It is not enough to modernise Arabic teaching materials- their content matters too

Sample Q&AThe most common complaint about Arabic teaching materials is that they are out dated and do not reflect the real world in which the student lives in. And the poor quality of materials is often claimed to be the reason why students fail to acquire Arabic to the desired levels (especially native speaking Arabic students). I was sceptical about that for a while because as an Arabic teacher myself I knew, as any teacher would, that the teaching materials are just half of the equation to a successful language teaching lesson, the other half depends on the teachers’ qualities of creativity, enthusiasm and his/her general ability to convince the student to learn. A teacher who is passionate about their subject will almost always attract the attention of the student and over time the student will realise the teacher’s efforts and learn the subject well. I am sure we all had that teacher whose passion for their subject influenced us in one way or another, and that it was those lessons that we not only enjoyed but excelled in.

textbook2The teaching of Arabic is no different, and as a secondary school teacher I never used only one book I mixed maybe 4 or 5 separate curricula and made some materials myself. This I found, apart from taking up all of my summer and being a welcome distraction from my then-MA thesis, changed the Arabic class from monotone-like, boring, repetitive, and often predictable lessons of the previous year into lessons that kept the students excited. A new wave of interaction, questions and creativity crept into the Arabic class and I was motivated even more to teach the subject.

But, what I realised (over time and through observing other classes) was that the content of the materials mattered for real language learning to take place, it wasn’t enough to have it on flashcards, or on online specially designed online platforms I had made. Nor was it enough that each week one of my lessons was a “free class” where students came in and taught one another something great they had learned in Arabic from the previous week. It was all great, not to mention the crazy amount of work and preparation I had to dtextbooko, but I always felt as if it was not enough. I felt that in addition to all of the above the material had to also challenge students to think deeply about the way they used language. Of course I do not mean 5 or 6 year olds but 8, 9, 10 and secondary school students (especially native speakers of Arabic) deserve material that challenges their thinking.

So although it is the teachers’ passion and creativity that plays a big role in the teaching of Arabic, I have come to see that the content of the material is also important (I probably will always think about this). Content that not every teacher will have the time or the knowledge to think up independently in addition to their other teaching or non-teaching duties. Therefore, the Arabic curricula, or book or teaching material designers and printers need to produce high level materials in Arabic. It would be great if they consulted Arabic teachers in the process.

I will give one example, for fear of this post becoming too long, that of comprehension and in particular the question section. Traditionally, most Arabic language books (the ones I have seen) have a very simple method through which to test a students comprehension of a text. So it will be something like (I am making these examples up):

“Why did the man go to the big house?”  The expected/acceptable answer would be: “The man went to the house to get his coat” and this answer would be deemed correct because the student has shown understanding and most probably an ability to conjugate verbs. The questions move on to other aspects of the text with the intention of making sure the student has understood the semantic (meaning) content of the story or lesson. Which is absolutely fine and great- but as a starting point. My quarrel is that the questions are always so simplistic and  never go beyond that starting point. The questions never really fully challenge the student to use all their vocabulary or structures to answer a question. Can you imagine challenging a student so that they go beyond the simple answers, words, structures, synonyms, can you imagine pushing the student to think in Arabic at a higher level? I know there are improvements being made all the time to Arabic materials, but more needs to be done for both native and non-native learners of Arabic. Well, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and thought I’d share it with others…thanks for reading and as always any ideas are welcome.


The following links maybe of useful to anyone who has an interest in Arabic as a medium of instruction at schools, it’s taken from the ever-exciting blog by Lameen Souag:


Posted in Arabic Grammar, Arabic language, Arabic learning & teaching materials, Arabic teaching, Some writings | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Scorching hot like the heat of the sun on stone!” The etymology of the word ‘Ramadan’

lantern RamadanIt is that time of the year again. It is Ramadan, the month of fasting. And once again I re-blog here the post in which I discussed the meaning of the word previously.  I asked “what does the actual word ‘Ramadan’ mean?” Looking through Lisaan al Arab (by Ibn Mandhuur) I was able to appreciate the intricacy of the word, how it relates to other words and more importantly how it relates to fasting and that left me amazed.

