If you are learning Egyptian Arabic, you’ve definitely thought about it: do I need to learn how to read Arabic?
Valid question – especially if you are a native speaker of a very different language. Because Arabic definitely looks hard.
Luckily, it’s not really all that complicated. Sure, it might LOOK intimidating. But the truth is, learning how to read Arabic (especially Egyptian Arabic) is relatively straightforward.
While there are definitely some complicated parts to Standard Arabic (which I will discuss), the basics needed for reading Egyptian Arabic are well-attainable.
Let’s get started.
The Basics Of Reading Arabic
As you likely already know, Arabic is read from right to left. However, unlike some Asian scripts, it’s also read horizontally.
That means that you read the entire first line of text, right to left, before you go to the next line underneath. Because of that, written materials (books and magazines especially) start at the “back” and progress to the “front.”
As a Westerner, that can be quite confusing at first. I remember the first time I was on a flight to Cairo. I saw somebody reading a book in Arabic, and it looked (to my untrained eye) quite strange. They were flipping the pages backwards!
But of course, that’s just the way it is.
It takes some getting used to, but like any new language concept, it eventually becomes quite normal. Plus, if you have studied any Standard Arabic (fus7a) from a textbook, you are already well-acquainted with this feature of reading Arabic. Not too difficult after a few weeks!
Changing Position Of Arabic Letters
One thing that is interesting about the Arabic alphabet is that the letters change depending on where they are placed in the word. You basically have four versions of each letter: the letter by itself, the letter when it is the first letter of a word, the letter when it is the last, and the letter when it is placed somewhere in the middle.
And because Arabic has 28 letters, that’s….well, 112 different letters you have to remember, right? Well….not really. Don’t have a heart attack just yet, because this system of Arabic reading is actually quite manageable.
While the specifics of this “letter changing” is a topic for another post, I’ll just say this: there are only a few letters that look quite different based off the location in the word. Four, to be exact.
Sure, some letters are trickier than others. This can make the very initial stages of learning how to read Arabic kind of annoying. Why can’t letters just be the same wherever they are in the word like my native language?
But the truth is, this system of “letter changing” isn’t really all that difficult at all. Get a basic handle on the alphabet, and it starts to become second-nature.
What Is Franco Arabic?
Of course, if you want to read Arabic, it pays to know “Franco.” Franco (or Franco-Arabic) is essentially a system of using the Latin alphabet and numbers to approximate Arabic words. The origin of Franco is actually quite interesting.
In the early 90’s, as text communication technologies were becoming increasingly prevalent (computers, cell phones, the internet), the Arabic script wasn’t yet an option. This meant that in order to use these technologies to communicate with each other, Arabs needed to use the Latin alphabet.
And for the Arabic letters that didn’t have a close equivalent in the Latin alphabet? That’s where the numbers come in.
Since then, Franco has just kind of stuck.
This system is certainly a bit weird sometimes.
Seeing a combination of letters and numbers can be a bit intimidating. Plus, there’s not a really a strict system of writing (with the exception of the numbers and the letters they represent).
With Franco-Arabic, you basically just write what you hear.
This means that “correct spellings” are quite often up for debate. However, it’s this very lack of a strict system that makes Franco relatively easy (at least easier than the entire Arabic alphabet) to pick up. There’s no wrong answer if it’s “close enough.”
If you know the Latin alphabet (and you do if you are reading this article), then you can theoretically write a ton of Arabic words in Franco already. Just throw in an understanding of which numbers represent which Arabic letters and you’re good to go!
Communicate Online With Franco Arabic
This assumes, of course, that you already have a baseline of Egyptian Arabic vocabulary. However, perhaps most importantly of all: learning Franco opens the doors of communication.
Egyptians, especially younger Egyptians, use Franco. No doubt about it.
If you use WhatsApp to communicate with Egyptian friends, or you are friends with them on social media, it’s actually sometimes quite rare to see them writing with the standard Arabic alphabet.
Franco, like it or not, is everywhere.
Which is to say: if you want to learn how to read Arabic, learning Franco is kind of “important step 2” in that process. And doing it in that order is helpful. Forcing yourself to write messages to your Egyptian friends in Arabic instead of Franco keeps the alphabet rooted in your mind.
Plus, as I will discuss at the end, it makes learning Egyptian Arabic in general a bit easier.
