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10 Ways English is Challenging for New Arab Americans

posted on: Jul 25, 2018

By: Cait O’Connor/ Arab America Contributing Writer

The English language is a force to be reckoned with. For better or for worse, English has become somewhat of a default language, used by 20% of the world’s population, including 360 million native speakers and 20% of the world’s population. Over fifty countries list English as either their official or primary language.

English-speaking nations in the past century have exerted an economically, politically, and culturally globalizing effect on the rest of the world. Today, English is considered the langua francaor the common language used among speakers of different languages.

In terms of years spoken and written, it is younger than Arabic and much younger than Hebrew, Korean, or Chinese. English has gone through many iterations and alterations to arrive at the current spoken version, a dialect that is among the most difficult languages to learn.

It is, however, the international language of business, taught to grade-school children across the world as a kind of preparatory measure.

While children under 10 are best-equipped to learn a new language, English poses many challenges for older learners. These struggles are unique to every student, varying between the diverse linguistic backgrounds of learners in the Western and Eastern hemispheres.

Arabic speakers learning English face their own set of challenges, some of which are listed below. This is by no means a comprehensive list, not fully accounting for the cultural challenges posed by assimilation and integration into a new society.

1. An Entirely New Writing System

This means several things for the English-language learner

  • text is written and read from left to right, as opposed to the right-left style of Arabic writing

  • a completely novel alphabet: Arabic contains 28 letters, two more than English
    • each of these letters is always pronounced the same, but short vowels (although not written out) may add sound inflections
    • Arabic letters change shape according to their place in a word (beginning, middle, or end), but English letters stay the same
    • Arabic and English come from completely separate linguistic traditions:
      • Arabic is a semitic language, a branch of Afroasiatic lanuage originating in the Middle East
      • English is a Germanic language, first spoken by the North Sea inhabitants of present-day Norway

  • different linguistic patterns:
    • Arabic is based on the three-consonant root system. Words are formed by the combination of this root system with fixed vowel patterns. This helps distinguish the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc.) English lacks these patterns of distinction

2. Different Sentence Structure and Punctuation

  • Arabic contains no periods or capital letters, meaning that Arabic speakers learning English tend to write in run-on sentences, relying on commas instead of full stops
  • English contains many difficult, counter-intuitive spellings. At times, the sounds and spellings of English words appear completely illogical, as in the following image:
  • English vowels change pronunciation across different words. This is especially difficult for Arabs, as Arabic words are pronounced phonetically, without silent or sound-changing letters.
  • These are abundant in English, as shown in this poem:

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.

3. Challenging Question of Politeness

  • For Arabic speakers, who come from a language in which polite greetings and phrases are written into everyday language, it can be hard to convey this same politeness in English
  • In general, English speech is relatively indirect, relying on less obvious ways of expressing politeness
    • speakers will use certain key phrases and tools to avoid expressing themselves directly:
      • people may apologize before asking even insignificant favors, or beat around the bush before expressing their desires
      • people may express doubt (could you, would you possibly, etc…) to avoid sounding demanding
  • Consequently, English-learners may be misunderstood or misinterpreted as rude when they communicate more directly and explicitly than is socially acceptable

4. Different Writing Styles and Values

  • Arabic praises redundancy in writing. Using multiple synonyms to describe something reveals the writer’s proficiency
  • In English, however, this stylistic choice is seen as distracting and detracting from the content
    • In the most extreme cases, redundancy can be interpreted as a kind of overcompensation, indicating poor writing skills
  • Arab learners, lacking a wide vocabulary, may rely on the repetition of basic descriptive words like “good” and “bad” to accentuate their writing

  • Structural differences: when it comes to essays, English favors a circular structure of writing in which the opening sentiments are repeated in the conclusion.
  • Arabic writing, however, is very linear in style, moving forward and elaborating on a topic through stylistic prose.

5. To Be or Not To Be?

  • Arabic and English have very few shared grammatical systems, making language learning challenging
  • Perhaps the biggest difference is the absence of the verb “to be” in the Arabic language
    • “Being” in Arabic is implied and assumed, expressed only occasionally in the past tense
  • The abstract nature of this concept, coupled with the challenging conjugation of the verb “to be,” make this key grammatical aspect among the most difficult for Arabic speakers to grasp
  • English also introduces Arabic speakers to the “present perfect” condition, describing things that started in the past but are not necessarily over:

They have lived in America for twenty years.

She has worked hard her whole life.

  • This tense can easily be confused with the present continuous, in which events that started in the past are clearly continuing into the present. The “ing” ending, unseen in Arabic, expresses this condition:

We have been waiting for half an hour.

He has been eating healthy since November.

