Learning a language that has a different alphabet from your own can be very challenging. So challenging, that you might be tempted to disregard other crucial linguistic skills. Imagine you’re learning Arabic. With all the time you spend studying its intricate script, do you really need to focus on pronunciation as well?
We are afraid you do. Working on your Arabic pronunciation helps you to achieve better overall results for several reasons. In the first place, as you learn to sound more like a native speaker, your mental model of the language improves too, which leads to better understanding. This means that your listening skills improve because you become more skillful at picking out sounds. Additionally, by improving your pronunciation you’re boosting your reading comprehension abilities, as the inner voice you use to reads starts to sound like a native speaker, both in clarity and speed.
Having said this, let’s face the bitter truth: mastering Arabic pronunciation is no piece of cake. However, as with all languages, the secret is to take things slowly, and above all, to know where to start. That’s why, today, we are introducing you to the set of sounds that you will find in the Arabic phonetic system.
An Introduction to Arabic Pronunciation
The first thing you have to do if you want to boost your Arabic pronunciation skills in any language is to take the time to study its phonemic repertoire. In other words, to find out which sounds you’ll need to master if you want to make meaningful sentences.
For example, if you’re a Spanish speaker learning English, you would have to learn to articulate the /sh/ sound in words like shower and shorts, which is very common in English but doesn’t exist in most Spanish regions. Well, learning Arabic presents similar challenges. To pronounce the letter Haa (ح), for example, you need to make the sound you make when you clear your throat, although you need to keep your mouth open while you are at it. Then, to articulate the “delicate” sound of Kha (خ), you need to make the sound people make when they force phlegm out.
For the most part, however, the news is good. If you’re an English speaker (and you must be, since you’re reading this article), the Arabic pronunciation system will look (and sound) very familiar to you. This is because a big number of consonants present in Arabic are very common sounds in English. And we’re not talking about two or three sounds. In total, these two languages share 20 consonant sounds. These are:
b, f, h, k, d, t, m, l, n, s, w, j, z, y, sh, th, dh, and ʔ, the glottal stop.
The only sound in this list that might cause you to raise your eyebrows is the glottal stop, but don’t worry. Even if you didn’t know what it’s called, we swear you use it all the time. It’s that hitch in your voice when you say aspirate the T in words like “button”. This is even more common in British English, and you may have heard it in words like “water” in the London accent.
Something you should know about the Arabic glottal stop is that it’s not just a variation of a sound, as it happens in English with the T. In Arabic, it is a distinct sound that can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of words, so it should be given the same attention as any other sound.
Another difference between Arabic and English is that Arabic “L” is always light, like in the English word “ally”. The dark variety that we use when we say “Delco” or “Celtic” is not used in Arabic.
As regards consonants, that’s the end of the good news. Beyond those counterparts, there are ten sounds that give Arabic pronunciation its reputation of making people wanting to throw things across the room. But don’t worry. We are here to help. In fact, the following paragraphs might make you see that mastering the musical sounds of Arabic is not so hard after all.
The Difficult Aspects of Arabic Pronunciation
First, there is the rolled “r”, the one Spanish people use when they say carro (car) or cerro (hill). In order to make this sound, you have to make a few rapid taps with the tip of your tongue just behind your upper teeth. Doable, right?
Then, there is “ch”, not the Spanish one, but the German one, the one that they use to say Bach or Ich. Try raising the central part of your tongue towards your hard palate and let the air escape with friction. Now say “Bach”. Not that hard, huh?
Coming up next, we have four “emphatic” consonants: D, TH, T, and S. Do you know how we sometimes speak very loudly and emphatically when we speak to a person who is hard of hearing? That is pretty much how you can think of these sounds: as strong versions of consonants you know. These consonants are often written in Latin script with uppercase letters. Alternatively, you might see them underlined, another way of showing that they are emphatic varieties of other sounds.
Let’s see a few examples:
Seyf / seyf = summer
Tabala / tabala = she beat a drum
ba’D / ba’d = some
Last but not least, there are four other consonants that are articulated at the back of the throat. Although they do not have a standard Latin equivalent, they can be transcribed as ”Q”, “GH”, “7”, and “3”. Why are we using numbers when talking about letters? Good question, simple answer: because that is what the Arabic characters look like. Q is similar to K, a velar sound produced by the approximation of the back part of the tongue and the soft palate. GH is a softer, light sound, similar to the “y” in yacht, but as if you wanted to articulate it as far back in your mouth as possible.
7 is similar to a whispered “h”. If you say “ahhhh” in a hushed voice, you’ll see how the “h” consonant becomes higher than in normal speech. (Yes, we are asking you to whisper to the screen!)
Lastly, the 3 is widely deemed as the hardest Arabic sound for English speakers (sorry!). It’s like 7, but you need to engage your vocal cords to make a voiced version of it. Both your throat muscles and your vocal cords will be engaged to produce a hard, throaty sound.
Of course, this is a very long description of something that should be illustrated with an acoustic reference. So, after you read this article, make sure you find a great Arabic show on Netflix to see how all these consonants sound in real speech. (Tip: Night/Exterior, a 2018 dramatic film about three strangers are forced to spend the night together, is a great option!)
No, stop trembling. We also have good news here. Excellent news, actually. Would you believe us if we told you that Arabic has only three vowel sounds? Though it may sound too good to be true, the Arabic alphabet has three vowels, romanized a, u, i, which are distinguished by length. It would be fair to say, then, that there are six vowels in Arabic. Three short vowels: a, i and u; and three long ones: aa, ii and uu.
A good way of practicing unfamiliar sounds is by studying minimal pairs, i.e., pairs of words that are distinguished by a single sound. In the graphic below, you will find examples that English speakers usually find challenging. All words are given in Arabic script, transcription, and in English.
Do you feel ready to go beyond the Arabic pronunciation and start practicing your conversation skills? Then make sure you visit our website. There you will find tailor–made courses taught by Arabic tutors who will be pleased to teach you everything there is to know about their language. What are you waiting for? Send us a quick inquiry and we’ll make sure you get an immediate answer.