Mnemonics for Arabic Vocabulary

Leveling up my Arabic is one of my projects for 2015. A particular point of difficulty with Arabic (at least for me, though not for native speakers) is the large number of consonant sounds, quite a few more than English. It follows that the closest English sound to a given Arabic consonant cannot be unique, including a surprising variety of sounds produced in the back of the throat.

Long ago, I was a guest in an Moroccan family's home. While I was there, something occurred which greatly upset the fifteen-year-old daughter of the house, who remonstrated loudly and vigorously with her parents. I sat there awestruck at the ability of her throat to handle this variety of scrapings and gluggings at high velocity with no apparent damage.

In some cases, the Arabic consonant is so alien to English that the mind gives up on finding an equivalent sound. Prominent example: the very word "Arab", in Arabic, begins with a consonant written ع, a kind of gagging sound. But apparently the first Europeans who borrowed the name balked at even trying to approximate it in their own language (whatever that was).

I will not be giving tips on Arabic pronunciation in this post, sorry. Please look elsewhere for such—I assume that you know at least the basics. This post will likely make no sense to you without at least a basic familiarity with Arabic script and phonetics.

I will, however, make a few remarks about Arabic grammar, because these are relevant to the working of the mnemonic system. One interesting aspect of Arabic (like other Semitic languages) is that words are generally composed of a root and a pattern, The root carries the core meaning, and is composed strictly of consonants, usually three. The pattern consists of vowels and sometimes additional consonants. The root and pattern are interleaved to make up the word.

We see a faint echo of this in English, if we consider, for example, the words "bear", "bore", and "burden." We could think of the core meaning as carried by the two consonants b-r. Combining this two-consonant root with patterns 1ea2, 1o2e, and 1u2den yields the three given words. Here I have described the patterns using numerals 1 and 2 to mark the position where the consonants would go.

Similarly, in Arabic, there is a root ك ت ب (k-t-b) which has to do generally with writing. Some of the words formed from this root by fitting it into different patterns would be:

كَتَبَ (kataba = k-t-b × 1a2a3a) "he wrote"
كِتَاب (kitaab = k-t-b × 1i2aa3) "book"
مَكْتَبَة (maktaba = k-t-b × ma12a3a) "library"

I hope my notation for combining root and pattern is fairly obvious. For example "k-t-b×1aa2i3" means insert the k, the t, and the b into the 1, 2, and 3 positions of the pattern, respectively, to yield kaatib "writer."

So recalling an Arabic word is a matter of recalling both the root (which usually consists of three consonants) and the pattern (which consists of vowels, possibly some additional consonants, with defined locations for inserting the consonants of the root). I use a different method for each of these.

First we deal with the root. The basic idea is to find an English word or phrase whose consonant sounds encode the three consonants of the Arabic root. Complications arise from the fact that Arabic has more distinct consonant sounds than English—this makes it impossible to simply use one English consonant for each Arabic consonant. Certain Arabic consonants such as ع or ء correspond closely to nothing in English, while sometimes more than one Arabic sound resembles a given English sound (such as س and ص, which both resemble English s). On the other hand, certain English consonants, such as p, have no close equivalent in Arabic.

The first step is to match each Arabic consonant with an English sound. I have made the two similar where possible—this is not essential, but it makes the system easier to learn. However, there are significant exceptions. By no means take these equivalents as a guide to Arabic pronunciation:

ب b, B
ت t
ث th
ج J, SH, ZH
ح NG
خ ch, CH
د d
ذ TH
ر r
ز z
س s
ش j, sh, zh
ص S
ض D
ط T
ظ Z
ع g
غ G
ف f, v
ق K
ك k
ل L, l
م M, m
ن n
ه ng
و F, V
ي R

Note that I have assigned capital letters in some cases and small letters in others, in order to distinguish ق (K) from ك (k), although both Arabic letters sound at least something like English k. This raises the issue of keeping capital and small letters distinct, which we will deal with later. Note also: the th written above (whether capital or not) can be either the unvoiced th in "breath" or the voiced th in "breathe." I avoided using the English sounds w and y because these blur the lines between consonants and vowels: this is why Arabic ي, which sounds like y, was matched up with R instead. And I avoided using English h, because its pronunciation in certain words such as "wheel" comes and goes according to the speaker.

