Arabic for Children — And Older People

Back in first Grade

Back in first Grade

You may have noticed that I’ve been “sneaking ” some Arabic words and phrases into my posts, sometimes even including them in titles. (S’bah el Khir and Andeck Nehel are two examples.) In today’s post I will begin to share with you what it’s like for someone in their seventh decade of life to take on learning a new language. In short, it’s rather ambitious of me.

It’s helped to take the attitude of being in first grade again – six years old, instead of 66. The only flaw in this approach is that I remember having WAY more energy in first grade and when the day was done, I dropped into bed at 7 PM and slept soundly until morning. Alas, that no longer seems to be the case.

After being in Aouchtam for six weeks or so Tomas and I decided to focus on learning the local language and familiarizing ourselves with some of the Moroccan customs, so that eventually we might be able to move among the native people more independently and with some measure of courtesy.

We put out an intention for learning Arabic in a manner suitable to our leisurely, retired lifestyle, our budget and our older brains’ capacities for taking in huge amounts of phenomenally different data. With two phone calls to contacts provided by a couple of our Aouchtam friends, we lined up an initial “meet and greet” with Ayman, the English teacher at  Oued Laou High School.

We scored a bulls-eye with Ayman. Not only does he speak English very well but he is willing to meet with us twice a week and go at our pace, focusing on the conversational aspect of Moroccan Arabic to launch us into dialogues with the locals quickly.

Classical Arabic is spoken throughout the Arab world. It is the official language (both written and verbal) taught in all schools in every Arab country. Ayman, himself, must teach his students in Classical Arabic and can only use colloquial Arabic (in Morocco it’s called “Darija”) if a student cannot understand the instruction by speaking the classical form. All tests are given and taken in Classical Arabic.

But Classical Arabic is NOT usually what is spoken on the streets or at home in any part of the Arab world; some form of dialect or colloquial version will be spoken in those situations. The best way to describe Darija is that it is a shortened version of the classical form. Like the word “can’t” is a contracted version of the words “can + not,” many words and phrases in Darija are spoken in an abbreviated form of their classical counterparts. “S’bahel Khir” (Good Morning) for instance, is a shorter form of “SabaaH ala Khier.” The result is a fast-paced, clipped kind of sound – not easy for western ears to assimilate.

When we first began our lessons, the words would literally go in one ear and right out the other or get lost completely in transit to our brains. Additionally, there are sounds in Arabic that simply do not exist in English or most of the languages that Tomas and I have studied in the past (German, French, Italian.)

28 Letters, 112 Shapes Click to Enlarge

28 Letters, 112 Shapes
Click to Enlarge

There are 28 letters that make up the Arabic alphabet. “OK,” we said: “how bad can this be? English has 26, so only two more.”

WRONG! Each of the Arabic letters has four shapes: one, if it stands alone; a second if it is at the beginning of a word; a third shape if it is in the middle of a word; and a fourth one if it ends the word. And to our untrained eyes these variations were confusing and confounding. *

But we’re concentrating on conversation  right??? Yes, but how do you write down the words in a transliterated form in English that approximates their pronunciation in Arabic?

Good question. Both we and Ayman gave this a courageous effort for a couple of weeks and then it became obvious that we were going to need to learn how to WRITE the language in order to learn how to SPEAK IT. It actually was simpler to see the letter that was symbolizing the sound we needed to make.


28 Letters, 30 Sounds,  112 Shapes

28 Letters, 30 Sounds,
Click Image to Enlarge

People who learn English as a second language often have trouble with the “th” sound. It is a combination of letters that does not occur in many places on this earth. Arabic makes up for this by having TWO letters that represent the “th” sound. I still can’t tell them apart. There are also three kinds of “T’s,” several “D’s” or “DH” sounds, three “S’s” and two “H’s,” one of which is only the breath coming out of the throat and it is nigh impossible for me to make that sound at the end of a word. Tomas suggested I treat it like a sigh and that does work better for me.

Another aspect that has been challenging has been the lack of vowels between the consonants. In Arabic, the short vowels (eh, ih and uh) are “assumed” This leads to words like “Dnjl” (eggplant.) I brought this word to Ayman’s attention at a lesson, asking: “How do you pronounce this?” “Dinjel” he replied. “Of course,” I said to myself, “everybody knows that.”

And it’s true – if you grow up learning the vowel sounds that go in between the consonants, why would you need to include them in the written words? On the other hand, whenever you DO see a vowel in a word (there are only three – ah – ee –oo)  it makes the long sound and everyone knows that too.

Learning Arabic is at once fascinating and frustrating, both elegant and exhausting — we’re plum tuckered out in an hour or so!

Tomas Cracking the Arabic Code

Tomas Cracking the Arabic Code

I love the script and began deciphering milk cartons, road signs and the ads on buses almost as soon as I arrived in Morocco. Tomas is better at making the difficult sounds than I am but struggles with the writing part (somehow reminds him of his struggles with math in grade school.) We encourage each other by sharing what works for each of us in our areas of strength and over this past month we have noticed quite an improvement.

