Reading Arabic ‘Different’ for the Brain, New Study Suggests

Well it’s been a few nice days and the weather is getting warmer here, which is always nice considering the amount of work I have to do! I came across a link to this post from a tweet earlier today and as usual thought I’d share it. The article is based on the findings of a PhD student (this year 2011 still fresh) who was investigating the areas of the brain used by Arabic readers….the findings are fascinating read on to see what they were..

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ScienceDaily (May 19, 2011) — Arabic readers recognise words in a different way from readers of other languages, a new study suggests.

This doctoral research at the University of Leicester is analysing the reading differences of individuals as well as across languages — and has shown dissimilarities in how Arabic readers recognise words. Conducted by Abubaker Almabruk from the School of Psychology, the study has shown there are clear differences in how the right and left sides of the brain recognise Arabic words. Almabruk’s study is one of the first to examine the cognitive and physiological processes underlying word recognition and reading in Arabic, providing important insight into the effects of direction of reading, the form of the script and the construction of the language. His research reveals the intricacies of an everyday behaviour that most people find relatively easy and will help explain why some people find it difficult to read and provide insights into how these difficulties might be remedied. Almabruk commented: “Differences in left and right brain function influence the recognition of words each side of where a reader is looking on a page but only when these words are outside of central vision — this reveals both left/right brain specialisation for reading and evidence that the two halves of the brain collaborate when making sense of words in central vision. Native Arabic readers recognise Arabic words most efficiently when they fixate these words at their very centre.” “This shows that where we look in a word is very important for reading and the findings for Arabic are different from findings for English and other western languages, which are read most efficiently by looking at a location between the beginning and middle of the word.” On the possible causes for the reading differences, he said that “this might have happened because Arabic is read from right to left and words are formed from cursive text (i.e., the letters in Arabic naturally join together, even in printed formats, much like hand-written text in English).” Dr Kevin Paterson from the School of Psychology added: “Arabic is one of the oldest and most beautiful languages, and the second-most widely used language in the world, yet how it is read and understood has received surprisingly little attention. The experimental approach that Abubaker has taken in his research promises to reveal a huge amount about how this language and other languages are read and understood.” This research is being presented at the Festival of Postgraduate Research on Thursday, June 16. The annual one-day exhibition of postgraduate research offers organisations and the public the opportunity to meet the next generation of innovators and cutting-edge researchers. More than 50 University of Leicester students will explain the real world implications of their research in an engaging and accessible way. The event is open to the public and free to attend. More information at

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Sometimes people imagine PhD students do crazy unimportant research well it seems this PhD student found a huge gap in the psychology of reading and filled it with excellent knowledge that was needed. Although Arabic language is popular for research students there are still so many areas to look into apart from literature, translations and politics. This new research, is one that gave attention to a neglected area in Arabic language studies; it claims that readers of Arabic read differently from readers of English or other western languages (i.e: Romanized orthography) and that this finding can determine for other researchers how people with reading difficulties can be helped. Researchers in fields such as speech therapy or those working with children/adults who suffer from dyslexia are always looking for specific real research and findings to help them to assist readers/speakers of languages other than English. As always I am wondering what it might mean for reading of Arabizi, reading Arabic words through Latin script mmm?! I am hoping to follow this research and hopefully get a copy of the thesis I am sure it will make good reading when I become less busy.


Noisy homes hinder ‘language’ development: Ofsted report

The weather has been good lately especially this past weekend, but it seems that we might have to wait a bit longer before there is stable warm weather. I am enjoying my yoga which I stopped for about 2 months due to travelling back and forth every other weekend and too much writing, but now I am slightly free. I was browsing through the ‘Therapy today’ magazine which is a journal for counselling and psychotherapy professionals and I came across an article titled: ‘ Noisy home lives make children slow at school’. This was a claim made by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) in the UK, after their  December 2010 visit to many nurseries across the country.