So the basic principle is to take the three letters of the Arabic root and generate the corresponding three English consonants. For example, the forementioned root ك ت ب (k-t-b in Arabic) turns into English k-t-b or k-t-B. (The k and t must be small but the b can be either capital or small.) (Note also that in ك ت ب the ك comes first and the ب comes last, because Arabic is written right-to-left.)

Or again the root ص ي ف, which has to do with "summer", would turn into S-R-f, or S-R-v, where the S and R must be capital and the f or v must be small.

The next step is to find an English phrase or word which contains the given sequence of consonant sounds. Here we must confront the issue of capital-versus-small letters, since these cannot be distinguished by sound. We handle this by appending a fourth English consonant sound which encodes the pattern of capital and small letters. There is a system to this: a combination of a binary coding and the Major system of  memorizing numbers, but with only eight patterns you don't need a system; it just makes it slightly easier to memorize if you understand both binary numbers and the Major system. There are eight possible patterns of capital (C) versus small (s), encoded thus:

sss: coded with s or z or f or v
ssC: coded with t or d or th or p or b
sCs: coded with n
sCC: coded with m
Css: coded with r
CsC: coded with l
CCs: coded with ch or sh or j or zh
CCC: coded with k or g

As before, these refer to sounds rather than letters.

So, now let's try some examples. As previously explained, the root ك ت ب, which relates to writing, translates to the English sequence k-t-b or k-t-B. Appending the corresponding pattern of capitals and smalls: sss (s, z, f, or v) or ssC (t, d, th, p, or b), we get a choice of English four-consonant sequences. We only need to represent any one of these with a word or phrase. I couldn't find a single word, but two-word phrases are easy: for example, k-t-B-t could be "cat bite" or "cut bait" or "cute boat" or "cat bathe", etc.

The root ص ي ف, which has to do with summer, translates to the English sequence S-R-f or S-R-v. Appending the corresponding pattern of capitals and smalls: CCs (chshj, or zh), we again get a choice of English consonant sequences, for example S-R-f-sh. And again I couldn't find a single English word containing all four consonants, but two-word sequences are easy: "sour fish", or "surf witch", etc.

I felt pretty good about this system, since it uses only four English consonants to encode three Arabic consonants. As mentioned previously, three English consonants do not suffice to encode three Arabic consonants, so in a sense this is the best attainable.

This leaves us with the question of how to represent the pattern, the complementary part of the Arabic word. Fortunately, this is a far simpler business, and I will describe it in an upcoming post.

Scenes from Hawaii

(Click on any photo for a larger version)

Just back from seven days R&R in Hawaii—my first visit. The shot above is the afternoon view from our room in the Hilton Rainbow Tower on Waikiki beach.

 Twilight on Waikiki Beach.

The somewhat amateurish papier-mache sperm whale at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu is one of the museum's first acquisitions, and covers half of a genuine skeleton. I quite liked this museum—elegant and dignified, in the old tradition, with lots of interesting information about the history of Hawaii and Polynesian migration (besides the other stuff that I didn't see).

I hadn't considered this before visiting Hawaii, but as best I can tell Hawaii and Texas are the two states that were formerly independent nations. In both cases this history seems to be manifested in a particular independent streak. One example in Hawaii is the ubiquitous use of the Hawaiian language, including in announcements on the airplane. I half hoped the plane would go down in the ocean just so I could see the passengers' reaction to the evacuation instructions in Hawaiian.

If you visit Hawaii and never leave Waikiki beach (which I suspect many tourists of doing), you might as well save yourself an extra five to seven hours' plane flight and go to Disney. This hamburger joint was on the less-traveled (but still quite popular) and somewhat funkier north side of the island.

