Why Arabic Speakers Find English Spelling Difficult
Every student has their own set of challenges when learning English, but what can we learn about students with similar language backgrounds? What mistakes can we anticipate? In Second Language Acquisition research, this is called L1 interference. In essence, the effect of the student's first language on the language they are learning (aka: English). As teachers, we can make a few educated guesses about what mistakes will be common for students from a particular language background.
This article by Helen Bowen (links and citations at the end of this post) highlights the issues facing Arabic speakers when they begin to spell in English. This article shows the preconceived notions of teachers surrounding spelling and analyzes spelling errors of students from Oman and the UAE.
How do you spell in Arabic?
Arabic is considered diglossic which means the spoken forms are very different from each other. Arabic spelling is also phonetic and also a “consonantal language” so vowels can be confusing in Arabic. Short vowels are not written in literary Arabic. All of this sets students up for L1 interference when they navigate the world of English spelling.
What assumptions do teachers make?
While most teachers believe that L1 Arabic students are trying to phonetically spell English words, in this study, most students lacked phonetic strategies to spell. 79% of students made errors such as “inversion, incorrect letter choice, and gratuitous inclusion of rogue letters.” The author argues that these sort of mistakes show a lack of phonetic knowledge associated with spelling.
This study also found that among 63 teachers, 94% of them do not teach spelling and error correction is their main method (Bowen, 2008). Also out of the 53 students that filled out Bowen’s questionnaire, 79% confirmed that there were frequent spelling tests, but 91% said the teachers failed to give spelling instruction. The paper points to this teaching deficiency as perpetuating the problem of spelling among Arabic speakers. Additionally tests showed that students were spelling phonetically or visually without metacognition.
Are better readers really better spellers?
Some teachers would argue the old adage that to become a better speller, you must become a better reader; however, studies show this is not the case. Perfetti, Rieben, and Fayol (1997) showed that “reading by itself will not dramatically improve spelling because reading does not practice the full orthographic retrieval process demanded by spelling (p. 30-31). Overall, this article is arguing for an accurate understanding of what is happening when Arabic speakers spell in English and a more direct form of instruction.
Teachers base many of their curriculum choices on assumptions, until those assumptions get challenged over time. This is one of those articles that demystifies why many of my Arab students struggle to spell accurately and it goes beyond simple rationale that teachers throw around. This article promotes understanding and research in a practical way that challenges many teachers' beliefs about why this is a specific challenge for a specific L1 background.
See these videos for more information about differences in Arabic and English: