Israel: Israeli scientists claim proof that Arabic is “hard for brain”

A recent study reported in the BBC and other online media, as well as having been published in the American Psychological Association's journal is entitled Nuerosychology: University of Haifa (2010, August 31) Reading Arabic isn't easy, brain study suggests. (No online edition available). It claims to have proved its hypothesis that reading Arabic is harder for the brain than reading Hebrew or English. The team of researchers state “the detail of Arabic characters means students should use only the left side of their brain” and that using the right brain when learning to read Arabic “is wasting effort.”

The study only involved 40 subjects and rather than asking whether or not Arabic is actually harder to read set out to prove the assumption that Arabic is harder to read.

Wide Ranging Sources of Commentary

The article was picked up and became an interestingly debated subject on MyAnimeList, a forum for discussing Japanese animated films.

User RedSuisei, from Indonesia, comments:

it all depends on whether you are accustomed with the letters or not. I have no problem reading arabic letters at all. I can read quite fast to. It seems that what the researchers says also applies to other languages like Japanese, Koreans, etc. where we also have to look for details in the writing.

User Yammin from London says:

Arabic reading is easy. It's actually pretty simple. Just learn the letters and the vowels; a few rules and you'll get it down. I learnt how to read it in a week. But I was 8 when I learnt it, and I suppose children pick things up faster.

Building on comments from users about what these “findings” would mean with regard to Asian languages, MorningGlory offers:

鬮䯂龞麤 It look like electric circuit!!!

Adding to MorningGlory's example, KyuuAL from the US cites this example:

I remember as a child. My uncle taught me the numbers/numerals. I had ‘em down pat too… but ultimately, I forgot ‘em.

Anyways, being an adult, I'm still struggling remembering the difference between:
shi – シ
tsu – ツ
That's just two characters in Japanese (katakana).

Further down RedSuisei returns with this comparison:

Believe it or not, I can say the same to our alphabets as well. i and j looks similar. I and l looks very very similar, especially in handwriting. d is reverse b. n is like r with longer line continuing down. F and E only differ by one line. In Japanese they got a lot more of similar looking characters whether it's hiragana, katakana, or kanji. Even same characters may be read differently. Even character size also reads differently (つ is tsu while っ is mark for double consonant, for example).

In a comical entry Confucius quips:

Read my Math work, we'll see which is harder…

Heika weighs in with:

I don't think learning to read Arabic is any harder than learning to read any other language, specially when I think of the trouble I have reading Japanese. There are only 28 letters in the Arabic abjad, learning it isn't all that difficult. As stated before, the most challenging part can be remembering the contextual shapes of every letter (isolated, initial, medial or final). The standard writing is simple and easy to read, if some letters look very similar, their pronunciation is pretty different, so it becomes easy to distinguish them with practice.

Writing on a different forum page, PSPISO, Alepman contributes:

LOL……the study done by an Israeli university,who knows they may find learning Arabic can make you suicidal.Yes Arabic isn't a simple language but it's not that difficult and one of the most speakable language in the world.

Musing on the Fortean Times forum reacting to the article, Cultjunky (no link available) posts:

My concern here is that there are some very sensitive areas in the world, where Hebrew and Arabic are ‘neighbours’ (I mean that in the loosest possible way, not the cheery nostalgic way) If the further research suggested in the article supports the theory that Hewbrew is easier than Arabic, then it's not too great a leap of faith to see a time when in Hewbrew is taught to the exclusion of Arabic. I guess the premise would be that children would become competant readers earlier, and so be able to develop quicker, blah, blah, and so become better educated, and become a Radiohead song – ‘fitter happier more productive’ [sic]

When you said, ‘who would believe the Isrealis’, it's not believing them I have a problem with, it's trusting the motives of this kind of research.

In another debate on Free Republic, gogogodzilla states:

The whole lack of vowels as well as the right-to-left writing is also found in Hebrew as well.

And it is a real pain in the butt for newcomers to learn without vowels. Which is why I gave it up and learned Korean.