  • Arabic does not distinguish between actions that began in the past, whether or not they continue into the present
  • Arabic also does not have any equivalent for the “modal” verbs that are so important in English
    • These verbs express necessity, including must, shall, will, should, could, may, and might
      • They are also important for expressing politeness, posing yet another social challenge for language learners.
  • phrasal verbs offer another headache for Arabic speakers…

  • English verbs frequently change meaning in different contexts. Errors with these verbs can lead to confusion, as the meaning of the phrase is completely altered
  • For example, the same English verbs can be used to describe both states (state verbs) or happenings (dynamic verbs):
    • STATE: I have a car: “have” describes the state of owning a car
    • DYNAMIC: I am having lunch: “have” describes the action of eating lunch

6. Grammar Struggles: Articles, Adjectives, and Ownership

  • Arabic has no indefinite article (“a” or “an” in English)
    • The definite article “al” is used to distinguish between definite and indefinite objects in Arabic. This article, combined with vowel patterns, is used to convey the indefinite construction

  • English has a different method of conveying the genitive (or ownership) construction. In English, the dog that belongs to the girl is “the girl’s dog.”
    • In Arabic, the “idaafa” construction is used to express ownership. Translated literally, the construction in Arabic would sound like “dog the boy” in English.
  • In Arabic, adjectives follow qualifying nouns. In English, adjectives come before nouns, as in “white house” and the “big hall”
  • Arabic requires pronouns in relative clauses, where English does not. Arabic speakers would be inclined to say something like:
    • Where is the gift that I gave it to you yesterday?

  • For native English speakers, verbs seem to sound and work naturally. In reality, there are several hundred irregular verb patterns that language learners must comprehend, including words (like effect) that sound like a verb but behave differently

7. Sounds Like Trouble…

  • English, in general, uses a wider range of pitches than Arabic does
  • English relies heavily on intonation, stress, and pitch to convey meaning. These subtleties are hard for any language learner to pick up, especially when the sounds that must be stressed are not even found in one’s mother tongue!
  • Arabic and English have very few cognates or words that sound the same in both languages. Additionally, the two languages have several letters not found in the other language
  • There is no “p” sound in Arabic, so speakers often replace it with the “b” sound, as in “barking” a car

  • The English “th” sound is replaced with s or z, while v and f are confused. Furthermore, Arabic has no silent letters, so English language learners may mistakenly pronounce the silent g, l, or p sounds.

8. Consonant Clusters

  • Arabic as a language is very rhythmical, concerned with balance in words both spoken and written.
  • Arabic lacks the kind of “consonant clusters” that are so prevalent in English. Arabic speakers may be inclined to add a small vowel “schwa” sound before or between consonant clusters, as in:
    • “e-speak” (speak)
    • “spi-lit” (split)

9. Too Many Vowels

  • English has three times the number of vowel sounds, so Arabic speakers may confuse the sound of words like ship/sheep, or bed/bad
    • English has 22 vowel sounds, while Arabic has 8
    • Arabic, in general, has a lower range of intonation than English does
  • As a result, Arabic language learners tend to speak in a perceived monotone, repeating the same type of sentence ending

10. The Stress of Stressed Syllables

  • The patterns of stress placed on words and syllables are regular in Arabic, so English learners have trouble with the apparently random English stressing
    • Inconveniently, the English sounds that are not found in Arabic are often those used to create critical stress
ICED cream or ICE cream? Elision is to blame…
  • Another difficulty is the elision (swallowing) of phrases in english, as in “watcha do?” or “dunno
    • the inability to pick up on this elision leads to the kind of “staccato sound” of Arab speakers in English
    • English speakers tend to drop vowels, consonants, or even syllables that are unstressed. This usually happens when a short, unstressed vowel occurs between two “voiceless” consonants, as in: perHAPS, poTATO, or BIcycle. Certain parts of these words are heard much more distinctly than others
    • Some letters disappear completely in common speech. “Ice cream” is a popular example of elision, originating from the more grammatically and descriptively correct “iced cream”
  • In English, stress on different syllables of the same word can convey a completely different meaning.
    • For example, the word conduct. The word conDUCT (stress on the second syllable) is a verb meaning to lead or organize, as in conducting an orchestra.
    • CONduct, on the other hand (stress on the first syllable), is a noun that means behavior.

  • Stressed or unstressed words often carry hidden meanings and social indicators that are easy for language learners to miss.
  • English speakers, in particular, tend to neutralize unstressed syllables in a word to the neutral “eh” or “uh” sound, making it hard to determine which syllables are meant to be stressed and which are clearly left unstressed.
  • Sentence stress poses another challenge. Different words stressed in a single sentence can change the entire meaning. For example:

We want to go: unstressed, a statement

WE want to go: this particular group wants to leave, as opposed to another implied group

We WANT to go: contrasts the idea that the group did not want to go-maybe in response to being forced into going

We want to GO: expresses urgency, maybe impatience

  • These differences may seem insignificant, but they can make a big difference in how one is perceived in communication.

It is important for native speakers to be aware of the difficulties of their own language so that they may remain patient and understanding with those whose goal is not to offend, but to learn about and interact with others on a richer level.

In spite of its immense difficulties, language learning can be one of the most rewarding challenges to undertake.

As Charlemagne once said, “to have another language is to possess a second soul.”