The word Ramadan, like many other Arabic words based on a three-letter-root template, is derived from ‘Ra-Ma-Da’ which means ” to be scorching hot” (notice that I have made all root letters bold, so we can see the root even in different derivations). How hot? Well Ibn Mandhuur was specific and made sure to describe it, as hot “as the scorching heat on stone under the hot sun” The earth can also be described as scorching hot (Ra-Ma-Du), and he goes on to give examples and similar derived nouns and adjectives to describe the “unbearable heat of the sun on stones and sand”. When inflected (to suit, gender, number and tense which is typical of Arabic) the word Ra-Ma-Du can be used to describe “unbearable heat on a people” (I think we can describe Londoners like that these days!) or to describe “scorched or sunburnt hands or feet as a result of being exposed to the very hot sun”. Then when derived as iRMaa-Du it means “pain all over” both physical and that “which unmercifully eats the mind away with worry”. When inflected it can refer to an “upset stomach” and as a noun aRa-Ma-Diyyu it refers to the clouds and rain. Why? aha why indeed? Because rain is produced “as a result of heat from the sun” which causes evaporation and so on (the water cycle), who would have known? That’s why I said above that words almost always make sense to be ‘those’ words and those words only! Alternatively, it can also refer specifically to “rain just before Autumn at the end of summer that falls to hit the scorching hot ground” it’s that water that is produced that brings relief.

And finally, the next entry is the month of Ramadan, and Ibn Mandhuur mentions it as a name of a month (obviously), he quotes an account from a source named Ibn Durayd who says, “when the names of the months were being decided upon from the language of old, they named them based on the seasons in which they fell, it so happened that Ramadan fell during the season when it was scorching hot with unbearable heat”. It seems that at the time of naming the months Ramadan fell in the summer, but because the Arabic/Islamic calendar is based on the lunar system, the months move each year by a week or two, so the months are not fixed like the solar ones (January, February etc…). So in a period of about twenty years Ramadan will fall in the summer only 3 timesrain (as it doing right now), and it will take another decade or so for it to fall in the spring/summer again.  Another source named Al-Fara’ says that “Ramadan is derived from ‘Ra-Mi-Da’ which refers to a fasting person’s feelings of heat and dryness inside the mouth due to thirst”. Finally (because I could go on), the word ‘Ra-Ma-Da’ means to “wait for something”, it also refers to the “blunt blade of a knife that needs sharpening”. Interestingly though, none of the meanings contradict one another, it shows the versatility of the root and the many similar meanings it can carry.

datesIn summary, the word Ramadan refers to, the month, the heat, the thirst, the waiting and the eventual ease (like that of rain after a hot day) of whatever may be the problem. An almost metaphorical way of describing the fast and the month in which it occurs is that, it’s not easy, not especially if it falls in the summer months, and people observing the fast wait until they can eat and drink, at which time they experience ease. Their beings are blunt and so need sharpening through the
hardship of the fast (sounds a bit Yoga/meditation like!) and ultimately they experience relief (like the rain on the scorching hot ground) that will come with great benefits (Ibn Al ‘Arabee and others). Who would have thought that one word, would have so many associations and meanings, and yet all be suitable?


Ibn Mandhuur (2000) Lisaan al Arab volume 6 pages 224-225. Beirut: Dar al Sader  (note: in the 1975 version the pages are slightly different 225-226).

Muhammad Al Bartajee (2002) Al Yaqoot wal Marjaan fee I’iraab al-Quran (Syntax of the Quran) Amman: Dar al-I’ilaam


Students no longer occupy the backseat: Can their demands make a change?

I read a recent article in the National newspaper about Abu Dhabi students demanding that the language of instruction for some of their courses be in Arabic instead of English. This got me thinking about the role the student can play in not only influencing the language of instruction but also the role they may play in the current struggle to balance knowledge of English and preserving Arabic language most especially in the Gulf countries. In much of the discourse on this topic, student voices are often not heard, it is usually the parents’, the teachers’, the education board’s, the curricula designer’s/writer’s or expert’s and each blames the other for failure to strike that important balance and offer the best Arabic and academic education.abudhabistudents

The fact that students are demanding some (notice not every course) subjects to be taught in Arabic shows that there is an appetite for students to further master the Arabic language, even at the university level. This is true for those students who want to have careers in Arabic media and journalism and so it makes sense if they study in Arabic since they will need the appropriate vocabulary. It also shows that they understand that not every course can be taught in Arabic, hence making their demand sensible in some ways perhaps.

