There are 2 ways to say ‘whaa?’ in formal Arabic. One precedes nouns, and one precedes verbs.
So if you were going to ask, What is this? you would use one, and if you were to ask, What is this doing? you would use the other.
Before we get to which what goes where, let’s talk nouns and verbs.
Noun: Person, place, or thing.
Verb: Expresses an action. (If you can add ‘-ing’ to it or make a person do it, it’s a verb.)
ما is ‘what’ for nouns. So if you’re asking, What is this? or What is your name? or What is the problem?
ماذا is for what? Verbs!
So: What are you doing? What do you see? What are you listening to?
ماذا استمتع اليه؟
I always think of ما as being short, just like people (me) and the word ‘this‘. If you’re asking a question that requires a verb, there’s more to it than just a thing or person or place, so it requires a longer question word ماذا.
(Master tip: ماذا is not the same as لماذا. لماذا means “why”. You can remember this by recalling that “ل” means ‘for’. Add it to ‘what’ and you get ‘for what?’ which is basically the same as ‘why?’, very similar to our ‘how come?’.)