They reported that constant use of television, raised voices and noisy siblings made it difficult for children to listen attentively and some were unable to speak. We don’t know how true this was for all the nurseries they visited and if all the teachers felt the same but it seems Ofsted has outlined some factors that both the education and linguistic fields need to look into.

Does constant television use and background noise affect language development? This reminded me of a book a read a while ago, because of my obsession to understand the effects of technology on people it was titled: ‘Detoxing childhood: How the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it’ by Sue Palmer; and in that book she shows how computer games and constant television hinders child development. One of those aspects affected is language development, the fact that children who spend so much time in front of a screen are less likely to have good language skills and good reading skills. Of course I am not an expert in that field but anything language related interests me and so it seems Ofsted has arrived at the same conclusion as Palmer. Language is the tool by which we communicate if we cannot use language effectively then other problems will arise and it is probably something that needs to be looked into with much more detail and seriousness.

I know this short post was not Arabizi related but thinking deeply about it I know that it is very relevant to the way Arabic is used today by its native speakers. It is an issue affecting everybody all over the world. Is television bad? No, but it’s how we use it that can cause a problem, we would not want to live in world where people only watch and take in and do not talk or air opinions and thoughts what would be so human about that?  Thanks for reading!



Therapy Today- for Counselling and Psychotherapy Professionals December 2010 vol.21/ issue 10 (page 4)

Palmer, Sue (2006) ‘Detoxing childhood: How the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it’. Orion: London

Does language shape your thought? Join the debate

The Economist
Image via Wikipedia

Once again the debate has resurfaced- does language shape thought? I think it will always be a question and each time both sides of the argument have some type of evidence. This time it is  The Economist who are currently running a live debate on this question. They allow for readers to vote on the website asking for people’s view on this somewhat complicated question. Two brilliant scholars represent each side, Dr. Lera Boroditsky [whom I have mentioned before on this blog] and she is for the motion that yes language does shape thought. In opposition is Prof. Mike Liberman a linguist at Pennsylvania, who sees that we shape language to a certain extent, and that language cannot shape the way we think.

I thought I’d share this with the readers as the voting ends tonight and the results will be announced on Thursday. If Linguistic Relativity interests you, this is where you need to go as there are recommendations on what to read, and a summary of the whole idea from both the linguistic and psychological perspectives.  Go and read and vote- enjoy.

The link-

I am still thinking- does language affect the way I think? The New York Times super article

In the last post I said I’d post the popular article featured in last month’s New York Times, titled: Does language affect the way you think? I have pasted some of the article below, please go and read the rest… is a good read.


by Guy Deutscher

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century.

At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

Horacio Salinas for The New York Times

 In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

BUT IS THERE any evidence for this happening in practice?

Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant “The Awful German Language.”……….. READ THE REST HERE


See? How interesting was that? He could have also added Arabic as a language that assigns the masculine, feminine, and sometimes neutral gender! Maybe one day we’ll get to the bottom of this.  The writer has written a book, ‘Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages’  to be published by Metropolitan Books. I thinnk it’s a must read for anyone intersted in the topic, I have just ordered my copy so maybe I’ll put up a review! 



Linguistic Relativity: The Arabic take on the controversial issue? Part II

Here is part two as promised- In the last post we discussed the author’s ideas on the relationship between language and thought, and we also discussed what linguists think about this issue (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). In this second and final post in reference to Badr’s excerpt, I take a close look at how he views the relationship between Arabic language and the Qur’an; and how he sees that relating to a speaker’s thoughts. Below is an excerpt (in bold)

Let us take a closer look at this idea of the importance of language. If it were wholly or even partly true, it would be most appropriate for us to consider the characteristics of the Arabic language, its impact on the Arabs and the reasons for the divine choice of this language as the means to reveal the Qur’an and convey the message of Islam to the whole of humanity. God says in the Qur’an: “We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and we will assuredly guard it” (15:9). This means that He guards Revelation and, consequently, also the Arabic language.

