How To Learn The Arabic Alphabet (Beginner's Guide)

Asma Wahba

Author

Asma Wahba

Where did the Arabic alphabet come from?

The Arabic alphabet or script developed from the scriptures and writings of the Nabataean tribes, who inhabited the lands of southern Syria and Jordan.

This was a variation of the Aramaic alphabet, which ultimately came from the Phoenician alphabet. The Arabic alphabet emerged from the Nabataeans who, similar to Arabic, their text relied on heavy consonants and long vowels.

Arabic is read from right to left.

Unlike other languages and alphabets, the Arabic alphabet has no distinctions between upper case and lower case letters.

However, the shapes of letters will change depending on their placement in the word. For instance, a specific letter may be written one way if it is at the beginning of the word, and written a complete other way if it is at the end of a word (see the tables below).

There are also marks on under or above certain letters are used to represent the pronunciation.

Punctuation marks (a foreign import) are used to emphasize shock, curiosity, or any other exclamation. They were not adopted into the language until the twentieth century.

Arabic letter origins

The table above illustrates the variation in the Arabic alphabet and portrays a timeline of how the letter came about.

It was later on that Arabic grammarians decided to adjust and reorganize the Arabic alphabet so that it would be easier to pass on and teach. They also did this to enhance the language and make it easier to apply and use.

This would lead way towards modern Arabic that we know today.

Learn the Arabic alphabet

Learning the Arabic alphabet can be off-putting at first.

One reason why is because the letters join together, and often shapeshift, to produce a word. To a novice, this may be off-putting because it may be a struggle early on to learn the entire alphabet, consonants, and how to put the letters together.

But you shouldn’t be concerned.

First focus on learning the individual alphabet letters. The Arabic alphabet has 28 consonants.

Below is a table that lists all of them.

The table also represents how each consonant is pronounced and written. When you learn the Arabic alphabet and how to write Arabic, it’s important that you also learn the forms in which the letter take shape.

As I mentioned earlier, letters tend to shapeshift depending on where they are placed in the world.

For instance, if you look at the table below, take the second letter in the Arabic alphabet, the letter baa’.

You can see that it has four variations depending on its application, but it is still (more or less) recognizable wherever you use it. Now move further down in the table, to the tenth letter from the bottom, the letter ‘ghayn’.

‘Ghayn’ also has four variations, but each variation looks quite different.

At first, when you read Arabic, these variations will be difficult, and often you will misread or misspell a certain word. But you shouldn’t let that deter you from learning the Arabic alphabet.

Focus on getting acquainted with the different consonants, their applications, and variations.

Letter Transcription [IPA] Final Medial Initial Independent
'alif aa [ɛː, ɑː] ـا ـا ا ا
baa' b [b] ـب ـبـ بـ ب
taa' t [t] ـت ـتـ تـ ت
thaa' th [θ] ـث ـثـ ثـ ث
jiim j [d͡ʒ] ـج ـجـ جـ ج
haa' ḥ [ħ] ـح ـحـ حـ ح
khaa' kh [x] ـخ ـخـ خـ خ
daal d [d] ـد ـد د د
dhaal dh [ð] ـذ ـذ ذ ذ
raa' r [r] ـر ـر ر ر
zaay z [z] ـز ـز ز ز
sin s [s] ـس ـسـ سـ س
shin sh [ʃ] ـش ـشـ شـ ش
saad ṣ [sˤ] ـص ـصـ صـ ص
daad ḍ [dˤ] ـض ـضـ ضـ ض
taa' ṭ [tˤ] ـط ـطـ طـ ط
dhaa' ḍh [ðˤ] ـظ ـظـ ظـ ظ
ʕayn ʕ [ʕ] ـع ـعـ عـ ع
ghayn gh [ɣ] ـغ ـغـ غـ غ
faa' f [f] ـف ـفـ فـ ف
qaaf q [q] ـق ـقـ قـ ق
kaaf k [k] ـك ـكـ كـ ك
laam l [l] ـل ـلـ لـ ل
miim m [m] ـم ـمـ مـ م
nuun n [n] ـن ـنـ نـ ن
haa' h [h] ـه ـهـ هـ ه
waaw w, uu [w, uː] ـو ـو و و
yaa' y, ii [j, iː] ـي ـيـ يـ ي

Arabic short vowels (diacritics)

Beyond the consonants, you have the Arabic vowels.

