Blaming Arabic

"Approximately 50% of Arabic-speaking schoolchildren in Israel are suspected to have learning disabilities," according to the Edmond J Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities at the University of Haifa. "These children face lifelong stigmatisation, immense academic difficulties, and even expulsion from the formal education system," it continues.

The research centre blames some of the difficulties on "the unique characteristics of the Arabic language" (as opposed to Hebrew, English, etc). In Arabic, it says, "diglossia, orthographic and morphological complexity, diacritics and alterations in letter form based on location in the word contribute to serious delays and failures in reading and writing". 

The centre does acknowledge that "cultural, societal and familial aspects inherent in the Arab sector also constitute important factors in understanding the learning difficulties existing within this population", but the problems allegedly caused by the Arabic alphabet are at the centre of its latest research.

A team led by Professor Zohar Eviatar studied a group of 40 Hebrew-speaking university students, some of whom "also spoke and read Arabic well". Hebrew and Arabic letters were flashed on to a screen to see how quickly and accurately the students could recognise them, and to determine which side of the brain was used in the recognition process.

Their conclusion, basically, is that written Arabic is more difficult than other languages for the brain to cope with: "Because of the visual complexity of Arabic orthography, the brain's right hemisphere is not involved in decoding the text in the first stages of learning to read."

The detailed findings have been published in the journal Neuropsychology but they are summarised by the BBC and in a 
press release from the University of Haifa.

Dr Raphiq Ibrahim, one of the research team, has also investigated the question: "What is unique in the brain of an Arabic speaker?"

According to Dr Ibrahim, the Arabic reading skills and comprehension of Arabic-speaking students in Israel and Arab countries have shown a lower level of proficiency compared to Hebrew-speaking counterparts in Hebrew and to other native speakers in their native languages.

These difficulties were attributed to the fact that they learn colloquial (spoken) Arabic alongside the mostly-written Modern Standard Arabic.

"This makes learning to read in Arabic a double mission, whereby children are expected to acquire in parallel an auditory linguistic system as well as a complex orthographic-visual language system," Dr Ibrahim said.

I'll let others judge the quality of this research. The Angry Arab has raised some questions about it, labelling it a "colonial study". 

The Safra centre makes clear on its website that its aim is to promote understanding of "learning disabilities in the Arab sector" and remedy them. However, it's easy to see how others might abuse it for political purposes by claiming that if Arabs are educationally disadvantaged in Israel and elsewhere, it's their own fault for speaking Arabic.