What role does the family play in the transmission of Arabic?


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Or do we just continue to criticise Arabic teaching materials, the lack of context in those materials, their out-datedness, their difficulty and the fact that Arabic is a diglossic language? Do we blame the internet, the satellite TV for spreading the spoken varieties or the younger generation for preferring English? But did we ever consider that the family, the home and environment in which the child is raised and socialised in, may play an important part in the child’s acquisition and development of their Arabic? By constantly criticising every part of the child’s society outside the home, are we taking responsibility away from parents and family members? arabizi

The learning of language and its subsequent development in children, as I am learning through my research, does not actually depend on the outside world. It depends first and foremost on the parents, the choices they make, what they think about the languages they speak, and what type of home environment they create for their children. This environment will either support or hinder the children’s ability to learn language and to use it well (see my paper here on the functions of multiple languages in an Arabic multilingual family) and in the case of multilingual families- it is a space for the children to explore more than one language. To learn expressions in that language and to understand the differences between their languages.

If we are to think really seriously about how young children of Arab heritage are going to master and speak Arabic in a globalised world (the issues Arab parents face in English majority speaking countries are similar to those parents face in some Arabic speaking countries) then the role the family plays must really be considered. It is true that children spend so many hours in school in any given day, but I always ask, well what happened in the 5-7 years before they entered school? What type of Arabic were they exposed to? And because parents know their child will then need to now learn Standard Arabic once they start school, well what kind of preparations were made to ensure the child was ready for this?

The discussion must shift away from blaming the system, the books (or lack thereof), the media and so on. Parents need to examine how they are deciding to help their children learn and develop the Arabic language in such a fashion that they will become proficient in it, be able to adjust throughout their education system until they are comfortable to use it. There is nothing wrong with using English, with Arabic and maybe even some French and Spanish. But in order to arrive at such a situation individual families need to take responsibility, find support systems/networks and decide what they need to do in order for their children to speak Arabic.

arabizi2While researching this idea of how beliefs (or what we refer to in sociolinguistics as language ideologies) I was stunned that every time I interview (many) parents they declare their devotion to the Arabic language and how they want their children to learn Arabic not just for religion or culture but for important things like emotion and expressions that don’t have English substitutes. But then when I go along and observe these families in real-time interaction I see none of their ideas implemented. It is not a strange occurrence, often speakers are not aware that their (linguistic) actions contradict their declared beliefs. Simply, there must be an awareness of ideology about language and actual language practice taking place at home if parents want to make a difference.

In all, the family has a role to play in the language learning of their children especially if they live in a setting where their language is not necessarily supported by all parts of their (social) life (e.g. education, work and media). I am not saying that the school, media, poor language books and teaching do not influence or fail to improve the child’s Arabic abilities; all I am saying is- what about the role the family can play in all this?

If you have a few moments and you are a bilingual Arabic speaker please kindly fill out my questionnaire, more info here. Thank you!

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

And so it’s that time of year again! Enjoy……

Arabizi- اللغة العربية

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…

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Please take part in my survey for Arabic-speaking bilinguals


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Are you an Arabic speaker who also speaks other languages? If so, I would be very grateful if you took part in my survey for Arabic-speaking bilinguals. It is an in-depth survey that aims to understand how you as a bilingual learned your languages, what you think about those languages and how you use them in your everyday life (see more  details here).

This questionnaire is very important because it is the first of its kind to ask for such detail specifically to speakers of the Arabic language. I piloted the questionnaire last month and it is now ready to be completed. I made changes based on the suggestions offered to me by some wonderful volunteers who agreed to pilot it and spent a lot of time completing the questionnaire and filling out a detailed form with constructive feedback.

I have been given permission by the University of York to conduct this survey and I have all the ethical clearance required for this. If you would like to take part in this questionnaire please do so through this link (this can only be used once per person it has been programmed that way):


Note: Once you start the survey you have 48 hours to complete it before it permanently deletes itself. 


thank you,

Fatma Said


“The learner is able to “breathe” the culture in almost every page”: The need for effective Arabic teaching materials


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The importance of good teaching material in Arabic cannot be overstated if future generations are going to (proficiently) learn and use the Arabic language well. It is without doubt an imperative that we have good materials (and of course teachers) such that can support the excellent teachers out there working hard to find resources in order to creatively teach the language. What do I mean by good materials? I mean books, textbooks, worksheets and online provisions that support student learning of this (ancient majestic) language who live and have grown up in a modern fast-paced era that we live in today. I do not need to lament (again) over the sorry state of some current Arabic curricula, especially for native Arabic speakers, that fills the classrooms around the world. There is a clear consensus by teachers, educators and policy makers that something needs to be done about these materials and I have written about these previously here on the blog.