After the author maintains that language is connected to thought, he then applies that theory to the Qur’an and Arabic language (the language of the Qur’an). He believes that the choice of Arabic as a liturgical language is divine and has qualities that are unique only to it, therefore making it the most suitable language in which God chose to send His message to human beings.  Badr here quotes Chapter (Surah) 15 verse (ayah) 9, in which God (Allah) promises to “guard” the Qur’an and therefore its language- Arabic. I discussed this briefly (in the post Preservation of Arabic revisited- part 2 will be up soon- in that post I discuss the role of the hadith tradition and Qur’anic sciences in the preservation of Arabic) as one of the reasons/ motivations for the perfect preservation of Arabic. I said that maybe this verse made the scholars of Islam and the Arabic language more mindful in how they planned the future generations to understand the revelation of Allah and its language.

In this connection, the Egyptian scholar, `Abbas Mahmud al-`Aqqad, discusses some aspects of the Arabic language: its vocabulary, phonetic and phonemic aspects: “ The human speech system is a superb musical instrument which no ancient or modern nation has used as perfectly as the Arab nation, as they have used the entire phonetic range in the distribution of its alphabet. Therefore, it is these qualities of the Arabic language that made Arabic poetry a perfect art, independent of other arts” [`Abbas Muhammad al-`Aqqad, al-Lughah Al-Sha`irah (Cairo: Maktabat Gharib, n.d.)] According to al-`Aqqad, these qualities are not found in any other language, for “Arabic eloquence has taken the human speech organs to the highest point ever reached by man in expressing himself by letters and words.” [Ibid, p. 70.]

A high praise indeed for Arabic language, and phonetically he might be right. The Arabic language has many of the sounds that the human speech apparatus can produce. The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a table which captures all the possible sounds made in human speech/language. We use it to transcribe (write down) speech and we can also show tone, pitch and intensity used whilst producing the sounds. Most linguistics students learn this skill and it is especially handy when it comes to research projects or documentation of languages and grammars.  If you look closely at the table, you can see that all the sections across are the places of emanation (what we call in Arabic/ Qur’anic sciences ‘Makahrij al Huroof’ – the points where letters emanate) like bilabial [both lips meeting to pronounce a letter] where p and b are made (say p – try it!). And the sections going down are the ways in which the sounds are produced (what we call in Arabic or Qur’anic Sciences ‘Sifaat al Huroof’- the characteristics of letters). Taking the same place of emanation as above, bilabial, we can see that the sound can have a nasal characteristic which is manifested in the letter m, or it can be fricative; which is not in English but some languages put so much air in the b sound that the lips do not completely seal and there is small vibration. The IPA   also captures clicks, rolls, taps and other strange phenomena of the human speech apparatus! Anyway I am sure you can read better and clearer notes than the ones I am putting up here (see sources). Here is the top part of the IPA the rest of it is quite complex as it deals with vowels and tones:

 Phonetically Arabic is the only language in the world that contains the sound of the letter ض /dhaad/ is according to the IPA:  [dˁ] emphatic voiced alveolar plosive, and is often referred to as Lughat ad-dhaad, the language of Daad.  So we see why the quoted author says that the Arabic language has used the “the entire phonetic range in the distribution of its alphabet”, meaning it has covered all the major areas of pronunciation.