Which has it’s own problems (like frequently dropping the subject in sentences, so you don’t know who their talking/writing about).

Yet another forum debate on the issue at brings this note from CaucusWolf

Studies aren't correct for every person. I find reading Arabic to be fairly easy. I can read it fairly quickly as long as I know the Vocabulary. Obviously not as quickly as English but it's also not my native language.
Honestly, the dots that distinguish certain Arabic letters make them that much easier to identify. This can be said especially when comparing it to the seemingly more complex Latin Alphabet.

On a separate branch at the same site, Doitsujin observes:

IMHO, learning to read Arabic is no more complicated than learning a non-Latin alphabet, for example Cyrillic. (After all Arabic has only 28 letters.) Learning to read Arabic is the least of the problems that most Arabic learners face.

And Arekkusu notes:

Of course, learning the alphabet is only a very, very minor part of learning a language, so it doesn't necessarily make Arabic harder to learn than Hebrew.

Links to the Alphabets

The Arabic العربية, Hebrew עברית, and other alphabets can be found at these links.

*Note of Disclaimer*: The author reads Arabic fluently, Mandarin Chinese competently, Hebrew at a basic level, and the Roman alphabet (English, Spanish, German, etc.) natively. No discernible difference can be perceived between the difficulty of learning Hebrew or Arabic.


  • It seems to be the case, In my very honest opinion, That aspects of the Israeli community, in Academia, are now turning their governments vile rascism towards scientific endeavours that remind one of the ‘Social Darwinism’ of the 1910s-1940s.

    Languages that are not your native language are difficult to learn, their are rules and regulations and vowels and consanants for all languages which have to be learnt from the very beginning.

    Why the focus on the Arabic language? Why not focus on teh Scandinavian languages which i had always heard were much more difficult languages to learn, How about the Chinese languages and dialects?

    I would like to find out where the funding for such a research paper such as this came from? Was it Government funded? Privately funded? do the people who funded such a study have any political motivations for doing so…

  • I wonder how a serious university could waste time in such a study. Continuing this way, will the next study show how non Israli people, (at the first place Arabs) are second category human beings?

    My language (Fulani) uses Arab caracters, with even more signs to translate some sounds. Which part of the brain are using, if any?

  • Shay

    you really should read the original research (performed by both an Arab and Jewish researcher btw). Much agitprop about nothing.

  • It is very subjective. For some it might be difficult, for others it might be not…

  • alain

    I agree completly with William H. Always the same story about the “elected people”! This stinks racism! awesome!

  • I fail to see how a study explaining that the English or Hebrew speaking brain finds Arabic particularly hard to learn is racist or has any relationship to social Darwinism…

    If you had any relationship with university research you would know that a particular sample group has to be chosen as the subject of the research in order for extrapolations to be drawn. I’m sure that other similar studies have been done on other language (yes, probably Scandinavian), but it would make sense that Israeli researchers would study the languages present in their country. Haifa is a very mixed city so studying Hebrew and Arabic is what would be most readily available to them.

    If you are interested in the content of this study, you may also be interested in a sister study done by Ben-Gurion University on how your native language influences your thought processes.


    ~ Maya
    Israel Author

  • Reicheru

    I agree with Maya. Someone please explain to me how they equate it with “social Darwinism”.

  • The University of Haifa team say people use both sides of their brain when they begin reading a language – but when learning Arabic this is wasting effort.

    The detail of Arabic characters means students should use only the left side of their brain because that side is better at distinguishing detail.

    The findings from nearly 40 people are reported in Neuropsychology.

    When someone learns to read Arabic they have to work out which letters are which, and which ones go with which sounds.

    It is the ability to tell letters apart that seems to work differently in Arabic – because telling the characters apart involves looking at very small details such as the placement of dots.

    Professor Zohar Eviatar, who led the research team, said: “The particular characteristics of Arabic make it hard for the right hemisphere to be involved. When you are starting something new, there is a lot of [right hemisphere] involvement.”

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