In this post, I put up the text of an interview I conducted with Laila Familiar at New Laila FamiliarYork University at Abu Dhabi who specialises in the design and development of instructional materials for Arabic as a Foreign Language. She is project manager of Khallina, a website dedicated to the teaching and learning of Arab culture(s) through open source audiovisuals. She is also the editor of Sayyidi wa Habibi (2013) and Saaq al-Bambuu (forthcoming 2016) for learners of Arabic, and the translator of La Tía Safeyya y el Monasterio (2000), a novel by Egyptian author Bahaa Taher.

I was initially attracted to the website, not just because of the playful title, but the bringing together of culture and language learning at the same time. I was intrigued because of the resources available online and the variety of material available on the website. Scholars in the field of anthropology, child development and linguistics acknowledge that when children acquire language they also simultaneously acquire the cultural rules (culture) of that/those language(s). This is known as language socialisation and is one the main frameworks I use for my research when investigating how parents and families teach and transmit Arabic to the next generation (see work by Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin (1984) an excellent introduction).   So to combine the learning of culture and that of language, even at this late or rather superficial level, I think may make a difference so that students better understand the relationship between Arab culture and the language. If conducted well this can be seen as second or secondary socialisation, whereby these cultural and linguistic norms are learned after one’s first language socialisation. Why is this a good thing? The process of acquiring the language is easier if the student can have access to the culture and cultural significance(s) behind words and expressions. With access to culture and cultural keywords, phrases or concepts sometimes the vocabulary is remembered (retained) better, as are sentence structures, and the ability for the student to at least attempt speaking in the target language (the language they are learning). Below is the interview in which I ask Laila general questions, some background information about Khallina and then we talk about the actual teaching of Arabic

  1. Tell me a bit about Khallina, and why it was set up?

khallina logo Laila interviewKhallina was born from realizing that mainstream Arabic textbooks do not address current Arab cultural trends in a way that can keep learners engaged. Nowadays, students constantly use the Internet and watch videos online. So I wanted to create a learning tool that could be attractive to students and that could be easily updated and adapted. One of the things I most like about Khallina is that it showcases authentic Arab cultural manifestations, and that videos and worksheets are constantly updated.

  1. Tell me about yourself and your work in Arabic language/culture please.

I have been teaching Arabic as a foreign language for 15 years, and before that I taught Spanish for some years too. One of the things that surprised me when I did my transition into the Arabic classroom, is the type of teaching materials available to the instructor and the learner. When you compare the Arabic resources to those available in European languages, you find an important gap at many levels. Their textbooks are usually loaded with cultural input, the learner is able to “breathe” the culture in almost every page. When I say culture I refer to what is known as the big C Culture and the small c culture. In Arabic textbooks the focus is usually on the classical side of the big C; we like to highlight important figures and works from the Middle Ages. On the contrary, modern and contemporary fine arts, literature, or music are not usually addressed. With regards to the small c, Arabic textbooks offer some “formal” aspects like basic greetings and social expressions. But most concepts related to the realm of the small c (body language, humour, hobbies, behaviour, dialect, etc), is left to the teacher because this has more to do with teaching the colloquial register of the language. The small c is a concept in constant change, so it makes it harder for printed textbooks to keep up with up-to-date cultural input.

  1. Why do you think it is important for learners of Arabic to also learn about the Arab culture?

I think culture is a great tool to keep learners hooked to Arabic, it brings them closer to the people and it humanises everything surrounding the Arab culture. A student cannot only interact with Arabs to only talk about politics and current events, they need to be able to perform other social tasks and engage in various daily life situations, like watching a soccer game or eating together, talking about the Arts, singing, etc.arab culture 1

  1. So how would Khallina benefit me, if I were a teacher or student?

If you are a teacher, Khallina offers you ready-made teaching materials to take into the classroom. You just need to select the proficiency level that best represents your students, and select a cultural topic that interests them. Each module comes with a detailed Lesson Plan (placed under the Teacher Portal) that explains the cultural objectives and how to use the videos and materials posted under each module. What I like about Khallina is that, by offering several topics at the same level, decisions can be taken collaboratively with students.