It is most astonishing to see this robust language (Arabic) growing and reaching a stage of perfection in the midst of the desert, and in a nation of nomads. The language has superseded other languages by its wealth of vocabulary, precise meanings and perfect structure. This language was unknown to other nations. But when it came to be known, it appeared to us in such perfection that it hardly underwent any change ever since. Of the stages of life, that language had neither childhood nor old age. We hardly know anything about that language beyond its unmatched conquests and victories. We cannot find any similar language that appeared to scholars so complete, and without gradation, keeping a structure so pure and flawless. The spread of the Arabic language covered the largest areas and remotest countries. [Anwar al Jundi, Al-Fusha:Lughat a/-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar Al-Kitab Al-Lubnani, 1982), p.27]

Badr here sees Arabic as the most perfect of all languages, having a vocabulary and eloquence that is unmatched by any other language. He once again mentions the idea that Arabic language has not undergone any changes for over fourteen hundred years. He continues further to say that because of this the language maintains and retains the same values and views from its inception until today. In the same way that the Qur’an has retained its form, content and message; the Arabic language has maintained its structure, words and world view!  Powerful statements to make and I think it is high time that such statements were taken seriously and objective research was conducted. Does the mind of a Qur’an reader view the world differently from the mind of an avid Agatha Christie reader?  If the Qur’an contains a certain view of good and evil does that shape the mind of the Arabic reader/speaker to see good and evil in that way and only in that way? Or can they view good and evil in different ways based on the language the concept is represented in?  Badr supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the sense that a language shapes the thought of its speaker, and Arabic is a “vehicle of contemplation”; because Qura’nic Arabic speakers think in the Qur’anic world view. This sets three challenges: for someone to read the Qur’an over and to pull out all the possible world views and to then study all the linguistic aspects of Arabic and finally to show how the two non- arbitrarily relate to one another.  Overall I think that Badr has raised many important points and the onus is now with Arab linguists to substantiate or dispute the statements presented here. Cognitive linguistics is a fast moving field with ever-improving research methods and I am sure sooner rather than later this issue will have to be addressed- objectively and scientifically.



 IPA in general:

Linguistic Relativity: The Arabic take on the controversial issue? Part I

After so many deadlines to meet, a book chapter to complete, a conference to organize and a journal paper to write I have finally found time to put up a post I started writing last month! Before the next crazy deadlines I thought I better post this up in two parts. This is a topic I am very interested in and will begin serious work on it in the next few months- the idea that language is connected to the way we think.  About a year ago I read a book titled: ‘Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study’ (2000) by Malik Badri, there is a part in this book where the author focuses on the idea of the mind (Cognitive ability) and how language is one of the most influential possessions humans have when it comes to using the intellect or mind. He connects this to the controversial Sapir- Whorf hypothesis better known as the Linguistic Relativity theory (Whorf, 1956 and Sapir, 1921), which states that the language you speak shapes the way you think. The part I am discussing is a section of the chapter (I cannot put it up because of copyright laws) and I will quote some bits (in bold) as we discuss what the author is asserting in the section.  I think it juxtaposes the recent postings I have put about the fear of the demise of Arabic language in Arabic speaking countries. I make the emphasis of Arabic speaking countries because I think that there are some countries outside the Arab world in which Arabic is mastered at near-native levels by students to the point that they surpass those who regard Arabic as their first language (but once again that’s a topic for another blog). Finally, this post I think complements a recent post ‘Preservation of the Arabic language: revisited’, which proved very popular and I have received countless emails to put up more information ( this current post is one attempt of many to answer that call. At the end, I suggest some sources for further reading.  Before I forget I just realized that a short section of the chapter can be read on the following website:

Section theme: Language- the vehicle of contemplation

Although the author is not a linguist per se, his passages on the relationship between thought and language are well informed. He is a professor of psychology, a member of the British Psychological Association and the Muslim Mental Health Inc, he is well grounded in the Arabic language and Islamic history. His treatment of this subject is well executed and he takes on an interdisciplinary approach, which allows any researcher to have a big picture of the issues at hand and allows readers to conduct further research on the points raised. This is exactly what you will do after you read what he has to say about the Arabic language or rather the unique qualities of the Arabic language.