The Polynesian Cultural Center on the northwest corner of Oahu is a Disneyfied presentation of Polynesian culture—not with roller coasters, but with small "villages" representing various islands with well-produced and interesting culture shows at each one. It's all fake—but it's also all real. Most of the performers are students from the islands they represent, working in order to finance their education at the local branch of Brigham Young University.

On Kauai, we visited Waiamea Canyon, the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Small compared to the Arizona version, but very impressive nonetheless.

This nice little boat took us upstream to visit the Fern Grotto on Kauai.

And here is the Fern Grotto. Lush and impressive, but I've seen a better spot in Oklahoma (no kidding). I tactfully did not inform the spectators of this.

The river boat had commentary on the upstream leg, and then music on the downstream leg. We were told that this venerable ukelele player had appeared in Blue Hawaii with Elvis Presley (and I see no reason this should not be true). I managed to catch a shot of him here at his most mirthful.

Chickens everywhere on Kauai. I assume they thrive due to a combination of climate and an absence of predators. We were told also that flocks of escaped parakeets and such also thrive.

Rugged mountains appear to be the backdrop for everything that goes on in Hawaii.

At one time the Coco Palms Hotel was the spot to stay on Kauai. After a storm in 1992 (?) it shut down and has been gradually falling apart since.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach is the grand lady of tourist hotels. dating from the time when tourism to Hawaii was a radical new idea, but still going strong.

Many, many Japanese tourists visit Hawaii. Many signs are bilingual in English and Japanese, and many services are offered in Japanese. On this little boat on which we took a snorkeling trip, the English version of the safety lecture was given in the cabin while the Japanese version was given on deck. The English lecture was short and sweet: here's the life vest, here's where to buckle it, here's the arm sign for "OK", lasting under three minutes. Ten minutes later I glanced up on deck and saw the Japanese lecture still going on.

A minor adventure was eating breadfruit. Rather like a sweet potato, not as sweet, and with a doughier texture. I could see how one could eat a lot of it.

A nice surprise (starting at the airport terminal) was to find these elegant monkeypod trees, which look like something out of Dr. Seuss, all over the place.

On my first attempt at surfing, I totally dominated this six-inch wave.

And yet sometimes, the waves are just too slow. You feel the urge to leap forward.

Multimedia Index Cards: Why and How

Some time ago I posted a product review of Anki, a freeware electronic flashcard program. I confess that I am a heavy Anki user. A quick check (something that Anki make easy) shows that today I have something over 67,000 "mature" cards—that is, cards that have passed the initial learning phase—spread across my various decks. Lately I've been engaged in adding images and sounds to many of these, which appears to be a win from almost any angle. Here's a summary of the advantages of doing this, and some tips on doing so.

Advantage #1: Pictures and sounds make study easier because it's more fun. As a kid, my least favorite school subject was "social studies." As an adult, I am amazed at how school could take the idea of traveling the world and encountering exotic places and peoples—and suck therefrom every vestige of fun and excitement. A big reason I am attracted to languages is that languages carry the flavor of their place (and sometimes their time as well). But it can't hurt to supplement written words with pictures and/or voices.

For example, the rather rare Chinese character


has the definition: "an amphibious beast resembling a tiger with one horn." But surely in this case it is more fun to see than merely to imagine:

Advantage #2: More sensual ideas stick in the mind better. This is backed up by research, and is the foundation for most methods of memory training. One of the most striking examples I came across was the Hawaiian name Molokini, which was defined as "the crater in the sea a little ways off Maui from Ma’alaea." After several failures at remembering this name (what does "crater in the sea" mean anyway?), I went to Google images and found the image at the top of this post. Pow! Suddenly it was a vivid image and I never forgot the name again.

Some other examples: 

For Cantonese I decided to learn all the place names I had seen in Noble House (that's the "fun" factor again), such as Po Shan Road. Since I've never been to Po Shan Road, I put together a visual description using Google Maps and Google Street View:

Now I feel like I've been there. (It happens that the road is not very long and looks pretty much the same along its length.)