What Are Tashkeel?
Now for the complicated part. Keep in mind that this largely applies to Standard Arabic. If you are learning how to read Arabic, you will probably come across tashkeel (sometimes also called harakat).
These are basically little tiny marks above or below the letter that help with correct pronunciation. As annoyingly complicated as tashkeel are (and trust me, they are complicated), they are important for Standard Arabic. Because tashkeel not only help you with correct pronunciation – they also alter the meaning of the word.
Take one word, add one little mark, and all of a sudden it’s a different word. Weird, I know. This business with tashkeel is especially important to Koranic Arabic. In fact, the Arab world even has competitions to see who can read Koranic texts with the best pronunciation and intonation.
And what helps them during these readings?
That’s right – tashkeel. While mastering tashkeel can take years of practice (and it often does), there is good news: tashkeel are rarely used when native speakers are writing in their dialect.
Why You Don't Need Tashkeel
That’s really important to keep in mind if you are learning Egyptian Arabic. I myself never bothered with them once I moved to Cairo. I was either using Arabic without any marks (important, as noted, for a beginner) or Franco.
Never learn the complicated version of tashkeel. That’s not to say, of course, that tashkeel don’t have their place. Because they do. If you are studying Standard Arabic for academic purposes, or want (as mentioned) to perfectly understand the Koran, they are essential.
But as for Egyptian Arabic? You don’t really have to worry about them. Is this a controversial opinion? Most definitely. There will always be those “Arabic purists” who claim that Standard Arabic is the way to go. It follows (according to them) that tashkeel would be necessary.
But those are the same people that claim that Standard Arabic is your “ticket to communicating with the Middle East.” And let’s just say, based off of my experience trying to communicate with Egyptians in fus7a when I first arrived in Cairo….that is definitely not the case!
Learning how to read Standard Arabic can be, and quite often is, difficult. Learning how to read Egyptian Arabic? A very different story.
Should You Learn How To Read Arabic?
So, one final question: is it really worth it to learn how to read Arabic? Do you really need to know all those letters? Short answer: it depends on how important learning Arabic is to you.
If you simply want to learn a few words here and there, and don’t care too much about reaching a relatively high level of fluency, then reading Arabic probably isn’t too important. Plus, as we already saw, since you clearly know the Latin alphabet, Franco is always an option.
But the longer answer? Reading Arabic, if you are serious about the language, is a must. And that’s not just me being some “high minded language snob” (because I know the pains of learning to read a new language).
Very honestly, there are a few very important reasons why learning to read Arabic is worth your time.
Reasons To Learn To Read Arabic
First, it makes learning the language so much easier. So much learning material (even if these materials are hard to come by for Egyptian Arabic) is written in the Arabic script.
That means that if you’re planning on learning new vocab, reading Arabic is necessary.
And with more and more reading material in Arabic dialects, an understanding of the alphabet is even more important. Just do it. Trust me!
Second, knowing how to read Arabic allows you to interact with Arabs in a very different way.
You can understand the memes that they are passing around, and may even come across the random Egyptian or two (I did) that prefers writing messages in Arabic instead of Franco. It’s rare – but it does happen.
As an added bonus, Egyptians will definitely appreciate the fact that you actually know their alphabet. That was certainly my experience. Third, it allows you to actually travel to the region without too many problems.
Is Franco a nice little “shortcut” (assuming you learn the numbers, as well) to writing Arabic?
It definitely is. But here’s the thing: it’s quite rare for Franco to be written anywhere but messages and social media.
If you want to travel to Egypt, and you plan on reading that sign at the airport, that menu at a restaurant, or a map with directions…. you need to know how to actually read Arabic. In other words – traveling effectively in the Arab world (especially in areas where English isn’t that prevalent) requires you to read Arabic. No surprise there!
Learning To Read Arabic Is Worth It
Lastly – well, learning how to read Arabic is not actually that hard. If you plan on learning Egyptian Arabic, learning tashkeel isn’t really a problem.
Plus, as we already discussed, the letters themselves (while they might seem daunting) aren’t all that difficult.
Learning how to read Arabic just takes a little bit of practice. No reason why it should be over-complicated!
So, to summarise: can you learn how to read Arabic, is it relatively straight-forward, and is it useful for Egyptian Arabic? The answer, for all three, is yes!