Looking at the issue from a distance, I am wondering, if such changes were made at university, would those changes influence how Arabic is currently taught at schools right now? Would the standards be raised so that any students electing to take a course taught in Arabic will be able (and enabled) to write fluently and coherently at university level? What would that mean really? I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read the piece. If the students want it, and there is a demand for it then it’s a good thing right? All those blaming students for preferring English over Arabic, or accusing them of being lazy and uninterested in Arabic will no longer have anything to say right? Is it that simple? Can it be that easy? For one thing the universities would need to employ lecturers who are proficient in Arabic and who have been in academia long enough to be able to teach in a specialised and modern way. New materials would need to be designed to cater for the changes in the curricula and it would without doubt take time and money.

The main learning I took from this was that students have voiced their wishes and perhaps it is their voices we need to listen to in order to make a change for the better, in so far as the preservation of Arabic and the learning of English are concerned. Yes the issue is not a straightforward one and I have time and again on this site discussed issues such as low teaching standards in Arabic, out-dated materials, uninterested teachers and so on but could what students want and say be one way to work towards solving this issue of Arabic language proficiency?

I am aware that in the Gulf there are some universities, colleges or learning centres in which Arabic is used as a medium of instruction, the thing that caught my attention in the case of the Abu Dhabi students is that they demanded Arabic. In all the other places where Arabic is offered  we don’t know if student opinions or demands shaped or influenced the decisions to offer the Arabic language as a medium of instruction or not.

I know I’ve asked so many questions and not provided any answers, I’m still thinking about it all and I need to understand what this truly means.I think it shows a change in the discussion of the future of Arabic albeit in a minor way.  If you have any thoughts please share them here, thanks for reading.


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How’s Arabic doing? Some reflections

Arabic1It has been a long while since I last posted anything due to the most intensely busy 6 months I have had in a long time. So here is a belated happy 2015 to all my readers and a wish that this year will be better than the last in terms of peace and stability for humankind. Hello to new readers and a thank you to all those who wrote emails, I am slowly replying to as many as I can.

So where do I start with this short post? Well, 2014 was great for Arabic in may ways because I think for the first time there is a shift from mere talk to action especially in the Gulf countries (UAE, Oman & Kuwait in particular) to put into tangible terms (laws, conferences and plans) their worries about the future of the Arabic language. The UAE, as you would have seen from previous posts, suggested/passed laws to protect the Arabic language and it was an oft-recurring topic among ministers and broadcasters in and beyond the country. One may criticise and be sceptical about these laws and question the panic of the loss of a language with over 400 million speakers, but whatever your opinion I think the laws may help frame the issue in a new light. As a researcher it is often very difficult to quantify such a phenomenon and understand (at least in numbers and figures) how ordinary speakers view and react to such a topic/issue. The law will allow people to agree, disagree, form their own initiatives to support the law or criticise it, and all that is data, information that helps me and others like myself get a grip on real people’s feelings and uses of the Arabic language. As I said previously no law can protect a language, rather it is the speakers who can create any true change (if needed) in order to protect the language. The other thing I noticed, and that might be because for the last 5 years I’ve obsessed over the topic, is that young Native Arabic language speakers seem to be more open about their preferences for English (for reasons of education, work, international collaborations) and their emphasis that they are also committed to the Arabic language. I have met Arabic speakers (18-30) who are re-schooling themselves in Arabic and who as a result are able to read books in Arabic without much trouble (save with the help of a dictionary) and can articulate themselves better (especially in Standard Arabic) when they write. So it’s an interesting mix of how I was initially interested in the cries and calls to save Arabic language and how I now see people who really matter, those on the ground who can make a difference (or not) react to such a dialogue and what actions they take as individuals or what they say about the subject that ultimately contributes to the future of this situation. To say that this is fascinating for me as a sociolinguist is understatement, it is something I will continue to watch for the future.

What does 2015 promise for Arabic language? In terms of content I think it’s exciting that Sesame Street is being re-launched, the Arabic version is known as Iftah ya simsim and previously ran from 1979 until 1990. It is exciting that it is making a return and it will be the first time I will see it because by the time I was ready to watch the show it had been off-air for some years. I have however heard from those who watched the original version that it was a brilliant tool for entertainment but more importantly for the learning, reinforcement and use of the Arabic language. Children were exposed to the Arabic language for everyday use, words for items and of course for learning new things, which for many people (especially parents) offered another support tool for the Arabic language. I think it may fulfil the same roles it did previously, and given that now it will be aired in a new globalised, connected and computerised world I am excited to see the true impact of such a show. The cast from producers, puppeteers and actors are from across the Arab world with varied, interdisciplinary and interesting backgrounds in terms of both education and experience. So as soon as I hear/see anything about the impact of iftah ya simsim on the use of Arabic language I will without doubt write about it here (maybe even try to get an interview from someone in the production team). There are also more efforts to make as much of the internet content as possible available in Arabic, and overall more universities across the Gulf are offering courses that are taught entirely in Arabic and this is leading to a need for students to write in academic Arabic (maybe even unify terms, expressions and styles like we have in English). Let’s see how the rest of 2015 goes. iftah ya simsim

