machinery of the printing press in order to reproduce the effect of handwriting or calligraphy . They do not exploit the real innovation and advantages of printing.

The great innovation after Gutenberg’s press in the 15th century was the use of movable type. This meant that words did not have to be engraved in inverse on blocks of wood, covered with ink and then pressed on paper: they could be composed by a typesetter who had a box full of single letters cast in metal from which he took out the letters he needed to compose the words to be printed. The words so formed were then arranged in lines, ink was poured over them and they were “pressed” onto paper by a hand press which was later operated mechanically.

The printing press had two great advantages over handwriting or block printing; it could reproduce printed pages, and therefore books, at a fraction of the time needed for either of the other methods, and at a fraction of the cost.

In other words, the invention of the printing press liberated writing from handwriting or calligraphy.

It did not abolish it but added another dimension to writing. It made possible for the first time in human history the diffusion of cheap low cost literature and therefore made knowledge accessible not only to the privileged few, but also to the masses.

Not long after the invention of the printing press in Germany, another innovation was made in France: the letters which the typesetter composed were no longer based on the cursive, handwritten style, but were simplified and standardised; they were designed as type, and the science of typography was born.

The Arabs, however, are still reluctant to adopt the distinction between print and handwriting: they still insist that the printed words should imitate the handwritten word. Even though the printing press works far more rapidly than the human hand, the letters used to reproduce Arabic are still based on the different forms and shapes which were devised by the Arabs when they began to write with pen and ink on paper, in order to write quickly.

In other words, if the printing of Arabic books is to reach the same level of progress as that achieved in the Western world, in terms of cost, legibility, and attractiveness, the Arabic printing system must be liberated from the chains imposed on it by the “worship” of handwriting.

What are the effects of the refusal of the Arabs to distinguish between PRINT and handwriting?

  1. In the first place, it is far more difficult to read a newspaper printed in Arabic than it is to read one in English or French. It is a scientific fact that the eye tires more quickly from handwriting than from print.
  2. In the second place, because there is only one style of letter commonly used in Arabic printing (the Naskh), as opposed to the thousands of different styles used in Western printing, Arabic books are extremely unattractive, dull and monotonous.
  3. In the third place, the use of calligraphic letters is far more expensive than the use of type designed for print: for one thing, calligraphic letters cannot be reduced in size and still remain legible, as much as print can be; and for another thing, the vast number of different shapes of the Arabic letters makes the process of typesetting more complicated, and therefore more expensive than typesetting of the Roman alphabet, which has only one form for each letter.


Liberation of Arabic Printing from Calligraphy.

One of the most persistent myths about the Arabic language is that there is one and only one way of writing it. Some people even think that the way it is written has something to do with religion… and that any attempt to change it or to improve it is blasphemy!

This is, of course, ridiculous: the holy Qur’an did not "descend" to man in a written form; it was only written much later than its revelation, and when it was written it was in many different forms or "styles" such as Kufic, Thuluth, Naskh, etc.

What all these scripts have in common is the changing shape of some letters (although not all letters) according to their place in the word.

The changing form of the letters is not of their essence, since other letters such as

Waw (?) or Ra (?)

do not change; it is purely and simply a way of writing quickly which became possible when pen and ink and paper started being used instead of the more primitive methods of carving words on wood or stone: Arabic handwriting, in other words is a sort of "shorthand" or "speed writing".

With the invention of printing, the situation changed radically: the machine is faster than the human hand, and nowadays, the electronic systems are even faster than the machine. There is therefore no longer any need to shorten certain letters, or change their shape, according to their position in the word. The Arabic alphabet can now be restored to its ideal form and each letter shine forth again, in its pristine beauty, unblighted by the imperfections of the human hand!

The results of this restoration of the Arabic alphabet to its pure form will be immediately felt both in education and in the use of the Arabic language as a medium of communication.

In education, the first result will be to simplify and shorten the process of learning to read and write. Our children will no longer have to try to learn hundreds of different shapes before they can begin to read: they will learn 29 shapes only and begin to read almost immediately.

For example let us take the following word:

It is utterly confusing to the child to have to recognise that the letters which are written in different shapes are actually the same. Now let us take the same word as it will be written in restored Arabic, in which each letter has only one shape:

Once he has learnt these basic shapes, the child will have no difficulty in recognising and reading them, nor will he have any difficulty in writing them: he will copy the letters in their one and only shape and "print" them exactly as he does when learning English or French.

At this stage, he will write words in letters which are not joined to each other but are separate, for example:

At the next stage he will learn how to join letters and to master handwriting. By the time he reaches this stage he will already be reading and acquiring knowledge, in his own language. If he is also learning a foreign language, his Arabic will be at least on the same level as that language, and should be even more advanced as he already speaks and has a vocabulary in Arabic.

In order that this revolution in the method of teaching the child to read and write Arabic may be brought about, reading and writing books using basic Arabic will have to be produced. These children’s books will be the pioneers of the wider revolution in the use of Arabic as a means of communication.

Once the child has passed through the process of learning, first of all "printing", and only then, handwriting, he will be able to read both the old and the new styles: the old being that now in use, based on handwriting, and the new one, being “BASIC ARABIC”, in which each letter has only one form. The public at large, however, which has not yet enjoyed the benefits of the new system of learning, but has learnt to read and write the old difficult way, will have to be introduced to the new system in two stages:

In the first stage, the person will be gradually familiarised with Basic Arabic printed in letters which are joined together: in the following enclosed newspaper sample, each letter has only one form but he will not realise it, and will not reject it, especially if he is familiar with the Naskh style.

In the second stage, he will be familiarised with Basic Arabic, printed in separate letters, as in the newspaper sample below.

