Key problems for Arabs learning English

Arabic is a beautiful language rich in the vocabulary, synonyms, and nuances that enable the expression of ideas and emotions with an awesome precision. It’s spoken across the 22 countries that make up the Arab League.

In many ways, Arab speaking students are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning English. In your early school years, English language instruction is a bit like religious instruction was during mine – an extended recess. There is far more emphasis on learning your own language which, with its complex grammar, precision, and wealth of vocabulary, takes quite a bit of effort.

It’s not until you face the reality of further education that the world comes crashing down because that’s when English suddenly takes on a life of its own. With all university and professional courses, in everything from medicine and nursing to computer sciences and engineering, being taught in English, accessing a professional future without an advanced level of English is virtually impossible.

At that stage of your lives, getting that advanced level of English is excruciating. That difficulty doesn’t just come from the familiar stuff like the direction of words and sentences or your different use of periods, commas, and capital letters. It comes from the fundamental differences between the two languages. Unlike people with a Germanic native language, you really can’t rely on your native language for help when you get serious about learning English.

Let’s take a loo at some specific problem areas for Arabs learning English:

Growing a vocabulary

In English, we have root words, and we can turn most of them into verbs, participles, nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. When you look up the word in a dictionary, you can find it and translate it because the translation isn’t based on meaning. However, increasing your vocabulary takes countless hours of memorising words and applying them to different contexts until they become part of your normal repertoire.

In Arabic, things are different. The root is a three-letter pattern that takes on different meanings depending on which of the standard rules you apply to it. Good luck looking up those words in a dictionary! However, while it may be next to impossible to find the translation, growing your vocabulary simply requires learning a series of roots and a set of standard rules. Once you know the standard rules, it’s fast.  

Expanding into the present perfect tense

Since there’s no present perfect tense in Arabic, understanding the relationship between finished actions in an unfinished time seems to be horrendously difficult. Where we would say, “I have almost finished this article”, you would say, “I finished this article”… even though you still have a couple of paragraphs left to read. While I hate to say it, the present perfect is so prevalent in English, that you need to understand it and make it your own if you’re ever going to progress to an advanced level of English.

Adjusting to a new word order

Arabic adjectives tend to come after nouns, whereas English adjectives come      before their nouns. In other words an ‘interesting story’ in English, becomes a “story interesting” in Arabic.

Another thing is that you don’t invert your statements to form questions. In other words, in Arabic, you can just add a question mark, whereas, in English, we need both a question mark and an inversion. Therefore, “She is nice? works as a question in Arabic, but in English, we expect to see “Is she nice?”

The third big area that causes confusion for Arabs learning English is the location of the verb. Arabic verbs sit at the beginning of the sentence, whereas in English verbs sit at the end.

Pronouncing it right

English words with two or more consonants clustered together can be tough: therefore, you’ll often add vowels to help you with pronunciation. Suddenly, “drink” becomes “dirink” and “string” becomes “stiring”. That’s not a huge problem when you’re speaking, but since you’re used to a direct correlation between sounds and letters, it can create problems with spelling.

Phrase and sentence rhythms

Fortunately, both Arabic and English rhythms for phrases and sentences are similar, so there’s at least one thing you don’t have to work on.

All told, as an Arabic speaking student, you face a huge number of hurdles when learning English. Some of those hurdles are related to the differences between your mother tongue and English, but some of them are the product of a system that pays lip service to English studies until the students reach a point in their lives when they are so overwhelmed by so much competition and so many demands that pursuing such studies seems daunting.