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Rethinking Teaching Arabic: a short piece on how teaching Arabic can be revised to help students better access the language.

I wrote this article initially thinking about how many years I and my friends who had to take Arabic lessons through elementary school wasted since we came out not speaking or understanding Arabic. Essentially, this article was a challenge to traditional ways of teaching Arabic. I was reworking it recently with the thought that if someone wanted, they could learn Arabic very quickly, and this TED talk vindcates my thoughts . I've heard it said that Arabic is like Mandarin, it can take an English speaker 10 years to learn. But that is not true, Arabic can be learned much faster, as I am evidence of and as is some of my friends. How did we do it? This articles puts forth some ideas, still in the context of changing traditional Arabic education systems, but also with the principles that helped me and others learn.

The article Diglossia and Teaching of Arabic as a Foreign Language breaks down five approaches to teaching Arabic, based on the difficulties that Arabic pose: Classical Arabic Approach Modern Standard Arabic Approach Colloquial Approach Middle Language Approach The Simultaneous Approach The first one obviously focuses on Classical Arabic, and hence also focuses primarily on learning morphology and syntax to analyze texts. The second one, the MSA approach, is considered by some to be a false separation from Classical Arabic, but the author differentiates it from the first by saying that even though the grammatical focus remains, the MSA approach places more emphasis on the oral component. The colloquial approach simply focuses on teaching a specific dialect, focusing predominately on oral usage, and does not require knowledge of Classical Arabic or the Arabic text.

The last two start to get more interesting. The Middle Language approach uses what the author calls al-lugha al-wusTa (The Middle Language), or what some others call lughat al-muthaqqafiin (The Language of the Intellectuals). It is a blend between Classical Arabic and a dialect, and qualities of both. The last approach tries to teach students MSA and an Arabic dialect simultaneously, and the author concludes that this way is the only one that seems to offer a satisfactory approach to dealing with diglossia in the classroom.

The first four approaches all leave out key parts of Arabic. Meaning, Arabic as a whole is composed of both dialects and Classical Arabic, and so learning just part of the language will always leave one unable to access part of the culture. A common complaint is that students study Arabic throughout their undergraduate studies, and then they go to an Arab country and they can't figure out how to buy vegetables on the street, or get on a taxi. On the other hand, I'm always shocked to find these dialect books that don't reference the Arabic text, since obviously anyone trying to get around one needs to be able to, at the very least, read signs and menus.

The last approach, as obvious as it is, is really the only way to approach Arabic as a diglossic language, but the question is how to actually implement it. Thus far, most of the non-native speakers that I know who use Arabic in a professional manner were all forced to do the same thing: after going through Classical Arabic / MSA classes for years and then finding they can't get around in an Arab country (and feeling very dejected about it), they take it upon themselves to learn one more dialects by living abroad, making Arab friends just to talk in Arabic, watching Arabic cartoons, and generally trying any old trick to get the language beaten into their head. While admittedly it works, altering the way that Arabic is taught can give students better access the language and speed up their learning. Here are some suggestions for learning Arabic:

Learning a little linguistics: A little knowledge of linguistics is necessary for students to be able to better analyze the Arabic language and teach themselves. It doesn't take a lot, perhaps one initial semester to get the initial terminology and analytical frameworks down, and then after that being able to look things up as needed. For instance, understanding how to describe sounds can allow a student to see what phonetic differences happen between CA and a dialect. Similarly, understanding tense and aspect will allow students to understand tense in dialects. This second example is especially important because Arabic teachers that only have a background in traditional Arabic grammar will not be able to explain dialect tense and aspect and, since it varies from dialect to dialect, it falls on the students to be able to teach themselves. Lastly, there are a lot of useful exercises that students can take from linguistics. For example, taking a short audio clip, transcribing it phonetically, and then analyzing it see where CA is used, where the dialect is used, and how the two differ and overlap (phonetically, lexically, morphologically, and syntactically) can help students build a strong ear for Arabic and begin to understand how CA and the dialects interact.