If you are an independent learner, Khallina is a window into the Arab culture(s), even if you don’t know much Arabic; and it can contribute to having richer and more fulfilling interactions with Arabs.

  1. How did you choose which materials to include and why that specific material?

In the year 2011 we conducted a survey among Arabic students in several US universities. We received over 200 responses from learners at different proficiency levels to know what aspects of the Arab culture they are interested in. The results were fascinating and the themes you currently see on Khallina reflect real students’ interests. Currently we are developing new content based on the same principle. We have for example two Modules coming out soon, one about Egyptian humourist Bassem Youssef (Advanced level) and another one on Empowering Women (Intermediate level).

  1. Do you think students learning Arabic should also be familiar with Arabic dialects?

Absolutely. Not only to interact effectively with Arabs, but to understand their culture. As we know, language and culture go hand in hand. In fact, many cultural manifestations and practices require a linguistic engagement that most of the time happens in dialect. Depriving students of Arabic of learning a dialect is like teaching a person to swim using only one arm.

  1. Do you advocate the writing of dialect? If so why?

Instructors should not be advocates for dialects over Modern Standard Arabic, or vice versa. Our job is to show students how language is being used, not how we WANT it to be used. Arabs write sometimes in dialect, so we must expose our students to that from the beginning. The best one can do is to teach descriptively, not prescriptively.

  1. Is it correct to assume that the website acts to provide some kind of cultural experience and language use especially for those students not able to travel to the Middle East?

arab culture 2It certainly helps bringing the Arab world closer to the learner. Unfortunately, most Arabic students drop out after their first semester or year of Arabic; and many others don’t have the opportunity to travel to an Arab country until years later. Culture is one of those things that stays inside you for a long time; maybe forever. You may not remember how to say “I miss you” in the foreign language you studied, but you will always remember a song or a social tradition you saw, even if it was once.

  1. How do you see the future of Arabic teaching and learning?

On one hand, the teaching and learning of foreign languages is moving fast towards incorporating technology and online tools, and Arabic is no exception. Apps are being developed, online platforms to connect learners with instructors or native speakers around the globe, websites with fresh learning material; this is already happening in Arabic. Of course, the existence of these apps and tools does not always guarantee quality, but it reflects the need and necessity of developing resources tailored to the needs of different types of learners. The challenge for developers is how to update and adapt themselves to the market’s demands, especially if you are going to charge for the service.arabic teaching

On the other hand, new textbooks and approaches are being developed and published every year although, unfortunately, some are poorly designed and produced. Most Arabic practitioners see the need to explore new paths and move in a new direction that can teach authentic language while providing a well-rounded knowledge of Arab culture, but the real issue is that we still haven’t connected research-based language acquisition theory to the development of teaching materials. There is a clear mismatch between applied linguistics research and textbooks, but some efforts are starting to surface. Corpus Linguistics, for example, is emerging as an essential tool in providing authentic linguistic input especially when it comes to learning vocabulary, and it is essential that we apply these tools if we want to produce quality teaching materials that can help produce learners who are capable of communicating effectively. One final aspect that is worth mentioning is the visuals; most books available today in the market lack the necessary appeal to attract students of Arabic (the consumers). The future lies, then, in purposeful collaborations between material designers, researchers and publishers.


This interview raised a number of issues for me, most notably, the obvious weakness in current Arabic teaching materials: the failure to apply theories of language acquisition to the teaching of Arabic. It doesn’t mean all theories should be adopted arabic teaching appbecause knowledge is ever-evolving and one theory that may be seen as acceptable today may change tomorrow. But the point is: adapt some theory and try it out on students and keep tailoring it until it works. I would of course be ignorant if I said that (proper) learning of Arabic falls solely on the teacher, schools and textbooks. It does not; the home and society also play a huge role especially in attitudes towards language. However the school does occupy an important role in the formal learning of language.

I personally think that because the Arabic language is closely connected to the Qur’an and the great canon of Arabic literature it has created speakers and learners who are constantly in awe of the language. Instead of turning this “awe” into something effective when it comes to teaching and transmitting the language, people seem stuck. This makes teaching Arabic even harder for teachers especially in modern times where the Arabic language is no longer the language of power that it used to be. There is a battle between preserving what is beautiful and unique about the Arabic language and actually effectively teaching the Arabic language. Currently the state of curricula, including by the way some of the technological material, is not up to standard and fails both the native speaker and the non-native speaker student. We need more materials and platforms like Khallina and as Laila said more collaborations between interested parties. This is very important for the future of the Arabic language. Not wanting to make this post any longer, it is also important that parents, families and society check their language attitudes towards the Arabic language because that may have a foundational role to play in all this.

