How to learn the Arabic alphabet

How to learn the Arabic alphabet

If you’re learning Arabic, there’s no way around learning the Arabic alphabet. This seems intimidating to a lot of people, and in some cases it’s even the alphabet that stops people from even considering studying Arabic.

That’s a shame, because learning the Arabic alphabet is quite easy!

The Arabic alphabet isn’t a complex collection hundreds or thousands symbols that you need to learn by heart like it’s the case with Chinese Hanzi. It’s not technically an alphabet either, but something called an “abjad“. But let’s not dwell on that, it’s not really important.

What’s special about the Arabic script?

The Arabic script consists of 28 letters. Only a few more than English. The letters are written from right to left, unlike English which is written from left to right.

This is English

cibarA si siht daA

Get it?

So you need to get used to reading from right to left instead of left to right. This is not a big deal, so don’t worry about it.

In Arabic, you don’t write the vowels!

Another thing that makes Arabic stand out from other scripts is the fact that it doesn’t have separate letters for their vowels.

In fact, this is exactly why Arabic isn’t an alphabet, but an Abjad. Abjad’s don’t have vowels.

But this is in fact only a half truth. In Arabic, only short vowels are omitted, not the long ones. Look at the difference of “slipping” and “sleeping”. It’s the same vowel sound that you pronounce, but “slipping” is fast and “sleeping” is slow.

If this was Arabic, I’d write “slppng” for “slipping” but “sleepng” for “sleeping”.

Arabic has 3 short vowel sounds and 3 long vowel sounds. Only the three long vowels have letters.

They are:

  • ا = Alif, the symbol used for a long “a” sound
  • و = Waw, which is used for a long “oo” sound
  • ي = Ya, which is a long “ii” or “ee” sound.

Getting by without the short vowels when reading in Arabic

So how do you figure out how to pronounce words if only long vowels are written?

In my opinion, that’s one of the bigger obstacles of learning Arabic. But people who speak fluent Arabic know how to pronounce the words correctly from either grammar or experience. And then there are native speakers who get it wrong, and even though that happens, everyone understands anyway!

So even though reading correctly without the short vowels can be difficult, there’s no need to worry. You’ll get better at it with experience. The more correct Arabic you hear, the better you will automatically recognize when to use which vowel. Like you do in English.

I have to come clean about something though. I haven’t told the whole truth..

Short vowels can, in fact be written.

But instead of using individual letters, they’re marked with “diacritics“. These are small marks you add on top or underneath consonants in order to annotate what vowel should be pronounced with it.

I’m going to use the letter “Alif” or “ا” to illustrate this, because the diacritic marks aren’t written without a supporting consonant letter. (But I just told you Alif was a long vowel, not a consonant?.. This is technical, you can ignore it for now!)

So:

  • اَ = Alif with a “Fatha” (or a short a-vowel)
  • اِ = Alif with a “Kasrah” (or a short i-vowel)
  • اُ = Alif with a “Dammah” (or a short oo-vowel)

In case that appears a little small on your screen, it’s:

اَ , اِ, and اُ

using the diacrit marks

َ ِ ُ

So why am I saying that Arabic doesn’t use short vowels when there are the diacritic marks that work just fine for short vowels?

Because they aren’t used outside of religious books, children’s literature and in a very rare word here or there that absolutely mustn’t be confused with another word with other vowels! So you just can’t rely on them. You need to learn to read without them.

And then there are some other diacritic marks too. These are used for marking when a consonant is pronounced in double, if a consonant is pronounced alone, if the “glottal stop” is utilized and a few other things.

But don’t worry about those right now.

The Arabic script is a cursive script where letters are joined

This isn’t really an obstacle to learning the Arabic script, but some people tend to make a big deal out of it.

In English, you can write both in individual letters like the text you’re reading right now.

Or English can be written in cursive

In Arabic, you don’t have the choice between the two, Although not all letters are joined together, those that can, must!

This means that you need to learn 3 forms of each letter. One for the beginning of a word, one for inside a word and one for the end of a word.

Some change more than others, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s use the letter “Ya” that you’ve already seen as a long vowel:

As the initial letter, Ya is written like this:

يـ

In the middle of a word, it’s:

ـيـ

And in the end, it’ll be:

ـي

And finally, if the letter “Ya” is written by itself, or between letters that it can’t connect to (some don’t join with other letters) it’s:

ي

Beautiful, huh?

As you can see, even though the shapes are different, they have the two dots in common. These are quite distinct, and will help you when you need to figure out which letter you’re seeing.

So how to actually learn to read and write Arabic?

I don’t want to get into each letter and how the different shapes look here. There are better means for that. Have a look at this video:

And after that, watch the Second, third and fourth video too.

These videos are short and entertaining. They don’t go into a lot of depth on the pronunciation and all of the different shapes of the individual letters but it’s a good start.

When you’ve watched those, I recommend that you start doing some daily handwriting exercises. Writing the Arabic letters by hand is a great way to make them stick in your memory and it has the advantage of teaching you to write them as well as reading them.

I suggest that you sit down and write each letter by hand.

  1. First write the letter in it’s isolated form. Pronounce it out loud. Repeat three times.
  2. Then the initial form – repeat 3x.
  3. Then do the middle form of the letter three times.
  4. And the final form of the letter three times.

Do this for the first 7 letters, then take a break.

For this to me most effective, you need to get back and do the same exercise two or three times per day. It could be once in the morning and once in the evening. Maybe once more during the day?

Only next time, you add 7 letters.

When you get to the last 7 letters, you’ll have written the first letters 4 times. Now start writing words, neatly, slowly and reading the word out loud. Write three words each time, trying to find words that use all the different shapes of the letter.

Here’s a pdf work sheet that you can use as inspiration.

And that’s (almost) it!

Once you’ve gotten into the routine of doing daily writing exercises, you can write gradually more and more complicated things.

I encourage you to keep writing things by hand every day, even when you feel that you’ve mastered the skill. You can always improve, and it’s important to maintain the skill of writing Arabic by hand.

Then you also might want to look into other styles of handwritten Arabic. I’ve written a quite extensive article about deciphering handwritten Arabic, that you might want to read.

The thing is, that the way most beginner’s lesson teach handwriting actually relies on the Arabic “font” used for printed Arabic. (It’s called Naskh).

The way most Arabic people write by hand is with another font called “Ruq’ah“. But don’t worry! It’s not that different. It’s actually quicker to write, but you need to be able to distinguish the letters when they’re written in this script. Because as I said, it’s the most common writing style for handwritten Arabic.

If you want to learn to read and write the beautiful Ruq’ah script (that’s the most common script for handwritten Arabic) I strongly recommend that you have a look at the book “Mastering the Arabic Script” (link to amazon)

And that’s it!

If you found this article helpful, I’d like to hear about it! So please ask your questions below. Other than that, I just want to wish you good luck in learning to read and write in Arabic!

And if you want to learn more about how I’d recommend that you learn Arabic as a beginner, go read my article on that subject!

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