At IH Newcastle, we have a relatively high proportion of Arabic mother-tongue students. In my experience, one of the biggest problems they have is with spelling in English, which causes them trouble with both reading and writing. I have tried many strategies to help them to improve in this area, including recommending Quizlet and the read-say-spell, cover-write-check method which was one of the ways I was taught to spell in English. These have had limited success, and until today I didn’t really know why.
I’ve just come across a section entitled ‘The Special Case of Arabic’ by Ann Ryan of the University of Wales, Swansea (in Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy edited by Norbert Schmitt and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp.184-192). She gives examples such as:
- we get water from deep wheels (wells)
- you get upstairs in a left (lift)
- I met my friend in the model of the square (middle)
These examples immediately struck a chord. I had always put such problems down to poor spelling-pronunciation awareness in the learners, but could never understand why these seemed to be so much greater for Arabic learners than for those from other languages, even those written in non-Roman scripts.
Ann Ryan’s explains that in Arabic, words are based on a root that normally consists of three consonants, which can be combined with different patterns of vowels to produce word families, for example k-t-b generates maktaba – library, ketaab – book, kataba – he wrote and so on.
She then goes on to show that Arabic speakers often carry this convention over to their English reading and vocabulary learning, meaning that they use consonants to represent English words. Thus, Arabic learners translated the English ‘cruel’ to equivalents meaning ‘curl’ or ‘cereal’; or translated English ‘finish’ to Arabic ‘fishing’.
Arabic speakers also had much greater trouble in identifying when vowels had been deleted from words than when consonants had been deleted. Their reaction time and errors in this experiment were significantly higher than that of Japanese, Thai and Romance speakers. In short, they have a kind of ‘vowel blindness’. As Ann Ryan says:
The problem seems to take the form of ignoring the presence of vowels when storing vocabulary and an almost indiscriminate choice as to which vowel to use when one is needed.
I would recommend reading the full chapter to follow up on my brief paraphrasing and check I haven’t missed anything!
The implications of this for teaching Arabic students are quite serious. If students aren’t seeing the vowels, or aren’t remembering them, this could inhibit their learning greatly. What can we do to help them notice and pay attention to vowels? In short, to help them completely change a cognitive process which is carried over from L1?
As a visual learner, my only current idea would be to give each vowel a colour, e.g. ‘a’ is red, ‘e’ is blue…and encourage learners to use this in class for words which they struggle to discriminate. What do you think? How would you tackle this?