I'm always surprised to see some of the old methods of language teaching that were used in schools 20 years ago still being used today, in spite of their obvious flaws. Particularly, ones related to teaching the Arabic written alphabet.
If you've ever tried to learn reading or writing in Arabic you are probably familiar with the notorious table that shows you how each letter changes its shape depending on whether it's in the beginning, the middle or the end of a word; Some letters change slightly and some significantly. \
And since Arabic text is only written with the letters of a word connected to one another, this overwhelming table is indispensable... or is it?!\
I've been testing another approach with many students, and we're all excited about the results. \
The approach relies on two simple facts:
If you type the letters on a keyboard, the computer will automatically connect the letters for you. It knows which letters to connect, from which side and how to change each letter's shape accordingly.
24 out of the total 28 letters have very distinct marks that you can recognize regardless of the position of the letter and its connections to other letters.
How can we make use of those facts?\
Well, to begin with, two major Don'ts come to mind:
Don't start learning to write by handwriting.
Don't aim at memorizing that table. It's a big waste of time and effort.
The alternative approach I've been experimenting with goes something like this:
1. Study the letters in small digestible groups.
Look at these two samples:\
In this table, for instance, you see four letters that have something in common: they're bowl-like letters that become like a small tooth when connected. You can differentiate these letters by simply noticing the number and position of dots. As opposed to the traditional method, you don't need to learn the small shape differences between them just yet, just learn to distinguish them when you see them.\
The second table shows two letters that are frequently confused with one another and is intended to be used as a reference rather than to be memorized. A student would need to look at it only once with a couple of notes from the teacher before proceeding to the next step.
2. Practice typing first
You don't need an Arabic keyboard to do this, I'll discuss some alternatives at the end of this article.\
If you are a learner, use a free website like this one to practice typing arabic letters.
If you are a teacher, consider giving your student some typing exercise. Just a simple line of words to copy as he\she is looking at a picture of the Arabic keyboard. Here's a sample I use with beginners:\
You can control the size and pace of the exercise according to the student's need. \
Remember to use a Mac keyboard picture when your student uses a Mac. The keys are mapped quite differently in Apple products.
3. Learn words before you read them
Or, in other words: read only the words you already know.\
I know this doesn't sound right, but bear with me for a second.
This is especially important if you are learning a colloquial dialect, but I'd argue it's the case with MSA as well.
In order to read words correctly, people often focus on diacritics pretty early in the process, and it's understandably difficult to sound natural. Actually, with dialects, it's practically impossible to sound right reading a word you don't know, and as a result it's not just useless but perhaps harmful to start learning from a book unsupported by audio material. You have to understand that written colloquial Arabic is only as accurate as writing half-words in English, and Standard Arabic is written without diacritics 90% of the time. You simply have to admit you can't rely on diacritics much.
Don't worry, this is still doable. Consider the following process:
Learn words and phrases by hearing them: There are plenty of audio dictionaries and lessons online to help you learn words and phrases by hearing them. And there's, of course, Google Translate. (It's improving with time)
Learn the alphabet by typing it: It doesn't matter much what you type.. it doesn't even have to make sense.. but you'll be learning how the letters look like in all cases.
Look at the words and phrases you know, read them.. then type them. You are already beginning to notice patterns and reusable chunks of letters.
Now focus on words derived from the words you know, or similar to them in form and enjoy reading them. Now, you can even learn new words by reading them, because you can predict how they should sound (regardless of diacritics even ;)).
As I've said, I've been testing this approach with many students and it's going pretty smoothly. They don't feel frustrated with how impossible it seems to sound natural when they read; they can focus on sounding words correctly when they hear them from me, using writing just as a backup; and most noticeably, they find the alphabet easy to learn and remember.. and they even remember the places of letters on the keyboard as a bonus.
Don't hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss this approach further, or would like some assistance in applying it.. and good luck learning :)
If you don't have an Arabic keyboard and wish to practice typing, here are some suggestions:
Touchscreens: This simply means using a tablet, a smart phone or any other touchscreen, and setting up an Arabic keyboard on those should be pretty straight forward.
On-screen keyboards: In case you would rather use your computer, you can follow this guide for Windows, or this one if you use a Mac. This way you'll always see the Arabic keyboard on the screen as you type.
If you are just looking for a temporary and quick solution or just want to play around a bit, use a virtual online keyboard from a site like this one.