I keep waiting for Language Log to debunk this BBC News story by Katie Alcock—I mean, BBC News is notorious for bad science reporting, and the Loggers take delight in bashing them for it (see here and here for two of many examples)—but so far nothing, so I’ll just toss it out here and see what people have to say. The story begins “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.” That sounds like classic overstatement/oversimplification to me, but I’ll let somebody else sort it out; I have to get ready to go to New Jersey tomorrow, because frequent commenter jamessal is getting married to his lovely fiancée this weekend, and I’m heading down early to spend a few days before the ceremony sampling the ice cream they’re producing for sale. Wish them well, and try to ignore whatever spammers infest LH during the next few days—I don’t know whether I’ll get a chance to clean them out before Sunday, when I return.
Oh, and if you like jazz and other forms of American roots music, check out The Daddy O’Daily, a brand new blog by my old pal Mike Greene, a fine musician, writer, and raconteur.
Update. See now Lameen’s informed post on the subject.


  1. It’s possible that this result is particular to Hebrew speakers, since Hebrew is normally written without vowel markings, or often the dots which distinguish a couple of plosive/fricative pairs (b/v, p/f, k/kh). Since they are used to ignoring small diacritic dots, or at least considering them unnecessary, the fact that they are an integral part of Arabic orthography may cause some initial confusion. But “Arabic and Hebrew, though closely related, orthographies with very different attitudes toward small dots” doesn’t make as good a headline.

  2. Congratulations to Jamessal and Robin, and best wishes for all the happiness in the world. In other words, and you might want to cover your right eye to read this: !مبروك

  3. The BBC article does link to Prof. Eviatar’s faculty page. The link they have to the paper is dead, but from her publications page, you can read a copy. (And see that it was from 2004 — so why did the BBC report on it now?)

  4. I particularly enjoyed this enlightening line from the BBC article: “When someone learns to read Arabic they have to work out which letters are which, and which ones go with which sounds.”

  5. Robin and James (if you have time to read the blog at this point in the preparations!):
    I can only wish that you have as happy and interesting a married life as I have had these past 50 years (45 officially!). Have a wonderful day to start it off …

  6. That’s right. Best wishes to Robin & Jim!

  7. Pre-modern Indian bureaucrats don’t bother to write the dots, at least according what a British manual on Persian calligraphy tells me.

  8. Here’s a FWIW data point: My son, a HS sophomore, is studying Arabic. His Bar Mitzvah Hebrew is neither helping nor hurting, he says, except (I guess) that reading right to left doesn’t make his head explode. He’s both artistic and analytical, so I suspect he’s “using both sides”. Besides, with an eye patch he would resemble Moshe Dayan, a look that might not go over so well in class.
    PS – He says that non-native speakers write much more legibly (e.g., on the blackboard) than native speakers. I’m guessing that’s because they didn’t learn to write as children and the orthography never became second nature. I’ve seen the same thing in Japanese.

  9. Whenever I read about right-brain/left-brain differences in perceiving languages, I think of the classic Japanese right-brain/left-brain theory (see The Japanese Language Brain.

  10. Here are reviews for “Writing the natural Way” by Gabriele Rico. I have the book and she discusses “right brain” and “left brain” techniques.

  11. Ronbo: I think it’s interesting that you and your son think non-native speakers write more legibly than native speakers in Japanese and Arabic. At least in my experience with the former, the native speakers had much better command of the orthography, and absolutely the same thing goes with what I’ve seen of my classmates’ handwritten Russian (think 2nd graders writing cursive for the first time, but the 2nd graders are 18-35), while the native-speaker instructors have this beautiful and flowing cursive that I can emulate only on very rare occasions.

  12. As an Arabic learner I can say that I think it’s not crazy on its face that Arabic is harder to read than some other scripts. (That would make the problems true of all Arabic-alphabet-using languages, mind.) But the basic shapes of Arabic really are quite few. The one very basic one that encompasses the [b], [y], [t], [n] and [th] sounds, which differ only by number and placement of dots, is a particular pain; the first four of these are among the most common letters in Arabic. Another single shape covers [h], [kh] and [dj], also very common. And so on.
    As a general rule, it’s probably not crazy to say that an alphabet where many letters are clearly very similar will be harder than one in which that is not the case. And when Hat gets back, maybe he can remember the citation I vaguely remember about how Russian is supposed to be slightly harder to read than Roman because of the very frequent vertical lines, making it a bit harder to distinguish characters at speed.

  13. Are ascenders and descenders much different from dots, though? On the face of it, are the distinguishing features of o, c, e, b, d, g, q and p very much different from what’s going on in Arabic? For the adult trying to learn the Latin alphabet (or a dyslexic, for that matter), I can imagine those posing problems. This isn’t even to mention v and w, n and m, or m and rn.

