There's a new controversy in the Middle East blogosphere over an Israeli study that claims that Arabic is harder to read than other languages because the detail of the characters means people use only the left side of their brain, rather than both sides, thus creating learning difficulties. The original study is apparently not online, but there's a BBC report here, and a summary from the University of Haifa.
Well, of course there's been a lot of reaction. Brian Whitaker reflects on the subject here. A roundup of various comments from around the blogosphere is over at Global Voices. As'ad AbuKhalil, the Angry Arab, is angry of course, calling this a "colonial study." (Obviously, too, there's a loaded element in that the study came from an Israeli university.)
My own reaction is puzzlement and wondering what motivated the study. Only 40 subjects were studied, all university students. Learning a language in adulthood is, of course, always more difficult than acquiring a first language as a child. Some of the students spoke only Hebrew; others already "knew Arabic well", though it's not clear if they were native speakers. It's also clear that the study is talking about the writing system, not the language itself.
Many commenters have already taken the natural tu quoque approach and noted that some of the things that make Arabic hard to learn — being written from right to left, not writing the vowels — also hold true for Hebrew. (And I'd note that handwritten Hebrew script diverges from the printed character much more than does handwritten Arabic.)
And what about the thousands of characters in Chinese? Japanese kangi? (Here again the difficulty is the writing system, not the underlying grammar.)
I personally suspect this is just another case of an academic study that had funding and decided to prove what it already assumed to be true, but I shouldn't impute motive I suppose. The summary seems to suggest that the Arabic language itself creates a learning disability, which has naturally infuriated some people. Of course it's harder for an English speaker to learn Arabic than say, Spanish; it's a different language family and a different script. But it's an alphabetic script and once learned seems pretty readable to me. Admittedly as my aging eyes struggle with small diacritical marks I prefer to read newspapers online, where Control++ magnifies the letters, rather than on paper. But I have the same trouble with small print in English.
Enough of this silly discussion. Go do your Arabic homework.