I would like to thank Laila again for taking time out of her busy schedule to do this interview with me. I am sure Khallina will grow from strength to strength and offer the much-needed culturally-rich Arabic teaching material which most of the Arabic curricula currently lack.




(Note: Once again I have not been paid to promote this website by Khallina)

Efforts to ensure proper transmission of Arabic continue


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The efforts to save, preserve, promote, transmit, and teach Arabic in the Gulf countries continues into 2016. In January the WORAL (World Organisation for Renaissance of Arabic Language) met in Qatar to discuss how Arabic speaking countries and scholars can work harder to ensure that younger generations of Arabic speakers get the best opportunity to properly learn their language.

In her keynote speech Sheikha Moza, the chairperson of the Qatar Foundation outlined a number of ways in which she believes that the Arabic language can be better transmitted to the next generation and hence firmly preserved:

  1. The “proper” use of technology: I like this one very much actually because instead of criticising technology, she advocates that it be embraced but used to its full potential and in this case to support the Arabic language. This is similar to other efforts across the region to use technology as one effective way of teaching Arabic to children without making it feel as if it is a burden (I will be writing a separate post about technology and language learning).
  2. The simplification of the Arabic curriculum as it currently stands: Yes please, a simplification is needed, I have said before that much of the curriculum on Arabic depends on rote teaching methods or the learning of texts that can never truly benefit a child of today. I am not against the learning and mastering of old important canonical texts, poetry and writings I just think these things can be better planned and distributed across the Arabic language education of a child (spanning over their years of education). We need those old texts because they add a rich context to language learning and in some cases they assist the student to remember grammar rules or certain complex syntactic structures. With much research on language acquisition (both first language, second language, and now increasingly heritage language acquisition) there is no excuse not to implement some of those findings into the education curriculum (especially) because of our globalised world today. By compartmentalising different aspects of the Arabic language and teaching those aspects at different stages (and ages) whilst taking into account the fact that children are constantly exposed to other languages and dialects, perhaps there will be a better chance for them to master Arabic- just not the way their parents did!
  3. The absolute use of Standard Arabic by experts and academics on television: Actually the suggestion was to “force” television programmes to use Standard Arabic, which can be a very hard goal to attain especially if television producers and writers should have a choice of what language(s) their programmes air in. If this rule is imposed and adhered to, it means that anybody appearing on television interviews or the like will have to speak in formal Arabic. A form they do not use in their everyday communication, for some people it may be hard and for others it may be inauthentic. To implement these laws is always so difficult because some speakers will interpret that as a way of controlling how they speak and perhaps even what they (should) mean. Some have suggested that different genres of TV should be required to use different types of Arabic (as I think they do so now), so news, documentaries and the like should use FuSHa (Standard Arabic. Whereas, other shows could be free to use a form of Standard Arabic but mix it with Spoken Arabic.
  4. The coming together of scholars, intellectuals, and other important figures to promote the use of the Arabic language: Anyone who works in language revitalisation, language planning or language curriculum planning would agree with this. It isn’t just the coming together, there has to be some unification and uniformity in the decisions that are made. Difference of opinion in grammar is not a bad thing and anyone who has studied Arabic enough knows that there have always been opinions and camps when it comes to Arabic grammar. But in all that difference of opinion there was a uniformity which is perhaps missing today. The other factor to think about is that globalisation and technology have definitely played a huge role in changing the way native speakers learn Arabic today. Arabic was once the language of enlightenment and technology of the day and so native speakers of Arabic, like native speakers of English today, did not have to work hard to learn the language. It was everywhere, it was the language everyone learned in order to access knowledge. Today the language of education and technology is English, and so speakers of Arabic have to learn English in order to access that knowledge. The challenge therefore is to strike a balance between learning English for advancement and contribution to the world and mastering their mother tongue the Arabic language. The Arabic language which carries the rich, complex and fascinating culture and world view of their forefathers. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.