I want to end the post with an article I saw a few days ago published in the National about Arabic speaking students’ preference for using English (pasted below unchanged):


An increasing number of Arab students say they are more comfortable speaking in English than their mother tongue.

Ayman Hussein, 25, is studying for a Masters in marketing and communications at Middlesex University. He was born in Sudan but says having been in the UAE since the age of three, he is now more comfortable with English.

“I would say that coming to the UAE is the reason for this,” he said. “I’ve never been to the US or Canada and yet my English is very strong and I say that’s because of growing up in the UAE.

“I can communicate well in Arabic and I don’t feel it’s a weakness, it’s a preference.”

Maha Hussein, 24, is a masters student at the University of Wollongong Dubai, studying media and communication.

Having lived in Canada and the US before moving to the UAE 12 years ago, the Libyan considers herself a native English speaker but she feels her Arabic skills are as strong.

“I would always choose to write assignments in English,” she said. “Going back to Libya makes me realise how important it is to speak and maintain Arabic because there’s no English there whatsoever.”

The reason her family moved to the UAE was to reconnect the children with Arabic.

“It’s easy to become too reliant on English and dismiss Arabic. I had Arab friends who sounded like five-year-olds and it was embarrassing,” she said.

Dr Afaf Al Bataineh, acting director of the Institute of Arabic Language at Zayed University, said: “The Arabic language has received extensive support from UAE leaders and policymakers.

“Most UAE and Arab families wish to teach children their national language. In fact, most families and young adults believe that Arabic is an essential part of their identity.”

However, he acknowledges that the diverse nature of the UAE poses challenges.

“As a result of the cosmopolitan nature of the cities in which we live today, and because of the multi ethnicities and nationalities that live side-by-side in the UAE, English has become the dominant language in the public sphere, trade, communication, entertainment and media.

“Hence, Arabic became no different than any other language. This means that individuals, families, schools, communities and the media must do more to consolidate the teaching, learning and use of Arabic.

Among Emirati students, Dr Al Bataineh said, the differences in their ability to speak and write are apparent.

“In general, students who study Arabic in public schools tend to have strong Arabic-language skills while students who study Arabic in private schools tend to struggle,” he said.

“The main challenge seems to be students’ inability to use Arabic for communication purposes effectively, particularly the written form.

“Most believe that Arabic is a difficult language to master and this difficulty is often attributed to inability to use the grammar correctly. Many students seem to be extremely weak in using Arabic for academic purposes and many complain that they received little training on how to structure the written forms.”


It’s an interesting article because it focuses on speaker opinions and brings to the fore how the speakers themselves view their relationship with the Arabic language. I am used to reading articles that begin with a lamentation, a judgement and then endless quotations from scholars and academics followed by a conclusion. This article, by allowing students’ remarks to be presented right away shows that language use is in fact mediated by speaker preferences, social benefits such as ease and the ability/possibility to communicate with others as well as the social circumstance. One thing is for sure though Arabic language education needs to change (nothing new there) and students need to be supported and helped instead of being blamed for their lack of Arabic. It is not easy to create and implement a whole new system or improve an existing one without much effort and great upheaval.  Maybe as some have already suggested, a bilingual education model (for those who opt for it) could be effective because students without doubt need both English and Arabic. Who knows? Thanks for reading and as always comments are welcome.

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Arabic needs protection, but who should protect it?

ArabicThe short answer is nobody. Except of course the speakers of Arabic language themselves. They can do this through various avenues such as: schooling and education, books and publishing (not just translations), the culture at large, and as any scholar of language maintenance or Ecolinguist will tell you- their ideology. What do they think about (and of) their language? How do they measure their language to other languages? and many other questions, and once those can be answered (and importantly implemented) then the status and importantly the future of a language can be determined. Arabic language is not dead but socially something is happening, something that is making some Arabic speakers nervous and many sociolinguists like myself are trying to understand what that is. I am basing this post on an article I read back in May and I have been meaning to write something on it ever since, so here it is.


