Backwards and Twisted: The Unique Challenge of English for Arabic Speakers

Any teacher will tell you that English is a difficult language to learn. The hodgepodge of linguistic influences, acquired words, and exceptions to the rule make it frustrating to any new speaker. But at least for native French, German, or Spanish speakers, they start from the common foundation of the Latin alphabet and a similar phonetic system.   Two EFL students practice their English reading and writing during a STEP! II EFL class.

Arabic, on the other hand, is a Semitic language with a distinctive grammatical, phonetic, and written style. Apart from the obvious differences in alphabet and direction of writing, Arabic has a number of letters and sounds with no obvious counterpart in the English alphabet or even the English language. This is endlessly amusing to Arabic speakers listening to non-native speakers attempt to pronounce the ‘ayn.’ Our mouths just don’t work that way.

But as frustrating as Arabic may be for English speakers, Arabic speakers speaking and writing English face their own challenges. As acclaimed translator Ibrahim Muhawi puts it, “Reading in Arabic is not the same as in English, where the movement of the attention from left to right is unhampered. … Meaning is deferred, and readers are forced to move back and forth within the same sentence.” Applying this logic to English writing produces some truly mesmerizing sentences, where subjects, verbs, objects and clauses mingle together freely.  It is both uplifting and confounding to read an Arab EFL student’s creative writing.

The students are hard at work to improve their English skills.

At an even more fundamental level, Arabic does not have a number of verbs and conventions that English considers fundamental. Unlike English, Arabic does not require a verb in a sentence. The verb ‘to be’ does not exist in the present tense.  Therefore, one of the most common mistakes made in my class is losing ‘is’ in a sentence—“My name Phoebe,” or “The boy tall.” My class also consistently  struggles with aligning gender and possession: “my sister wears her dress,” for example. We had a breakthrough moment last week on gendered possessive adjectives, though, when someone wrote ‘She wears his blue dress’ on the board during a game. When we discussed the sentence, the idea that ‘he’ might own a blue dress was hilarious for my class. As a teacher, this is the perfect example of a ‘teachable moment’--a time in class when the logic of a rule is easy to pick up on. Now, my students may not always align the gender correctly the first time, but they are on the look-out for the mistake.

Above all, though, the most common errors from my students result from rushing through sentences. As adult language learners, they are used to being able to express themselves fluently in their own dialect and language—a fluency that escapes them in English. As adults, they think and articulate complex sentences routinely, and continue to do so even in a new language. One of the biggest challenges is convincing my students to slow down and use English structures they are familiar with to convey their ideas, instead of racing to use Arabic patterns and expressions. All in all, however, as a teacher it is exciting to be pushed for more challenging vocabulary, nuanced phrases, and expressive language patterns.

More information on the nuances of English language learning for Arabic speakers can be found here.

The English as a Foreign Language program is part of STEP! II, a youth employability, empowerment, and community leadership initiative supported by Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.


Phoebe, EFL Fellow, Spring 2016