I used this triptych to visualize the city of Rabat:

Finally, the Tibetan word ཤ་བག་ལེབ་, defined as "bread with meat stuffing." The picture is so much more vivid:

Advantage #3: You can improve your accent for "free." For some of my languages—French, Mandarin—I feel that I have the pronunciation "down." This is not to say my pronunciation is perfect, but it won't be improved further by simple listening and repeating. Others (such as Vietnamese with its implosive consonants) still require deliberate effort to pronounce, and I think I benefit from hearing the language spoken, even when not actively repeating. By adding spoken words to my flashcards, I get daily exposure to the spoken language.

(I'm making a distinction here between adding sound to cards as a "bonus" and making the spoken word an explicit cue or response, which is certainly possible and may be a good idea.)

Advantage #4: You learn a word better when it comes in through multiple sensory channels simultaneously. Okay, this "fact" is unproven—but plausible. It's one thing, for example, to see that "son" in Romanian is "fiu", but hearing and seeing it simultaneously might imprint on the mind more firmly. I do seem to have an easier time absorbing words if the card includes audio.

Some tips for making this happen.

Tip #1: You will want some software tools for editing images and sound, if you don't have them already. I use Audacity for sound editing and an old version of PixVision for images, both reasonably-priced shareware. Both have ample capabilities for this kind of work. All I really need to be able to do is crop and resize images, and clip out and save bits of sound files.

Tip #2: You probably want to place any image on the side of the card that contains the English version of the term (or whatever your base language is). It's generally far easier to go from the picture to your native description then to make any of the other possible connections.

Tip #3: Google Image search is generally an easy way to find appropriate images. Cut and paste the foreign term into the search window and see what comes up. Even "bread", for example, may look considerably different depending on which language your search term is.

Tip #4: One way to ease your way into reading a foreign script is to put single syllables on the front of the card and the audio reading on the back (or even vice versa), even if the syllable is meaningless. For example, I can put the Thai syllable /ซี/ on the front and the audio reading (which sounds something like "see") on the back. So far as I know this syllable has no Thai meaning; this is nothing more than an exercise in reading. The // marks are a clue to me that the syllable has sound but not meaning (which means in practical terms that the "English" field of the card is empty).

You can then ring variations on the syllable. Change the consonant but not the vowel, or vice-versa. Enough of these and you can soon read any single syllable on sight.

I also have, for example, a pair of cards, one with the cue
/สี/ /ซี/
and the other with the cue
/ซี/ /สี/.
Both of these syllables sound rather like "see", but with different tones (which is a thing in Thai). The back sides of the cards present the corresponding audio clips in the appropriate order. Presenting both orders keeps me from unconsciously memorizing which tone comes first. Any other contrast which might be tricky can be handled in the same way. (BTW I took the audio clips from the reading lessons for Pimsleur's Thai course, the Pimsleur method being a subject for a future post.)

Tip #5: Remember the Anki principle that the response side of the card should be as simple as possible. It is bad strategy for example, for Chinese, to put "cat" on the front of the card and demand of yourself that you produce the traditional word 貓 and the simplified word 猫 and the romanization māo and the audio pronunciation. With so many moving parts the odds of failure are just too high.

Rather, create several cards for the same fact (which Anki makes easy). I use, for example one card with the English cue and the romanization as the response. This is the only card that relies strictly on English as the cue, on the principle that the spoken word is the one I must be able to produce on the fly, whereas I can read or write at my own pace, however slow. A second card has both the English and the romanization as the cue and the traditional word as the response. A third has the traditional form as the cue and the simplified version as the response. I can add audio as a bonus feature to the back of any card, and also create a card with the audio as the cue and the English as the response.

With this system, theoretically I can work my way around from the English term to any of the other items, once I have learned all cards from the set. I have found it takes less time to master a set of cards each with a unitary response, than a single card with a multicomponent response.

Time Has a Way of Catching Up with You

—especially if you're standing still.

(quote from Rocky Balboa)

(image from