In my experience, there are a whole slew of little-noted mistake-patterns that are common for native speakers of English when learning Arabic.  These are mostly things I’ve not seen expressed in textbooks for beginner or intermediate learners, yet very useful to have pointed out.

As fluent speakers of one language (English) the tendency will always be to fall back on English language patterns if possible in a new language-  this is the sort of thing that creates mistakes which are hard to shake.

And I’m going to hypothesize that these sorts of mistakes occur pretty typically for most English speakers learning Arabic.

To get a sense of what I mean, I’ll describe an error pattern that occurs more often for Arabic speakers learning English than the other way around, because of how the two languages are differently structured. In English, we describe relative time in the future as “in two weeks”, “in three days”, etc. And relative time in the past is “Two weeks ago”, “three years ago,” and so forth.

So, when I try to translate “three years ago” to Arabic, the first thing I do is search the Arabic vocab list in my head for ago. It doesn’t exist, which reminds me that I have to use the word for before. “three years ago” in English translates to “before three years” (lit.) in Arabic.

However, Arabic speakers will have more of a problem with this type of structure, because they’ll search their memorized English vocabulary, find before, and be inclined to just quickly say, “before three years” instead of “three years ago.”

This is similar to the problem English speakers have choosing between عندما and متى – both mean when, but are used differently.

Anyhow, in the process of learning Arabic I’ve been on the lookout for these sorts of language-pattern habitual mistakes, because they can be super hard to fix even if you manage to identify them.

So, let’s get started:

  1. Letters that represent sounds we haven’t been taught to differentiate.

Arabic has several letter pairs that initially sound the same to English speakers, but are important to pronounce correctly to be understood. In my experience, it’s easier to learn to pronounce them correctly then it is to hear them accurately. My guess is that once you’re older than 18 or 20 and linguistics is not your specialization it’s just difficult to learn to hear new sounds.

ت/ط       س/ص      ح/ه     ع/ر      ع/ء      ق/ك….

The letters listed above are consonants.  However, it’s been surprising to me to realize that Alif, approximately like the letter A in English, is very hard to accurately identify. I think this is because the two Arabic forms for representing an a-vowel sound in Arabic are both “short A” in conventional English pedagogy (again, not in linguistics, mind you. I mean in classroom elementary school English.)

In English we have a “short a” sound in: ham, bam, lam, am, had, bad, fad, dad.

Alif is sometimes, and inaccurately described in Arabic language textbooks as a “long A” sound. It’s not. An English “long A” is produced in Arabic by a combination of Alif  and kesra,  the i-vowel marker.

2. Use of the definite article The ال

Arabic requires the definite article after this, as in the phrase “this cat.” In Arabic, this gets translated literally as “this the cat.” هذه القطة I mistakenly leave out the ال  in this sort of phrase almost half the time, because it is an addition type habit, which I suppose is harder to fix than a subtraction type habit.

Another challenge posed by the definite article is that Arabic uses it more often with abstract or general type nouns, such as القهوة، الحب، الحياة، الوطن

Where in English we say, “Do you like coffee?” (speaking generally about coffee) This becomes “Do you like the coffee?”  هل تحب القهوة؟ in Arabic. (The literal translation confusingly means do you like this specific coffee in front of you in English….)

3. To Have and To Be

As all learners learn right away, Arabic does not use “to be” in the present tense  (unless it is conditional or hypothetical I think.) But, it is required in the past and future, and gets combined with “to have” to describe future and past having.

The common mistake is to treat عند or لدى like normal verbs.  I used to say:  سعندي الوقت (totally incorrect), when I meant سيكون عندي الوقت

I’ve also developed a particularly bad habit with the past tense negative form, which I’d recommend learners try to avoid:  I often say, incorrectly, لا ذهبتُ when I mean لم اذهب or ما ذهبتُ.  ( I haven’t gone ) .

4. Prepositions

Prepositions are probably the trickiest part of the language to get right, even with higher levels of fluency.  They aren’t one-to-one and require memorization on a case by case basis.  For instance:

We go on a trip. نذهب الى رحلة
Five of them. خمس منهم
For the people. للناس

The Arabic preposition in each sentence is most often translated as, in order: into, from, to. (We go into a trip, Five from them, To the people.)

5. Plurals.  I’m not even going to get into plurals here. Textbooks at least mention this one.

6. المصدر

To sound like an semi-fluent speaker in Arabic, you need to speak & write using المصدر form.  Since this really doesn’t exist in any kind of real approximation in English, it’s particularly hard for English speakers to begin using naturally. Instead, in English we can stack verb after verb, and it reads well.  While this is technically correct in Arabic, المصدر is sitting right there asking to be used instead.

I want to go see the beach.
اريد الذهاب لرؤية الشاطئ
(I want the going to vision the beach)

7. Google Translate

I use google translate all the time, because it’s super convenient, but it is full of mistakes. Between English and romance or germanic languages it works really quite well, phenomenally even, but this is not so between Arabic and English.  There are countless grammatical and spelling errors, to the point that I would never trust a result from google translate unless I can verify it through another means.








Posted by:brook delorme

Languages & Thinking Patterns

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