In a very simplified style, he begins his section with the acknowledgement that to directly link language and thought is a complex issue. But that recently, positive steps in the field of cognitive psychology have shown researchers that “language is not only a human being’s means of address and communication, but also the basic system used in thinking”.  I can imagine certain quarters of the linguistic world cringing at this statement, but the point he raises here based on research is valid, at least to a certain extent. He says that language allows for the human mind to create and visualize abstract concepts and perhaps if we did not have language that ability may not be available to us (you can refer to any linguistic work on language and the mind or language and thought for the most up-to-date findings on this topic see the suggestions below).  

“Some researchers, like Whorf who formulated the ‘linguistic relativity’ hypothesis, consider the characteristics of the language spoken by a certain group of people to be the factor that denoted how they think and how they visualize the realities they live. The structure and other aspects of language are therefore considered to be basic factors in the way a given society visualizes the world”.


See full size image

A strong statement to make and one that is very controversial in the world of linguistics. Skeptics would ask something like “does that then mean that if your language does not have a certain word that its speakers cannot understand that concept?”  This is one area of linguistics that excites me and I can read and read about it, because the idea is fascinating and perhaps has some truth in it? Such assumptions and statements have prompted linguists to seriously look at this issue; does language shape your worldview? And if so to what extent? Linguistic anthropologists and pyscholinguists have carried out much research as a way of verifying this idea or bringing evidence that does not support the theory. Studies in linguistic relativity have become very popular in recent years and more serious research and methods are employed with the intention of understanding the true nature of the relationship between language, thought and a speaker’s world view. Recent studies that have supported this theory are; Boroditsky, 2001; Bowerman, 1996; Davidoff et al., 1999; Gentner and Imai, 1997; Levinson, 1996; Lucy, 1992; Dehaene  et al., 1999.  Lera Boroditsky (2001 and more recent) is a huge supporter of the theory and has completed some research on the way people who speak different languages view space and time (hopefully I will address this in a separate post as a review of the topic and its academic treatment).  There are also studies that have shown contradictions to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, showing that language does not shape thought or at least affect a speaker’s worldview, for example; Heider, 1972; Malt et al., 1999; Li and Gleitman, 2002. Hopefully, with more modern methods of research and more accurate ways of verifying studies we will soon come to understand the reality of this issue.

I can understand and even see why George Orwell was so inspired by such a concept that he brought this to life in the form of ‘Newspeak’ a language in his 1949 masterpiece  ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’. In this novel he shows that this language replaces modern English (oldspeak) and in turn introduces new words in a bid to control the masses, for example the word ‘freedom’ is gradually lost and therefore its concept. Orwell says in the appendix of 1984: ‘It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought–that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [newspeak]…–should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words’.  Orwell’s view was very deterministic, to erase a word is to erase a concept and to introduce a word is to introduce a concept- is this the power of language? Can you think of any words in your language that are so powerful that they make you think in a particular way about its concept and overall meaning in relation to the world as you see it?

Issues to consider in relation to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis could be; the discrepancies of translating precisely from one language to another, the fact that some proverbs cannot even be understood in another language in light of their original sense. Or the intertwined relationship between synonyms in some languages and how these make up interesting semantic fields, especially in the Arabic language, the idea that one word can have such depth in its meaning that it is no longer an ordinary word for the speakers. To end, Badr maintains that  language shapes the thought of its speaker  through its grammar, words and structure.

In part two, I will conclude the rest of the passage, and bring in what the author says about Arabic and the Qur’an- so keep reading!



Badri, M (2000) ‘Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study’ CUP see it here:

Suggestions of what to readLinguistic Relativity (or sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis):

Lakoff, G ( 1987) ‘Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind’.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lakoff, G and M. Johnson (1980) ‘ Metaphors we live by’ Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lera Boroditsky- some of her work here:


Fiction that touches upon the Sapir- Whorf Hypothesis

1984- George Orwell (any good book shop)

Language and the mind:

Pinker, S (2007) ‘Language: The stuff of thought- language as a window into human nature’. New York: Penguin group

Pinker, S (1994) ‘The language Instinct’  London: Allen Lane