In the Arabic alphabet, there are vowel markings called ḥarakāt (حَرَكَات), which translates to “movements”.

The ḥarakāt can be both short and long.

The three long vowels are considered letters themselves. You can check in the table above and find the three long vowels. They are alef = ا, waw = و, yay = ي.

The long vowels have matching short forms known as diacritic signs. These are the symbols that you will write either above or below a particular consonant.

There is also the aspect of “vowel quality” and which is considered to be the different limits of sounds each vowel can make in combination with other letters. Similar to the way the letter “f” can and will sound extremely different from one word to another, for example with “feather” or “fat”.

Below is a table depicting all the Arabic vowels and their pronunciation.

In the same table, you will also find the three vowel diacritics, which are the sukūn, the shadda, and the tanwīn signs, and they are called tashkeel, or shakel (شكْل) which translates to “forming” or to form.

Although apparent in the Arabic alphabet, these signs are for the most part not used in Arabic dialect or simply left out.

In most instances, they are used strictly to bypass uncertainty in difficult books or writings. Other times they are used for decorative applications such as in book titles, letterheads, or calligraphy.

For example:

تَعليمٌ اللغة العربية لغيرِ النّاطقِين بهَا

The table above shows the different Arabic vowels and tashkeels used to read and write Arabic.

Name Diacritic Sound
fatha ــَــ a
kasra ــِــ i
damma ــُــ u (short)
sukun ــْــ No sound
shadda ــّــ Doubled or emphatic vowel sound
tanwin il-fathــَــ-an (end of the word only)
tanwin il-kasrــٍــ-in (end of the word only)
tanwin i-dammــٌــ-un (end of the word only)

The Arabic alphabet has some foreign/non-native letters too

Another occurrence in Arabic are the foreign, or non-native, letters.

These are the letters that don’t typically appear in the 28 Arabic alphabet consonants, yet are widely used.

A reason why they’re used is to pronounce or write foreign letters, names, and labels. These letters are also used to describe transliterated text or text from another language. Arabic speakers adopt these letters to pronounce these words as they were meant to be pronounced.

Other times, a combination of the Arabic consonants would suffice.

However, where the consonants fault to make the proper pronunciation, foreign letters are used for non-native words and pronunciations.

Below is a table of these foreign letters, their pronunciation, and when to use them.

Sound Transcription [IPA] Final Medial Initial Independent
pa p [p] ـپـ ـپـ پـ پ
jim zh [ʒ] ـچـ ـچـ چـ چ
va v [v] ـڤـ ـڤـ ڤـ ڤ

Improve your Arabic reading and writing skills

Once you’ve learned and gotten acquainted with the Arabic alphabet, your next step should be to move on to reading and writing.

If you’d like, you can pick up an Arabic dictionary and use it as your guide for how to write Arabic.

However, an Arabic dictionary is not an easy read.

In an Arabic dictionary, words are usually arranged around three-letter roots.

To find the word you’re searching for, you need to know what the root is prior, and what letter the root starts with. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the first letter in the word. Even a simple thing like using the dictionary requires practice and repetition.

But the sooner you learn it the better.

It will make the whole process of writing and reading Arabic easier.

But if you’re hung up on the dictionary, then put it to the side and focus on honing your reading and writing skills. Immersing yourself in the application of writing and reading is important if you want to fully grasp the Arabic language.

Of course, this is important in every language, but when it comes to Arabic, it’s amplified, and even more important.

