Saturday, April 5, 2014

Arabic: voweling

One of the most difficult thing every Arabic language learner faces is lack of the writing system. I don't mean here an alphabet which is different from Latin. I mean lack of the short vowels. Arabic speakers are supposed to know what vowels should be inserted where in the word. This is theory though. Sometimes even adult educated speaker have some difficulties. It impacts especially Modern Standard Arabic which is not used in a daily life, unless you work as a scholar or in the media.

What's interesting - the problem with reading the vowels is not only an Arabic thing. Let's take English as an example. Although we write the vowels, there is no unique system for reading them. Sometimes "i" should be pronounced as "e", sometimes as "y" and yet in other instances as "i". But as least it is there. In Arabic you don't have even that.

Saying that, one thing must be clear: diacritics indicating the correct MSA vowels are shown in religious texts, especially in the Quran, and in literature for children. This is called the vocalization or the voweling. Arabic term for this is الحركة (al-Haraka) which literally means "movement". Of course you can find it also in grammar books, textbooks and other study materials. But in newspapers, books and other written sources there's no Haraka.

The question is: is it better to have Haraka while learning or not? There are generally two approches. The first says: yes, there should be Haraka always, because it helps to remember the correct form of the word and to memorize it in its right form. The second approach says: no, it's better to learn to read texts as you will read them later, in real life, that is, without voweling.

A text with voweling

The same text without voweling

A text from the FSI Basic Course, with partially retained voweling

Like with everything, these are both "extreme" so to call them approaches. There also a "moderate" approach which is used in some of the learning materials like for example that prepared by the Foreign Language Institute. In the first lessons everything is "voweled". All the words, readings, vocabulary, grammatical explanatons. But later, voweling is removed step by step, and is only retained in the lessons glossaries. That way a learner get used to not be dependent on Haraka.

In my opinion this is the best approach - providing you want to learn to read properly. That's why I like so much the aforementioned course.

And what if your opinion? As a learner? As an Arab speaker?

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