Israeli Arab children find it easier to learn to read Hebrew and English than
Arabic texts, as the graphic complexity makes it more difficult for the brain’s
right hemisphere to help in the reading process, whereas it does help for
reading the other two languages.
This was discovered in a series of
studies by researchers at the University of Haifa and just published in the
prestigious journal Neuropsychology.
Prof. Zohar Eviatar of the
university’s psychology department and the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center
for the Study of Learning Disabilities, worked with colleague Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim
to test Israeli Arab children who learned to read Arabic, Hebrew and
Their hypothesis was that Arabic print and script – which is
based on an alphabet but includes letters than have different forms whether they
appear at the beginning, middle or end of a word as well as dots as vowels – is
harder for native speakers of Arabic to learn than a different second or third
To determine whether this complexity causes perceptual
overload, the researchers carried out a series of studies comparing Arab
children’s and adults’ reading speed and accuracy in their mother tongue. They
also examined their speed and accuracy of processing Arabic, Hebrew and English
In general, the right side of the brain is the primary “language-
learner,” though it gets help from the left side. But when the graphics of the
letters are too confusing, as in written Arabic, the right brain doesn’t
Thus, while it is involved in the early reading process
for English and Hebrew, it doesn’t help much with Arabic.
The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that in Arabic, identification of the number and
location of dots – which is crucial in differentiating among letters – is
initially a hard task for the right brain, as it is not involved in decoding the
text in the first stages of learning to read, but rather, uses global, graphic
information to identify letters.
Eviatar and Ibrahim noted that Arabic
has a number of very similar graphic symbols representing different letters and
sounds, distinguished only by very slight differences such as lines or dots, as
well as sounds that are represented by a variety of different
Hebrew, if vowelized, sounds like what you read, as does Spanish
When no vowels are given under Hebrew letters, readers have
to guess or know from experience how to pronounce the words.
vowelized Arabic is difficult to learn, said Eviatar, as every letter has at
least three and sometimes four shapes, depending on where in the word it
Children have to remember that different shapes are related to
the same sound.
The nun, yud, bet and tav sounds in Arabic have the same
shape but differ in the amounts of dots above or below.
have astigmatism can’t easily tell if there is one dot or not. The right
hemisphere can’t differentiate between a bet and nun sound in Arabic, but the
left side can,” Eviatar continued.
The overall findings support their
hypothesis that the complexity results in a high perceptual load, contributing
to the difficulty and slowness of processing by young Arabic readers, she
“We know that both hemispheres usually participate in the dynamic
But the language it’s written in determines how the two
sides interact,” she said.
Eviatar said that they used behavioral studies
rather than PET scans of the brain that show which parts of the brain are active
during a specific activity.
“We didn’t have the money for these scans, as
they are very expensive,” she explained.
“Children acquiring languages
other than Arabic draw on the use of both hemispheres in the first stages of
learning to read, while children starting to learn to read Arabic do not have
the participation of the right brain. Hence, it may be the case that reading
processes take longer to be automatized in Arabic,” the two stated.
native Arabic-speaking child is faced with more of a challenge, requiring more
practice and particular pedagogic effort – which demonstrates the need for
systematic professional involvement in the teaching of Arabic reading,
especially for those who have learning difficulties,” the researchers
Eviatar said she was not qualified to advise the Education
Ministry on how to ease learning to read Arabic in schools. However, she noted
that Arabic language teaching is changing for the better, thanks to advisers
like Dr. Elinor Saiegh-Haddad in the English department of Bar- Ilan University,
who is an expert member of ministry advisory committees.
The Haifa team
did not compare their findings with learning to read Japanese and Chinese, “as
we don’t have native populations for these languages. But there are many studies
on the even greater difficulty of learning these languages, since they are not
alphabetic like Hebrew and Arabic but graphic symbols representing words, not
letters representing sounds.”
In previous studies, the university
researchers showed that Arab children ages five and six function as
in Arabic because the literary Arabic they learn to read is different
common Arabic they speak; thus they deal with Arabic as Russian or
speakers learn to speak Hebrew, for example.
While the Chinese changed
reading techniques for children to make it easier to accomplish and then
presented older children with classical Chinese, Eviatar suggested that
didn’t think the Arab world would agree to simplify the written language
eliminate the dots and different forms of letters depending on where
placed in the word.