This “fully restored” Arabic will be used for the headlines, titles and in parts of newspapers. As he becomes accustomed to the new way of writing, he will discover for himself that it is actually much easier to read, once he has got over the first shock of facing something new, and he will gradually come to prefer it to the old style, as it will be more legible than the more calligraphic letters used in print today.

Eventually, after a number of years have passed, and when the generations of readers educated in the new system have become the reading public, Basic Arabic, in its separated and joined forms will become the main body-type used for books, and periodicals, as well as daily newspapers.

Calligraphy, however, will not have been abolished: it will continue to be used for handwriting and decorative purposes. It will also be the basis on which new typefaces will be designed, and on which a new science of “Arabic Typography” will be based.

The Arabic language, thus liberated from the constrictions imposed upon it by a blind worship of handwriting will then become a truly modern form of communication.

It will be able to take advantage of all the latest developments of technology in the reproduction of the word, and be able to hold its own rank with any other language in the world.

In consequence, the Arab mind, now kept backward, because of the persistence of primitive methods of teaching and communication in Arabic, will also be liberated, and perhaps flower again as it did in earlier times.

Basic Arabic

There were some really serious attempts to design new Arabic typefaces that can match the Latin in order to create the basis for a method of work that can be applied and carried further whenever needed. Unfortunately, those designs remained designs and personally we think that the reason why they remained only design is simply because of our culture and its ‘openness’ and its ‘wide spirit’ to be able to accept such a new challenges because with every new change a new challenge must be faced. Unfortunately, our culture is lacking that sort of courage.

In Lebanon, the yearning for bilingual typographic designs has ultimately pushed typographic designers to some really serious attempts to create new Arabic typefaces that could match the Latin. One of the earliest attempts was by a Lebanese typographic designer named Nasri Khattar in 1947.

Nasri’s approach was based on the following points:
The reduction of the number of shapes per letter
- The reduction of the diacritic dots
- The inclusion of the Arabic accents in the alphabet as extra letters
- The normalisation of the letterform and the augmentation of the central height.

The result was more than acceptable. It was satisfying. This attempt proved the flexibility of the Arabic letterforms. But what Nasri did not take into consideration as it was described by experts “the concept was right, the execution could been much better” were the proportions of the letterforms themselves and the lack of the traditional calligraphic style could have been much improved.

Basic Arabic was another proposed solution that is also directly related to the shape of the letter. The designer based his idea on an old attempt by several scholars but the one that was worth taking into consideration was the late Nasri Khattar one. Before explaining that old attempt, it is very important to know that Arabic letters tend to have different shapes according to the position of the letter in the word itself. So the attempt was simplifying the different shape of the same letter by drawing one shape for every Arabic letter and using it no matter where its position was in the word. Khattar’s attempt was also based on the same idea but the designer was more ingenious. Basing himself on the same concept, he also drew one letter shape and used it for its different positioning in the word. But, unlike Nasri, the designer kept the traditional calligraphic style by keeping the new design “as traditional as possible and nearer to the Naskhi style which is the most popular serif typeface to keep the traditional look”. Also he kept in mind while designing his letterforms two other things: “the legibility to its highest level... and be able to give variation in weights for practicality of usage.”

This is where the new “Basic Arabic” design was an improvement where the designer took into consideration those two major factors mentioned above and achieved the best result possible.

The benefits of this typeface are easy to recognise and appreciate. It will make the learning of Arabic much easier for both Arab children and non-Arabic speaking communities since now it is a one shape per letter typeface.

Another flexibility of this typeface is that it can be used connected as in the traditional way of writing Arabic or disconnected in the way of the Latin alphabet.

The economy of space also is very important. Tests on the ‘Basic Arabic’ which was “technically designed to save space” proved that 15 to 20 % can be saved on the body text. “A dictionary of 1000 pages could therefore carry the same information using only 800”. ( Visuals )

Basic Arabic can be considered as the first serious attempt to bridge the cultural gap between traditional Arabic typefaces, printing, teaching Arabic language and the modern approaches to design and technology.

Such attempts have already been made in the Arab speaking world. The designer is using Basic Arabic in his personal designs and it is been welcomed and demanded more and more. Now the call goes out to our culture for the ‘openness’ and courage, to be able to accept such a new challenge. Let us hope that our culture is not lacking that kind of spirit. Personally we think that due to their educational background, Arab students are still learning a different culture at school that will continue eventually at the university level, and they are becoming agents of this learned culture. So the Western factor of education plays a very important role in pushing back local cultural questions.

The main objectives of basic Arabic are:
- to open the way to creative Arabic typography following the scientific design principles governing typography in the rest of the world.
- to facilitate the process of teaching Arabic-speaking children and adults to read and write in Arabic.
- To facilitate learning to read Arabic and to use the Arabic alphabet in their own languages – Urdu etc – for non-Arabic speaking peoples, in particular Muslim countries.
- To introduce the Basic Arabic method into the publishing media gradually in order to familiarise the reading public with the idea.
- To demonstrate the commercial advantages of using Basic Arabic as a scientifically designed typeface which allows important economies of space and paper. For example, in printing dictionaries and telephone directories economies of 20% or more of space and paper can be achieved.

In designing the Basic Arabic typeface, the following characteristics were taken into account:

  1. The guiding principle of Basic Arabic is ‘One shape for each letter’: this means that the way is open to type designers to create other styles using the same principle.
  2. It was designed to approximate as far as possible to the Naskh style which is the most commonly used and familiar serif typeface.
  3. Legibility was another important goal.
  4. To facilitate usage, a minimum of three weights are envisaged.