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BellaOnline's Middle Eastern Culture Editor

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Learning Another Alphabet

Guest Author - Julie L Baumler

Many of the languages used in the Middle East use a non-latin alphabet. If you aren't familiar with the term “Latin Alphabet,” it refers to the 26 letters from A-Z used in Latin. This is the alphabet used in English and most European languages. The term can also include the diacritic marks and combined letters used by various languages based on this alphabet. Although it is possible to learn another language using transliteration, most people find that it is more difficult in the long-term. If you only use transliteration, you will not be able to read signs, maps or documents in the language. You cannot communicate with a native speaker using the “pass and point” method using an English-Target Language dictionary or a map. More importantly, several people I know who initially learned a language using transliteration only feel that it hurt their pronunciation.

There are a few simple tips to make learning another alphabet easier:

  • Only learn a few letters at a time. Don't sit down and try to memorize the whole alphabet all at once, learn 3 or 4 letters per session.

  • Learn the sound of the letters and the shape at the same time. Practice writing the letters as well as recognizing (reading) them.
    If possible, learn the letters in alphabetical order, this way you will learn the order almost without trying. If there is an alphabet song, learning it can be helpful as well.

  • Learn simple words using the letters you know so far. Learning words gives you a context to remember the words in. Remember learning to read English with “A is for Apple, B is for Ball,..”? It's the same principle.

While you are learning the alphabet is also a good time to learn how to type. Get a picture of the keyboard in your target language. (Google image search is a good way to find one.) Then set your computer to expect that keyboard or use a virtual keyboard on the web. (Again, Google is your friend, search for “virtual your_target_language keyboard.”) Learn the letter positions and practice typing the words and letters as you learn them, and you'll be touch typing by the time you finish learning the alphabet. At this point, I think I may touch type on the Hebrew and Arabic keyboard better than I do on the English one, because I can't cheat by looking down at the keyboard. If touch typing is more than you want to work on, you can also purchase keyboard stickers in the language of your choice – or even purchase an additional keyboard.

If you wish to learn the Arabic alphabet, Arab Academy's Arabic 100 course teaches the Arabic alphabet following the principles outlined above and even includes typing practice. I think it's one of the best language courses I've seen anywhere. If you prefer a book, you may want to look at John Mace's Teach Yourself Beginner's Arabic Script. I really like this book, but I find the way it teaches letters by similar shapes less useful than learning in alphabetical order.

If you are learning the Hebrew alphabet, Eliezer Tirkel's Everyday Hebrew book and audio set also follows these principles, unfortunately the audio portions don't start until after you have learned the alphabet.

Don't forget to check out the Related Links (below) for more resources on other Middle Eastern languages, including links to a great Persian course, and keyboarding in Middle Eastern languages. Best of luck in your studies!

Arab Academy

Teach Yourself Beginner's Arabic ScriptOrder Teach Yourself Beginner's Arabic Script


Everyday HebrewOrder Everyday Hebrew
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Content copyright © 2014 by Julie L Baumler. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Julie L Baumler. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Rachel Schaus for details.

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