Researchers at Haifa University have discovered why learning to read Arabic is hard – and it has to do with the “right brain.”
Haifa University’s Professor Zohar Eviatar and neuropsychologist Dr. Rafik Ibrahim of Rambam Medical Center have shown that the complexities of the Arabic language impede the right brain from taking part in learning to read it. This is largely because of the graphic complexities of the language, in which very similar shapes stand for different letters, while the same letter is depicted in a variety of ways depending on whether it is in the beginning, middle, or end of a word.
Letters such as the equivalents of B, N, TH and T, for instance, all have the same basic shape, but with a different amount of dots under or over them. F and Q are also similar, as are R and Z, and J, H, and KH.
Asked why Hebrew-speakers do not have the same difficulty, Eviatar told Israel National News, “It’s true that many Hebrew letters are built around similar square shapes. However, only five Hebrew letters change their shape depending on whether they end a word or not, while many Arabic letters do so, and even take on different shapes in other parts of the word.”
Hebrew is a phonic language; as opposed to English, for example, letters and combinations of letters have the same sound in all word constructs.
“Our research has shown,” Eviatar said, “that when we test both Arabic and Hebrew reading on children who speak and read both, they do better in Hebrew reading than in Arabic. And this is true whether their mother tongue was Hebrew or Arabic.”
Eviatar and Ibrahim, seeking to explain the increasingly-accepted fact that learning to read Arabic is relatively hard, conducted a series of research projects regarding the visual complexities of Arabic. Their work indicates that the right brain hemisphere, which is generally assumed to process visual stimuli, is simply overloaded by the task and does not rise to the occasion as quickly as it does when learning other languages.
The tests carried out upon children showed that the right brain took part in the learning process in English and Hebrew, but not in Arabic.
“The significance is,” the researchers summed up, “that children who learn languages other than Arabic rely on the capabilities of both sides of their brain at the early stages of learning to read, whereas the child learning Arabic has a stronger challenge.”