Monday, January 04, 2010

Learning to Read, What's Easier... English or Arabic?

So, last night JuniorBean read me a story. Yep, my 5 year old brought home an English book and read me a story. I was so proud. Literally I'm bursting at the seams. And it's got me thinking about the topic of learning to read even more than usual. Notice that I said JuniorBean read an English book. I know what you are thinking... The American mom teaches her kid to read English first. But that's just it... I didn't teach him to read anything. At all. Literally. They have been working on letters at school and putting them together. Clearly it's taking hold. In addition, our Arabic tutor spent some during the summer working on reading with him and his Arabic teacher in school works on putting 2 sounds together (think baaa, booo, beee). But me, I haven't taught him the first thing as regards reading.

So, which is easier to learn to read? Arabic or English? The funny thing is that logic dictates one answer and experience another. Logic says that Arabic is much easier to read. In Arabic, all of the letters are there. The sounds is clear and letters make one and exactly one sound. In children's books, they include the harakaat (little squiggly lines that are actually vowels) so it is not hard to figure out how to pronounce a word. To contrast this, in English we have a collection of ridiculous (and ridiculously hard) exceptions and weirdnesses. Would you like some examples? Good. Here you go...
  • The magic "e". Yep, that's the silent "e" at the end of the word that, while you may not pronounce it USUALLY makes the vowel change the way it sounds. You know like make. Mak would be mack. Add that little bittie silent "e" and you get long "a" make. But as soon as you learn that rule, you read have. It has a silent "e" that is not magic. The "a" stays short. It's not hay-ve. You see what I mean?
  • The gh that alternately sounds like f , like a y, or is silent. You know like in enough (f) or weigh (makes the e and i sound like a y) or through. Say hunh?
  • Words that are spelled exactly the same but pronounced differently. You know like read and read (reed, something I am doing now and red, something I did yesterday).
  • Words that are pronounced the same but have wildly different meanings like shed. This can something the snake does to its skin or a small storage hut outside in your backyard...

There are so many more examples of this. So, English is complicated, confusing, and has an exception to every rule (except that one, teehee). So, clearly Arabic would be easier to read, right? All words are pronounced exactly as they are spelled. The language has easily identifiable patterns. Each word goes back to a three letter verb root that provides an understanding of its meaning (or at least its context). And yet, ButterBean's reading in English is FAR superior to her Arabic reading. I didn't teach her either one. So, what an interesting phenomenon.

I think one answer to this interesting conundrum is the approach to reading in each language. Anyone who has seen kids books in Arabic and really looked at them (as a new reader) will understand this. Let me grab an example. We have a bunch of "early readers" in Arabic. Those who are familiar with Dr. Seuss' early readers will get the contrast immediately. Dr. Seuss' books would included Hop on Pop. It's a book composed almost entirely of three letter words. They're rhyming words to help this kids grasp the concept and not have to rote read each sound... Here's the Arabic "equivalent."

ana bizratun. wa ana bizratun aydan. sawfa usbihu zahrata duwwaarashams.

Does anyone see the difference here besides me? Hop on Pop. ana bizratun. Hello! These are first readers here. How is a child learning Arabic supposed to build sight words? We work on them even though there isn't really that concept in Arabic. But, as a learner of Arabic myself, I assure you that the fundamental process is exactly the same in both languages. You read and read and read until you recognize (memorize) words and sound patterns. Then you sound out unfamiliar words. But, if you never build visual recognition because you are using words that are complex and trying to become great at recognizing the letters at the same time as learn the meanings, how is that going to happen?

With ButterBean, I work on sight words like the huruf jarr (prepositions) fee, inna, ila and words like hatha, hathihi, thaalika as they appear in almost all stories. She shouldn't have to sound these out. Ever. Yet, sometimes when she comes upon them, she still starts to sound it out because that's what Arabic reading is. The words are too complex, they can't simply look at the word and recognize it. Every story has complex words (an example from last night's story istahmaam). They don't repeat the words so that you begin to connect them and build them together.