Words that once seemed strange and hard to remember now roll off our tongues. Letters that once were like a secret code that refused to be “cracked” are now allowing us access.

The best part about Arabic is that each letter makes only one sound (OK two letters make two sounds each, but that’s all the deviation you’ll encounter.) So once you learn the sound(s) that each letter makes, you really can decipher the milk cartons, the road signs, labels on foods, and words and phrases written in symbols that are consistent throughout the entire Arab world. If you like puzzles, it’s kind of fun.

Here’s a video that will take you right back to first grade — An Arabic Alphabet Song.

And in this respect it’s not so very different from the English-speaking countries. There is a common language that unites us all, even if some folks insist on calling a flashlight a “torch” or an elevator a “lift.”

As we say in Darija: “Meshie mooshkeel” – “NO PROBLEM.”


* — 24 hours later — As I was getting into bed last night, I suddenly realized that each letter in the LATIN alphabet has FOUR shapes also. I mentioned this to Tomas and we chuckled at our blindness in this regard.

Each Latin letter has an upper-case and lower-case equivalent in both printed and cursive (script) forms. Who would guess, looking at a capital “A,” for instance, that it’s short, rounded companion “a” was the same letter? How many English-speaking children struggle to get their “b’s” and “d’s” pointed the right way? For that matter and upper-case “D” and a lower-case “d” don’t even look in the same direction!! How confusing is that?!

Cursive is no better — almost every letter changes form drastically from upper-case to lower-case, with “C” and “O” being two exceptions.

Arabic has no Capital letters, nor any printed version; everything is scripted (except for six letters that don’t connect to their left but that’s a tale for another time.) Instead, each letter takes a different shape, depending on its position in the word. Some Arabic teachers will tell you that the letters “drop their fancy tails” at the beginning and within a word but frankly, it looks like they drop a lot more than that. At least those little “dots” that you find under or over the letters stay in the same place, no matter what. Sometimes, that’s the only way I can tell what I’m looking at.



9 thoughts on “Arabic for Children — And Older People

  1. Alia,I only now found this post in the “Dead Sea Scrolls” part of my email program. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it–am still enjoying it, playing the alphabet song over and over, but still only able to grab onto the first 6 letters–she sings it so fast!
    A few years ago I undertook learning Portuguese, made easier in some respects and deceptive in other respects by my familiarity with Spanish and French. Of course it was just another Romance language, so it hardly rose to the ambition of learning Arabic, but I found it so much more difficult at this graceful age that we/ve arrived at. I had to come up with some very different kinds of strategies none of which lived up to the crutch that Spanish kept providing. But oh those words that deviated from Spanish were so slippery! I have been quietly telling myself that if I were going to try yet another language it would have to be Arabic. Thank you so much for being the me who is actually doing it! And thank you even more for your delightful and loving rendition of your efforts in that regard. Bring on some more of those expressions. I love hearing/seeing them. Meshie Mooshkeel!!!

    How do you say, “I love you dearest one” in Arabic??

    • Dearest Lynda (believe me — the French have it figured out, regarding the “I love you, Dearest One”. In Arabic, it’s not so romantic sounding.) Your comment had me laughing into my dreams. Don’t feel bad about only getting six letters from the song. I’ve been singing that song in my head lately and I can’t remember past the first six either. Fortunately, I can write them all.
      Since moving to Chefchaouen I’ve been in Moroccan immersion. Very few English speakers here. My French is coming back online (not nearly fast enough) and Arabic seems as slow as snails (no offense to the snails.) I leverage every word to the max and with the gracious allowances of my new friends and neighbors I either do get the communication across or I don’t. My determination has won out over my feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment and shyness. I never allowed myself to get this far speaking any other language before, although I studied both French and German (three years each.) I just do my best and that seems to be good enough. I have a young neighbor friend who has two children and they are helping me a lot. Also, Tomas had two copies of the 200-page Peace Corps Textbook for Darija printed out and that is giving me the mechanics of the language. I will be posting an Arabic update soon. I hope you see it before it gets auto-archived in your inbox.
      Much love My Dearest One, Alia

    • OO – Hebrew and Greek! Yes, the other day I was looking at some Japanese characters and realizing that things could be even more complicated that what I was learning. I just put a footnote on my post regarding our own Latin alphabet and the four shapes of each of “our” letters. Hmmm — interesting the aspects of one’s life one is blind to, until immersed in another culture. Thank you for your contribution and your support, Sheri. ♥

    • Did you complete seminary? Are you a pastor? Lovely to think of you as such. You certainly minister to your readers through your writing. Each piece reveals insights into our deeper layers. Blessings, Alia

  2. this flashes me back to college when one of my roommates, Ina, was studying Arabic….and would walk around the apartment practicing saying words..I remember a strange guttural throat sound..

    • Thanks for that Faith — I can make that guttural sound, it’s the distinctions between the th’s and the dh’s that are very hard for my ear to discern. I have, however, found it helpful to have Iman use an Arabic word to help me get the differences, rather than try to understand it by saying “th” as in “thing.” “Th” as in “thaminyia” (number 8) works much better for me (lol) ♥

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