Arab children find Hebrew, English easiest to read

Haifa researchers say Arabic texts are more complex for the brain to help in the reading process.

DR. RAPHIQ IBRAHIM (photo credit: University of Haifa)
(photo credit: University of Haifa)
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 English.
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 language.
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 words.
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 function well.
Thus, while it is involved in the early reading process for English and Hebrew, it doesn’t help much with Arabic.
Eviatar told 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 symbols.
Hebrew, if vowelized, sounds like what you read, as does Spanish or Italian.
When no vowels are given under Hebrew letters, readers have to guess or know from experience how to pronounce the words.
But even 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 appears.
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.
“Children who 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 said.
“We know that both hemispheres usually participate in the dynamic reading process.
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.
“The 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 concluded.
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 “bilinguals” in Arabic because the literary Arabic they learn to read is different from the common Arabic they speak; thus they deal with Arabic as Russian or English 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 she didn’t think the Arab world would agree to simplify the written language to eliminate the dots and different forms of letters depending on where they are placed in the word.