Why English is difficult for Arabic speakers

As Arabic is not an Indo-European language it does not share many of the fundamental features of English. What feels obvious to say speakers of English, German, Spanish or Russian may not be at all obvious to Arabic speakers. Read on for a summary of some of the differences:


  • right to left
  • short vowels not written
  • no upper or lower cases
  • different script

English spelling can be a real problem for students who speak Arabic. Here is a link to a helpful website by Johanna Stirling http://www.elgweb.net/spelling_article.html#aprob


  • verb before subject (usually)
  • no auxiliary ‘do’
  • no ‘be’ in the present tense
  • personal pronouns connected to verbs
  • no modal verbs (mistake: ‘From the possible I pass the exam’)
  • Arabic verb tenses have different meanings/uses from English ones
  • no gerund ‘ing’ noun form (mistake: ‘I enjoy I play football’)
  • tenses in conditionals (mistake: ‘If she liked it, she eaten it’)
  • no indefinite article (mistake: ‘He wants apple’)
  • nouns have genders
  • relative pronouns and clauses
  • no infinitive (mistake: ‘I want I go college’)
  • adjectives follow nouns
  • no phrasal verbs
  • difficulty with ‘there’ as in ‘ There is a cafe next to the river’ (similar concepts are expressed differently in Arabic)


  • only 8 vowels including only 2 diphthongs
  • confusion of vowels in e.g. tin and ten, lot and lord, led and laid, top and tone
  • with consonants there are confusions with pat and bat, very and ferry, sin and sing/sink
  • many more consonant clusters in English
  • tendency to emphasising consonants and ignore some vowels
  • Arabic is mainly phonetic
  • more difference between the intonation of free conversation and reading aloud than in English


There are very few Arabic words in English. Arabic speakers are likely to learn new words relatively slowly.


  • You may have to teach in a more old-fashioned way: learning in many Arab-speaking countries is not primarily about original thinking or expressing personal opinions (one of our students said he passed his arts degree by multiple choice exams without any writing of essays). Rather there is a large amount of rote learning where the teacher is the source of knowledge in a formal leaarning environment. Drilling may be a worthwhile technique.
  • When teaching vocabulary and expressions, bear in mind that language which is too informal may not be seen as worth learning.
  • Errors may not be because of inattention or lack of motivation but simply because English is really hard (how quickly could you learn Arabic to a good level?)
  • There could be a lot of cultural misunderstanding so try to be patient and explain things carefully
  • Writing skills are likely to be much less effective than speaking skills
  • The Arab-speaking world is quite extensive incorporating a wide range of cultures so be careful not to overgeneralise culturally.
  • Don’t let the above put you off. Having to think about the fundamentals of English is incredibly illuminating!!

Adapted from Learner English ed Swan and Smith (CUP).

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One Response to Why English is difficult for Arabic speakers


  1. Karen Stanley says:

    Thank you for this! I have my first Arab speaker in a few weeks and was looking for something like this to help prepare, Regards, Karen

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