The article is quoted below:————– (May 2014)

Scholars call for laws to protect Arabic

Arab countries urged to ensure that legislation related to the official language is implemented

Dubai: Laws and legislations should be imposed by Arab countries to protect the Arabic language, said Arab scholars and educators during the third International Conference for the Arabic Language.

The two-day conference, which was organised by the International Council for Arabic Language in cooperation with Unesco and the Association of Arab Universities, brought Arab scholars and officials under one platform to discuss the state of the Arab language and ways to improve it.

“Between the eighth and 16th century, the Arabic and Latin languages were the only two in the world used to document science and philosophy. This is proof that the Arabic language is a global language and it is up to this generation to conserve and protect it,” said Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development during his opening speech.

The conference was attended and inaugurated by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

To preserve the language for future generations, Shaikh Nayhan said we must have curriculums with clear objectives that are based on thorough studies.

“We must also ensure that the Arabic language is lively so that its learners will find it both fun and beneficial. Training qualified teachers and utilising technology also help spread its usage.

The Arabic language faces many dangers according to Dr Abdul Latif Obaid, member of the Tunisian Council of National Constituent Assembly.

“Our Arabic Language is facing dangers from foreign languages that are used in our schools and our media, slang is also a danger as it is overwhelming and slowly replacing the standard language,” said Obaid.

To help protect and preserve the language Dr Ahmad Al Dhabib, former member of the Shura Council and Editor in Chief of Arab Magazine, said legislations and laws should be imposed to protect it.

“Many Arab countries need legislations and laws to ensure that the Arab language is used in tourism and education. We are not against other languages; we are against other languages overwhelming ours.”

Coming up with legislations is not enough, Arab countries should make sure that these laws are actually implemented said Amr Mohammad Al Zain, Secretary General of the Union of Arab lawyers.

“Having unified Arab terminology is very important for Arab laws and legislation. We came up with unified terminology since 1944, but it has never been implemented. Having a unified terminology is important if we want to come up with legislations that protect the Arabic language,” he said.

Al Zain called on policy makers to implement unified Arab terminology.

Arab people have a huge role in protecting the Arabic language said Dr Abdullah Nasir, a Member of the Shura Council.

“The Arabic language is being shut out by its own people in the name of literature. We are the only people who have two types of literature the standard one and the colloquial literature. The later has taken the place of the standard language.”

Nasir also said the Arabic language is being threatened by slang language, and if the Arabic language is in threat, so is the Arab identity.

Mohammad Al Qatatsha, a member of the Jordanian House of Representatives also believes that the Arab people are the ones in charge of protecting their language.

“We are the ones who push our children to invest in the English language because we believe that it is a valuable investment. We believe we need this language because the owners of this language are the rulers of the world.”

Al Qatatsha said laws and legislations are not enough to protect the language. The Arab people should also have an effective role.


The article of course coincided with the annual Arabic language conference that takes place in Dubai each year for the last few years. Reading through the article one can see what speakers at the conference thought the current status of Arabic language is. The vast majority of speakers show anxiety, there is a call to refer to a 1944 unified terminology! 1944? We need one for today and it shouldn’t be imposed either people should ease into using good terminology otherwise it will feel too prescriptive. Nobody is against a unified terminology there are benefits to such a thing but it needs updating and it needs to reflect the world we live in today. It cannot be archaic in its words when describing modern ideas and objects (words such as internet, selfie, nerd etc….need quick short Arabic equivalents not transliterations or inconceivable words).  There is also a call to use Arabic language in tourism, not sure what that means because most tourists will not speak Arabic, why not in both Arabic and English? And how does a brochure in English affect the Arabic speaker or indeed the future of Arabic?

Practically though there is a call in the article to implement change and ensure better command of Arabic among native speakers through an improvement in curricula and in the quality of teaching through better teacher training and more creative resources. Many have always felt sorry for both the Arabic teacher and the Arabic student because many times the subject is neglected and whilst other schemes of work are updated and made more accessible (like maths & science) Arabic language syllabi have always been the same for decades in many Arabic speaking countries. However, that is changing because many people both those in education and publishing in the Arab world have agreed that there is an issue and it needs to be addressed, Arabic has been neglected for too long. So schools, publishers and writers have begun implementing many changes to the way Arabic language is presented and represented in both print and schooling.

