RAATE – Paper and Poster presentation

November 24, 2014 all-day
Gallery Suites, National Exhibition Centre (NEC),
West Midlands
Arabic / English Symbol Dictionary: early dilemmas choosing core vocabularies and symbols

By Mrs E.A. Draffan -Senior Research Fellow – University of Southampton


There are many challenges facing those wishing to introduce symbol use for communication and literacy skill development in an Arabic / English environment where those working and caring for children using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) systems may well be using the English language but parents are Arabic speakers.

There are very few published culturally suitable Arabic pictograms, icons, symbols or other graphical representations of language for use within the Arabic community, despite a growing recognition about the number of individuals who could benefit from this type of support. Their needs are currently being met by the use of externally developed Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) symbol systems using lexicons that have word for symbol translation which may not be entirely suitable for use within their surroundings. Some commercially available symbol sets have added additional Arabic symbols but have rarely published research to show reasons for their choices of particular images and the team are also aware that the use of symbols is no longer just occurring with those who have multilingual speech and language difficulties but also with many individuals who have cognitive and behavioural difficulties such as Autism[1].

Recent work in Qatar with the Hamad Medical Corporation and Mada Assistive Technology Centre has shown that there is often a mismatch between the core vocabularies required and those provided by available symbol sets as well as differences in the types of images or pictograms needed for the various groups of users. Simple word for symbol translation from English to Arabic is unsatisfactory[2] and in order to encourage literacy skills greater understanding of the morphology and semantics of both languages in this situation is required. It is also accepted that there are subtle differences in language development and introduction to literacy skills in both Arabic and English[3].

Research Methods The introduction of an entirely new symbol set into an already crowded market has not been considered necessary and it is hoped that the dictionary can become a repository for symbols that are available under a creative commons licence.  The research planned has been based on a participatory approach with the support of experts in the field and an Advisory Group based in Arabic speaking counties and the UK.  The Doha AAC Forum and users have already begun to vote on a series of symbols initially related to the English core vocabularies provided by teams in the various centres, clinics, schools and hospitals. The voting sessions aimed to help the researchers gain an insight into the cultural and linguistic suitability of symbol sets already available and the degree to which the symbols fitted their needs for both communication and literacy skill development.   Early FindingsThe initial voting has corroborated research already available in the field that many of the available symbols being used are unsatisfactory and experts wish to see several changes occurring to word / meaning relationships and the look and feel of the symbols.  Contrast levels, flexibility in sizes, word symbol matches and cultural sensitivities all require adaptations.

It is felt that there are also some early dilemmas facing the research team in the development of an Arabic / English Symbol Dictionary that need to be addressed, based around the degree to which users and those working with users will be able to:

  • Adapt and integrate a freely available symbol set that will work with the ones presently in use.
  • Allow for flexibility around the type of communication systems they wish to use.
  • Offer easily understood categorisation, search and gathering of symbols with words/multiwords in two languages.
  • Provide a base from which to allow AAC users to move from pictogram or image use to a system that allows for grapheme / phoneme recognition and the building blocks for literacy skills. 


This is the first year of the research into the building of an Arabic / English Symbol Dictionary and the findings to date suggest that in order to build flexibility into any symbol / word lexicon there needs to be an understanding of how users will make use of the dictionary.  Research has shown that there are many differences in the way Arabic AAC users may use symbols to build their sentences for communication[4] and learn to use lexicons for literacy purposes, especially when they are being supported by English speaking therapists and teachers but hearing the Arabic language all around them.  It is clear further research needs to be undertaken to ensure that the dictionary has multiple ways for browsing categories as well as for searches so that users can speedily find symbols / words and multiwords.  It is felt that concept coding[5] could provide the underpinning of the vocabularies with alphabetical and phoneme searches also being made possible.