So, somehow the language that is easier to read is harder to read. Or at least it's harder to learn to read. It's frustrating to me as a parent. It's especially frustrating that the teachers and staff assume that the huge differential for ButterBean is that Arabic isn't our primary language at home. While that gives a significant advantage to those who speak classical Arabic at home (teehee), it doesn't explain the kind of differential we're talking about. Let me illustrate it. In English, ButterBean can read stories that have small print and are 30 pages long fairly easily. Currently we're doing extra reading of a book that was designed for girls 8-10 years old (and I'm guessing that many 9 year olds would find it a challenge). In Arabic, I have trouble getting her to read simple stories with pictures that are 10 pages long. She sounds out most words and finds the process painful (we both do). To me, the lack of a developmentally based process and staged materials in Arabic are criminal. There are many excellent writers but few, it seems, who understand how to create an early reader. It really makes me wish my Arabic were significantly better.

Okay, so this has become a small book and I'll quit while I'm ahead. Any thoughts from the peanut gallery on learning to read?

Happy harakaat!


At 4:02 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I hear you. It is an interesting discussion of the differences in Arabic and English books. I also think that there are so few Arabic books out there that just LOOK GOOD. Take a stroll into any Arabic bookstore (few and far between though they may be) and you will SEE that they don't interest the reader at all. This is a big problem. While we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, clearly we all do. Books have to intice a reader to pick them up. Most Arabic books do very little inticing. It is something to work on. InshAllah khair.

At 4:06 AM , Blogger UmmFarouq said...

Oh how we should have talked today! Aisha came home 2 weeks ago and said, "I will read now." She is also 5. Last night she read "The Emperor's New Clothes." She is reading everything she can get her hands on. I have (shamefully bowing head) taught her very, very little when it comes to reading. Her teacher is so proud; I am honestly stunned. It just "happened."

So I agree with you. The easier (phonetic) language is harder to read.

This is such a great thing, having literate kids!

At 5:03 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Nicole, indeed. I love Wafa Qusous' books, but they simply aren't early readers. They're excellent books for mom to read to the kids (and I highly recommend zahiri, zahiri, zahiri to Moms of girls), but too challenging for little ones to learn to read on, sigh.

Umm F, too cute! JuniorBean is just doing the three letter words, but how awesome is that! You go Aisha. I do absolutely nothing to teach the kids to read. Isn't what why we pay the big money for school?! Teehee.

At 6:52 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

:))) nice article

i think the hardest thing about learning arabic language here in jordan is that the language you're learning is way different than the street language :)
anyway i wish you luck :).
and trust me arabic language is really hard! :S the only marks in got in school was D and D+ :P

At 3:28 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Yazid, indeed the challenge is that the vocabulary differences are significant enough to almost constitute two different languages. That means ButterBean is actually having to learn 4 languages (Spoken Arabic, Written Arabic, English, and French). It's great that it challenges her thinking and pushes her a bit, but the level of classical Arabic they expect for a second grader is pretty unbelievable to me... sigh. Thanks for your kind wishes ;).

At 8:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give yourself some credit, Mommabean. Just reading to your kids, helps teach them to read!:)
Take it from an English teacher; kids who are read to are better readers themselves.

At 7:17 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Ah, Emily I know. But they get read to in both languages. I'm a firm believer in reading, but not sure how successful we'll be long-term in getting them to read in Arabic ;). Talk about bucking a cultural trend... :)

At 8:59 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

In addition to Arabic books (in general) being aesthetically unappealing and written in a different language than the spoken language, I think part of the problem may be that Arabic is tougher to read because of the script. We don't teach children to read Englis in cursive. While printed English does have capitals and lower-case letters, I think it's far easier to read than Arabic script.

At 8:53 AM , Blogger Sharon said...

I think you should be proud of the little guy! My daughter was born the same month as your twins and she can't read ANY of her languages (French, English and she does half her schooling in German). French schools don't teach reading till 1st Grade (CP, or age 6-7). I don't want to teach her in English until she learns French (her stronger language).

Are there any translations of children's books in Arabic? Even some heavily commercialized characters like Dora or Disney?

Interesting how your oldest has such a contrast in the books she can read in English vs. Arabic. Do you think it's cultural? or more the nature of the Arabic language itself?

I know it's politically incorrect to mention this but I learned a bit of a language in the same family as Arabic. One of your neighboring countries has tons of children's books in that language so I tend to believe it's something cultural.

I'm curious if children in Dubai or Saudi Arabia face similar, especially with all the children there who both learn English and who have/whose parents have lived in English speaking countries.

At 9:53 AM , Anonymous FOG29 said...

At 11:51 PM , Anonymous Ren said...

English would be easier but there are ways to have easy arabic learning like at where you'll have someone to teach you at your own convenience.


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