There is also a reference to slang or colloquial affecting the Arabic language, I don’t know how factual that is because as I have said time and again nobody really speaks MSA as an everyday code or language. It has always been that way for thousands of years, so why does it pose a problem now? And importantly how?

The article ends with a call for Arabic speakers to take responsibility for their language. Speakers of course should ensure that they learn and use their language well, and that it is one of the only effective ways to preserve the Arabic language- it is common sense really. And any Arabic bilingual can tell you that it is not impossible even in a non-Arabic speaking majority society to learn and master Arabic well, so what’s difficult about it in a place where everybody speaks some form or other of Arabic? No law or implementation of a law will work, and we have seen the futility of such laws in workplaces and places of business because even among themselves Arabic speakers prefer to use English. I don’t know but I think a law will not work. There is a lot of anxiety and there are also many good practical solutions out there, it’s not easy but it’s not impossible to make Arabic the main language (alongside English) of its speakers now and in the future. Please share your thoughts as always.


Source of article:

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“We must make space for non-standard Arabic if we really care about FuSHa”: Interviews with Spoken Arabic language teachers

dialects I have mentioned previously, more than once that the relationship between standard (FuSHa) and non-standard (spoken) Arabic has for a long time, been one of tension and nervousness. The main reason being that many Arabic speakers view Classical /Standard Arabic (FuSHa) as flawless, perfect and as the language through which God chose to address mankind (Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam used in the Qur’an and hadeeth). Therefore, for many of these speakers learning, let alone teaching spoken Arabic in a systematic manner should not be done because it violates the sanctity of FuSHa. Some speakers also feel that if efforts are made to promote spoken Arabic, then FuSHa will not be understood by future Arabic speakers, this feeling is shared by many despite the fact that nobody actually casually speaks in FuSHa.


For the last couple of years I have been fascinated by the increase in spoken Arabic language classes here in London, and during a number of recent trips I found that this is also true in Arabic speaking majority countries. I began wondering why this was the case.  Why was there a renewed interest in spoken Arabic at a time when many educationists, Arabic language teachers and some Arabic speakers are warning against the waning and eventual death of the Arabic language? So I started reading about this phenomenon wherever I could (mostly from Arabic magazines/blogs), speaking to Arabic language teachers and I began writing about why it is done, how it is done and for whose benefit it is done. One of the avenues I took recently was to interview (via Skype & email correspondences) those who teach spoken Arabic systematically in a classroom setting with books and language education material. I wanted to find out why they teach spoken Arabic, what they think about the official learning of spoken Arabic, what their thoughts about the future of the Arabic language are, and how (if at all) their teaching of spoken Arabic impedes the development and learning of FuSHa in any way. I incorporate here the opinions and views of 3 spoken Arabic language teachers (Emarati Arabic, Levantine Arabic and Egyptian Arabic), I thank them again for agreeing to be interviewed, for being so open and honest, and I will keep two of these teachers anonymised as per their request.

To begin, I asked the Spoken Arabic (SA) teachers why they taught SA instead of FuSHa. The first teacher Hanan AlFardan who is the managing director of the AlRamsa Institute in Dubai, UAE (, and who is also a teacher at the centre said,

“I teach Emarati dialect because no one speaks Modern Classic Arabic, FuSHa. All the students that I met want to learn spoken Arabic rather than reading and writing. The purpose of teaching Emarati Arabic is to help non-Arabic speakers engage with Emarati and Arabic communities. Communication and engagement between Emaratis and non-Emarati communities is my mission”.

And a worthy mission it is indeed, because many expatriates living in the Arab speaking world do not ever get the chance to learn Arabic and communicate freely with the native Arabs of the country or indeed their other Arab colleagues in Arabic.

Asmaa (psuedonym) teaches Egyptian Arabic in London, I asked her the same question,  and she answered, “I teach Egyptian (Cairene dialect) to non-Arabic speakers who want to settle in Egypt or to British- born Egyptian children, who have a non-Egyptian mother or father and they wish to learn the dialect. This could be because they want to communicate with their relatives back in Egypt or to feel more “Egyptian”. Many come to me not knowing how to read Arabic and the first thing I do is teach them the Arabic alphabet and we take it from there. As for the non-Arabic speakers, well, I teach them using English Roman letters and not the alphabet [because] it takes too long”.