  14. michael farris says

    When I was fiddling with Arabic I didn’t find the alphabet hard, but I didn’t think of the dots as something separate, I thought of them as part of the shape of the letter (if that makes sense).
    Similarly, I think of the circles that are part of a lot of Thai fonts as part of the letter and find it much, much harder to decode Thai letters when the dots are filled in or turned into small hooks.
    On the other hand, I find the plain Hebrew alphabet (without vowels or consonant dots like the ones that can distinguish b from v) to be a major pain as too many letters look too much alike. It’s one of the alphabets that’s defeated my half-hearted attempts to learn it more than once.
    Now sometimes in very small print I can find it difficult to distinguish Arabic letters but that’s true of a lot of writing systems.

  15. Charles Perry says

    Stormboy: It would be more precise to say that in Arabic you can’t read a word unless you already know what it is.
    I never found the Arabic alphabet difficult (at least when printed — in manuscripts, scribes are forever omitting dots or putting them where they don’t belong). Armenian, though, is another story. Half the Armenian alphabet looks the same to me.

  16. Bill Walderman says

    “Russian is supposed to be slightly harder to read than Roman because of the very frequent vertical lines, making it a bit harder to distinguish characters at speed.”
    I agree with this.

  17. Anyone ever play with Malayalam? I learned to read the script before visiting Kerala, and it was quite a challenge…so many similar-looking characters, all loops and curves, hard enough even before you begin making conjuncts.

  18. Every writing system presents some problem or other. Minuscule Latin letters are distinguished by left right orientation: p/q, b/d, and so on; even c/o, if the print is fuzzy. This is what makes dyslexics dyslexic in a lot of cases, wherre their from happens to involve sequencing and left/right orientation. The problem never arises with Chinese. For all the help that is.

  19. Bill Walderman says

    Those of us who use the Roman alphabet can be thankful that the Italian Renaissance printers whose typefaces were the basis for modern Roman typefaces took Carolingian minuscule as their model and not Beneventan script. Some examples of Beneventan script:
    Carolingian minuscule:
    My understanding is that Italian Renaissance scholars modelled their scripts on the oldest manuscripts they knew of, which they thought dated back to antiquity but in fact went back only to the Carolingian era.

  20. There is quite a big BBC howler here, actually, buried near the end: “When the Arabic readers saw similar letters with their right hemispheres, they answered randomly – they could not tell them apart at all.” In fact, looking at the 2004 paper – the one where they were looking at letters – their error rates for this case were only 8%; this is higher than for any other condition, but obviously they could tell them apart! In the 2009 paper, the authors claim “there is a specific RH deficit in reading Arabic, because that is the only condition (with bilateral presentation), where these native Arabic speakers responded at chance” – but the task referred to there was substantially more complicated. They were looking at words/nonwords, not letters; they were presented with two words, one for each hemisphere, one of which was underlined; and they had to decide whether the underlined “word” was a real word or not.
    The other howler is right at the top: “students should use only the left side of their brain” – as if students have a choice in the matter! In fact, according to these papers, the problem with the Arabic script is precisely that students do end up using mostly the left side of their brain.
    How seriously Eviatar et al’s claims should be taken is another issue (and is it too much to ask the BBC to get a second opinion from a different expert in the field, rather than basing the whole piece on a single research team’s press release?) The most obvious potential problem with the experiments is the sample population itself: it does not seem safe to assume that the reading strategies of Arabs who all also read Hebrew fluently, have studied it from second grade, and live in a state whose dominant language is Hebrew, are going to be representative of those of Arabs as a whole. Also, worryingly, the Arabic words used in the experiment are all presented in the 2009 paper using only non-joined forms of the letters; hopefully this is just a journal’s typesetting error, but if not then the 2009 experiment is more or less valueless. (A similar if less embarrassing objection can be levied at the 2004 experiment: context may play a larger role in disambiguating Arabic letters than Hebrew ones, in which case presenting isolated letters without context should yield results unrepresentative of the difficulty of reading in general.)

  21. Nijma, I believe the right eye is actually connected to the right hemisphere of our brain.

  22. Steven Lubman:visual cortex.

  23. I was also wondering if left/right-handedness was factored in and if it makes a difference.

  24. Finally got a chance to drop by; after deleting over 140 spam comments (and they’re still coming in as I type), I think I’ll close this up until Sunday when I can keep an eye on it. We here at Languagehat Inc. appreciate your patience and understanding!

  25. Nijma: I actually mixed up right and left. Sorry.

  26. I knew all those A&P and pathophys courses would come in handy some day.

  27. John Emerson says

    Hm, isn’t this the Vi*gra store?

  28. John Emerson says

    Hm, isn’t this the Vi*gra store?

  29. michael farris says

    Emerson, go hawk your filthy sex drug somewhere else, this is decent family blog.

  30. Lameen has now posted something similar to what is written here with more detail and the addition of an interesting link about WEIRDness.
    I’m still hoping to beat Emerson to the colloquial Arabic term(s) for condom; I may be getting closer…

  31. John Emerson says

    My source didn’t answer and either doesn’t know or isn’t interested.

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