Embedding oneself in the culture: There is a lot to be said about immersion programs, but immersion doesn't simply mean going abroad. I know many of people who have gone abroad and not learned more than they would if they had, for instance, stayed in the US and taken a summer course or studied on their own. Immersion requires a willing submission, which is usually involves some pain and sacrifice, into the language and culture. But it also requires a conscious effort to build around yourself a context that you are interested in, that is relevant for you, so that you are interested in it and are forced to learn the language. For instance, technology gives students great access to the Arabic language and culture in all of its forms. There are videos, music, articles, blogs in dialects and CA, pretty much anything one might want. But it one should not just go online and randomly find things that may or may not be relevant. If you find yourself outside of a context that is relevant to you, or that is over your head, you'll start to space out, or filter the language out, just because you're not interested and you're not able to pick up what is going on. Find content that is relevant to you, build up a context around yourself that is interesting to you, and build it up so that you can grow.r

Building an “ear” for the language: This isn't just about being able to hear and distinguish sounds, though that is definitely important (as is pronouncing them correctly). There is a funny thing about listening to a language, which is that some of comprehension is listening and then understanding, and another part is picking up enough that your mind can start to fill in the rest; it is almost more understanding and then hearing. In other words, the order isn't always the “logical” system we expect, but rather these processes, listening, comprehension, and expectation of what will come next, are happening simultaneously. Students have to expose themselves enough to the language, in all its forms, for their minds to have expectations of what will be said before it is said, or as it is said, similar to how a child memorizes books and movies and then parrots them flawlessly. That said, some memorization can go a long way for students (though this is definitely not a plug for going back to rhote memorization, it is more encouraging students to realize we always memorize parts of language through association, for instance songs and sayings, and encouraging them to do that with Arabic as well).

Learning to interact with CA and a dialect: CA and the dialects are never distinct entities, they always are interacting with each other and even influencing other. Because of that, students must understand when a dialect should be used and when CA is appropriate, how the two interact, and how to quickly switch between the two and mix the two as necessary. This is not a skill that is regularly taught in programs, so it usually falls on students to develop this sensitivity. This dictionary (shameless plug) is a tool that tries to get at that, by giving students access to both CA and a dialect at once, so that differences in meaning and pronunciation can be seen instantly.

Creating a base: There is an assumption that, even for students who want to learn dialects, that CA needs to be the base that students start from. However, there are two problems with this. First, CA is often distant enough from everyday language that students often have problems making the transition to a dialect, and often can't make that initial communication with taxi drivers and in the market in order to feel comfortable when they go abroad. In addition, learning CA through the lens of traditional Arabic grammar doesn't give students the linguistic tools they need to analyze and learn a dialect. Because of that, starting with CA and an initial dialect sets a much better groundwork to learn from.

One of the challenges with teaching Arabic isn't just diglossia, it is the fact that Arabic teachers who were taught in a Classical Arabic manner are often not equipped to teach this to students. They themselves don't have the linguistic knowledge to give students an understanding of dialects and the relationship between them. As native Arabic speakers, they often perceive Arabic in a way that non-native speakers don't. For instance, many Arabic teachers have said to me that the dialects don't have grammatical rules and aren't real languages, so given that how can a teacher be expected to explain it to students? Other teachers only have knowledge of traditional Arabic grammar, and thus lack the tools to explain and analyze dialects. Another challenge for students is the simple phonetic differences between dialects and Classical Arabic, whereas native speakers are used to hearing these phonetic switches (the same way a native English speaker who is used to hearing both the American and British accent can easily differentiate between them, even if they can only speak properly with one accent). Teachers are often surprised, and sometimes impatient with students, when students are hearing words they should know from classical Arabic but they are said in a different accent so students don't understand them.

A last point to wrap up. How one approaches learning Arabic in the end depends on what one wants to do with it. If all one wants to do is read classical texts, then the approach for them is the Classical Arabic approach. If someone just married an Arab and decided they only need to be able to talk to the family when they are there, then the colloquial approach will work fine. But for anyone who wants the full Arabic approach, then you'll have to learn both Classical Arabic and a dialect, and the least painful approach seems to be to do it simultaneously, the challenge now is just how to shift the classroom curriculum to match this.