This may come as a shock to many Arabic speakers, that non-native Arabic speakers are taught Arabic using the Roman alphabet! Such a decision may be because these teachers are doing the best they can with the time they have and their teaching methods are dictated by the individual reasons each of their students have for learning SA (work, family, identity).

Ruba (psuedonym) agreed with Asmaa and she teaches non-native Arabic speakers Damascene Arabic using Roman letters if they are adults or only need the dialect to communicate quickly and effectively. She says that she teaches people Damascene Arabic because, “I love my dialect, I feel that it has meanings in it that I cannot find even in FuSHa, I do it also because people want to learn it for work purposes, for study purposes, or for personal interest or to feel “Syrian” again!”. She also gets students who are Syrians but are born in Britain or have never learned to speak their dialect, and now as adults they wish to learn Damascene Arabic for identity purposes.  Hanan also has native-Emarati student saying,  “Most of my students are non-Arabic speakers. However, I have some Emarati students who want to learn the Emarati dialect. Some of them [were] born outside the UAE, and spent years abroad and they’ve now come back. Unfortunately, if you don’t have access to spoken Arabic at home, there is no other proper way to learn it. Most of the books available are in FuSHa or basic Gulf Arabic”. Which obviously does not help those who need to learn the SA and have no formal education in FuSHa.


The issue of scarce materials to learn SA was brought up by the teachers many times, and that is why Hanan is making her own text books to be used at the AlRamsa institute, because the books available now are not made for classroom teaching. They were made for language learners going on holiday to these Arabic countries, or as accounts of the words people in those countries use. Ruba and Asmaa have to improvise mostly, using already published materials, but again they have to make their own resources, but both inform me that, they are in the process of publishing simple text books to aid learners of SA.

I also asked the teachers, in relation to question 1, that, some people may say that you are corrupting Arabic by teaching SA, what do you say to that? Hanan said, “Yes, I hear some people saying that. However, no Arab speaks FuSHa at the end of the day…I understand that FuSHa is important and I fully support teaching students in schools and universities in FuSHa but we need to offer the option of learning dialects for people who are interested in learning the dialect.”

Asmaa says “I am not corrupting Arabic in any way, I am simply teaching my SA to those who wish to learn. I think for a long time many non-Arabic speakers felt that learning to converse with Arabs in their everyday language would be near-impossible, and that they would have to learn FuSHa first. But in the last 10 years many of those eager to understand the Arab through his dialect have realised that they can learn just the spoken without the Standard Arabic. And I think as an Arabic teacher, I too have realised that yes, I can do this I can teach my SA, and it will not affect FuSHa in any way”.

Ruba agreed once again with both Hanan and Asmaa and added that “If we as Arabic speakers are serious about the future and the current state of the Arabic language, then we should do something about it through our education systems and media. And we must make space for spoken Arabic if we really care about FuSHa, we act as if we are ashamed that we have this other spoken form of Arabic. There is nothing to be ashamed of, it is a part of who we are, the quicker we acknowledge that, the quicker we can sort out the mess we are in right now!” Strong words from Ruba here, and it may be the way many experienced Arabic teachers view the whole situation, that language is a natural consequence and that in the case of Arabic we must find a way to reconcile the many components of the language, and not overcomplicate its nature and allow that to get in the way of Arabic developing as a modern language.

Finally, I asked each of the teachers, how they viewed the future of Arabic in their (home) countries and whether Arabic would be a major language, or if English will take over?  Hanan said, “I think English will be [the] dominating [language]. However, because Arabic language is so linked with Emarati identity and Islam, Arabic language will always be a priority for Arabs, [the] Emarati community and [the] government.”

spoken Arabic

Asmaa said, “For centuries, other languages have existed in Egypt alongside Arabic, and through all the years Arabic has always prevailed. I think that English will be a major language in Egypt as it will be in any other country in the world. But, I do not see it overtaking Arabic in a big way, and I think that there is a new sizeable group of young well-educated people (ironically from English-based universities), who make a point to use Arabic consciously, to read in Arabic and to speak to their children in Arabic. They feel that English will always be there and one can always learn it, but Arabic must take priority”.

Ruba gave a similar answer to Asmaa’s, ” I do not see English being the major language in Syria, I think there is a silent thing or rule or I don’t know something innate in Syrians, that as long as they live, as long as they have to communicate they will do so in Arabic, spoken and have a strong relation to FuSHa. We embrace other languages and learn them as long as they benefit us, but in the end Arabic will always be the majority language in Syria no matter what”. There is of course a difference between the situation of Arabic in the Gulf countries and Arabic in other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria (a topic for another say), but according to these Arabic teachers, it seems Arabic is here to stay even if English is a major language.