In Arabic, the best way to learn a new word is to see it, hear it, write it and speak it. Once you see it, you are not only seeing the word but the variation of the consonants themselves. Through this application, you are training your cognitive skills, to pick up on the combination of the letters. This way, the next time you see them, you can immediately know the word without having to read out every single letter.

It’s similar to that exercise where you are given a bunch of words, with the letter either missing or shuffled.

You still manage to read out the words because your brain has seen them so many times before that you already know their form and meaning.

One way for beginners to practice a foreign language is to watch TV programs like children’s shows in that language.

The vocabulary is much easier to pick up on, plus there is an educational aspect to these programs that may be very helpful to new students of all ages.

As you get better at understanding, another trick you can use is to watch those shows or movies in the Arabic language but English subtitles. That way you get a better “ear” for listening, and the subtitles help translate the words and audio that you are listening to.

Eventually, you’ll be able to switch off the subtitles and still be able to understand what the characters in the show are saying.

And if you want to give yourself an added challenge, you’ll keep the subtitles, only switch them to Arabic, and try to read along as you listen to the conversation.

Practicing speaking will get you used to the sounds of Arabic

Once you’ve gotten the Arabic alphabet down, know how to write Arabic, and read Arabic, the only thing left is to move on to speaking.

Simply sticking to listening or seeing the Arabic language will not suffice. You have to dive in headfirst into Arabic conversation. It can be difficult at first to find a proper partner to have a conversation with and to move at your pace.

Especially if you don’t have a lot of Arabic-speaking friends.

However, there are a lot of online groups, tools, and platforms where you can join a chatroom as a speaker and converse with the many different people on there.

I recommend italki for this, which has loads of native Arabic speakers from all over the Middle East and North Africa to practise with.

In 2021, it’s imperative that with any new skill you want to learn, that you take advantage of these resources and tools.

If you do, then the more you will be able to practice, and the faster you will learn and be fully fluent in the Arabic language.

Start with the absolute basics, like saying hello in Arabic.

Choose a dialect

When you want to learn Arabic before you start you should pick the form or dialect of Arabic that you want to learn, and stick to it.

Arabic differs depending on which region you are from.

The differences range from pronunciation, wording, dialect, and even the accent used.

Although the Arabic alphabet never really changes, the different words used, and the sentences formed, could mislead one to believe it’s an entirely different language.

Egyptian Arabic is different from Iraqi Arabic, Saudi, different from Lebanese and Syrian, and so on.

So choose a dialect of Arabic that you want to learn, and don’t worry, because no matter which dialect you choose to go with, you will still be able to understand all the other Arabic dialects and accents.

And, of course, by dialect, we mean any one of the many local variations of Arabic that are spoken by populations across the Middle East and North Africa.

You want to opt for learning an Arabic dialect first, instead of Modern Standard Arabic, because the latter is usually reserved for formal speaking like public speaking, news, religion, and the Qur’an.

Once you’ve chosen a dialect you’d like to pursue, the next step is to dive into the learning of the language.

The Arabic alphabet is easy

People who are looking to learn Arabic will start with mountain high motivation but be deterred quickly into the process.

A reason why is because Arabic is a complex language. From the alphabet to the vowels, the writing, the reading, and speaking. As we mentioned before, even the dictionary is difficult! But all those difficulties pale in comparison to the success of having finally learned the beautiful language that is Arabic.

So follow the steps mentioned in this article and you should be fine.

First, get acquainted with the Arabic alphabet, its consonants and their many different variations, the vowels and their purposes, and even the foreign letters.

Then as you’ve become comfortable with the alphabet, move on to reading, and getting familiar with the words and how they’re written.

Slowly start to pair this transition with writing, and try writing out the different words that you’ve read. Try copying them down on a piece of paper first, and then get rid of the text and do so from memory.

Finally move towards having a conversation with an Arabic speaker and getting the hang of the different pronunciations, all the way to molding your very own proper Arabic accent.

If you follow these steps then before you know it you will be speaking Arabic in no time.

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