The interviews have provided a window into the world of teaching Spoken Arabic to non-Arabic speakers, or native speakers who have not, for one reason or another, had the chance to learn their dialects through their families. I realised that sometimes teachers use non-Arabic script to teach their students Arabic, as a way to speed up learning for those who want to learn the dialect just for communication purposes. All the teachers I interviewed explained that their teaching of Spoken Arabic does not affect FuSHa in any way, and one teacher said that in order for Arabic to thrive, its native speakers must change their view on the status of Spoken Arabic. I thoroughly enjoyed the interviews, and I would like to thanks  the teachers once more for taking their time to be interviewed. I look forward to comments on this story from readers as always, and finally, a big welcome to new subscribers to the blog, I hope you find Arabizi interesting.

Posted in Applied Linguistics, Arabic Grammar, Arabic language, liturgical language, Sociolinguistics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Language development in young Emarati children to be explored

nanny with kidsThe relatively new Early Childhood Development centre launched in Abu Dhabi under the patronage of the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan AlNahyan Foundation, has began researching the effects foreign maids (may) have on the language development of young Emarati children. The centre is concerned with the development of children between the ages of 0-5 and language is an important area they are focussing on. Gulf News (08th Feb 2014) reports that,


Child development experts in the UAE have long wondered if exposing children to nannies from foreign backgrounds at a young age could hamper their overall development.

A new study will now look into the effect of these nannies and other caregivers on children’s language skills, including fluency in their native tongue, the researcher told Gulf News.

“It is very common for children in the UAE, especially those from Arab families, to be taken care of by housemaids and nannies. These caregivers usually come from non-Arab backgrounds, and such exposure could have a significant impact on language abilities,” said Dr Huda Al Danhani, resident doctor at Tawam Hospital’s paediatrics department in Al Ain.

“Unfortunately, not much research exists on this phenomenon. My study will therefore focus specifically on language development, which takes place mainly between the ages of two and three,” she added.

The research will be conducted over the next year as Dr Huda pursues a fellowship at the philanthropic organisation, the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. For this first phase, Dr Huda will study children using information that is provided when families visit hospitals and nurseries across the UAE.

“I have not yet decided on a method of collecting information. But I hope to gather data on children’s knowledge of words, their ability to form sentences and other language skills,” Dr Huda said.

The aim is to determine how a caregiver’s background affects children’s language abilities, and to find out whether being brought up by someone from the same nationality or background could be more advantageous for the development of the native language.

“There are many other developmental aspects to look into when children are brought up by caregivers from foreign backgrounds, and perhaps in future phases I will study these as well,” Dr Huda said.

Hers is one among a series of projects that explore childhood development in the UAE. These studies are being organised by eight fellows as part of the one-year Shamsa Bint Mohammad Al Nahyan Fellowship, conducted in collaboration with experts from Yale University.logo_SHF

Another project will delve into the elements which make classrooms ‘emotionally literate’, and is being carried out by Sara Al Suwaidi, acting manager of the pedagogy and resources section at the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec).


The question of whether maids have an effect on children’s language development (or not) in the Gulf has been asked and discussed for many years, and I think it was an obvious choice for researchers to start with this topic. One example is the work in Saudi Arabia by esteemed Prof. Reima Al-Jarf at King Saud University, who has explored how maid’s in Saudi homes have an effect on the acquisition of Arabic by children. I don’t know her methodology or what the findings were and I have been unsuccessful in tracking those down (so if anyone reading this knows where I can get that paper/study please email me- thank you in advance). But apparently it is an area of study that some of the students at that university have/ are carrying out research on.

So now it seems it’s the turn of the UAE. I think that it will be very interesting to find out how the researchers will measure this (effect, if any), what variables they will put in place, and more importantly how long they will give themselves to collect that necessary data. Then once the data is collected, how will they interpret it and understand it, so that it can inform future practice in the country. It is important research, these are important questions, but their significance can only be realised if a strong and robust epistemological approach in methodology and interpretation is used.  I look forward to finding out more about the study and I am sure it will be significant. any suggestions, information or opinions on this story are welcomed as always. A warm welcome to new readers and as always thank you to all those who send in emails, I really appreciate it.

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