The WORAL also held workshops and talks covering the following topics: Realities of the Arab Child’s Linguistic Upbringing’; ‘The Effects of Children’s Exposure to Current Arabic Media Content’; and ‘Alternatives to Develop the Arab Child’s Linguistic Future’.  Through four interactive workshops — ‘The Development of Arabic Language Skills for Children’; ‘Creative Writing for Children’; ‘Children’s Programmes on Radio and Television’; and ‘Modern Techniques to Enhance Children’s Use of the Arabic Language’. The even organisers confirm that 300 leading language experts met to discuss these issues and find a way forward. I am in the process of trying to get hold of the report or any written notes from the conference.

Qatar has also implemented some of what it has been saying for the last few years. That Arabic needs to become a language of academia if it is to be preserved, but importantly if it is to make important contributions to knowledge and learning. They did this in two ways: first by improving the Arabic language program at Qatar University and raising the points (grades) which a student needs in order to study an Arabic language degree. Their argument is that if the bar is raised for Arabic language, that will push high schools and colleges to better prepare their students for the degree. In turn this will create a shift in how Arabic is taught in schools in the pre-university stage. They aim to change the way Arabic language is socially viewed because in many Arabic speaking countries students’ university studies are determined by their final high school/college marks. The very brilliant students can go into the sciences, engineering and medicine, and those who do not do well have no choice but to go into Arabic language or Islamic studies! And very few end up in humanities (that’s a topic for another post). This then creates a social ideology about the Arabic language- mastering it is only for those who can’t do sciences, those who cannot think deeply or process complex ideas.

The second thing Qatar has done to combat this ideology and the way Arabic language is viewed is through the opening of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. A state-of-the-art university that primarily teaches in Arabic the following subjects: history, Arabic language and linguistics, media and cultural studies, philosophy and others soon to be added. They emphasise that students need to have a high proficiency of Arabic as well as English. They intend to publish papers, books and journals in Arabic and to make it a research-itensive university on an international level. This way they hope the Arabic language can not only be present in academia but that through the use of Arabic for technical subjects new ‘Arabised’ words can be created. This will put an end to transliterating words from English or French, and instead it will allow for agreed upon Arabic terminology (of course it will still be based on the original English or French). Thus making the Arabic language very relevant in academia and knowledge therefore cementing its future in the lives of native Arabic speakers (I will write more about the institute as I learn about it). It is ambitious but at least they are putting their talk to the test by walking it!

The deterioration in the proficiency of the Arabic language among native speaking children has been a topic of concern among Arabic teachers, educators and policy makers for a while, but the last 5 years has seen an increase in that concern. The steps that Qatar is taking now are based on those concerns, the only question is- will these steps be effective?







A review of Arabic in 2015

A belated Happy New Year to everyone, hoping that 2016 will be a great year for everyone around the world. I would also like to welcome new readers and thank you to a number of readers for all the wonderful comments sent via email, I appreciate those- they encourage me to keep sharing my ideas here.

So what was 2015 like for the Arabic language especially in ‘Arabic-speaking’ countries?

  1. Sesame Street in Arabic was re-launched after a 25 year absence.  This was met with much excitement and anticipation for those who used to watch it and for parents who wish for their children to be exposed to Standard Arabic in a fun and modern way.  Standard Arabic is used consistently throughout the show, which runs for 30 minutes, broken into different segments.  The different characters encourage learning, discovery, they share their love and enjoyment for reading (in each episode a story (using a picture book) is read to the audience) among other things. I have also watched one or two episodes for the first time which seem great, but I may perhaps be able to give a better overview once I have seen more episodes (which I hope to do). It’s a good way of teaching Arabic indirectly and informally which may perhaps assist schools to help children better their Arabic. The biggest benefit I saw right away was the vocabulary size in each episode and the emphasis of case endings of each of the words (it might also be a good resource for Arabic language students). Watch an episode here.iftahyasimsim 
  2. 2016 was announced to be the year of reading in the UAE: An interesting initiative that aims to tackle poor reading in the Middle East/UAE and to improve Arabic (reading) comprehension was launched. The idea is to encourage children to explore knowledge (and the world) outside the classroom through reading for fun and out of choice. The hope is that the launching of this idea will foster a love of reading in children and encourage them to do so more frequently. The second intention is to encourage children to read in Arabic (this is much harder to achieve given the current levels of Arabic proficiency in the UAE and in some other Arabic speaking countries) and further improve their reading proficiency in general (reading is a learned skill after all!). I think this might work if there is support in place for children to do this, and I am sure this will also allow Arabic publishing houses to publish more books in Arabic. More demand will force a bigger supply and hopefully this will allow Arabic publishing houses to be creative, innovative and operate in their own unique way. Without doubt Arabic publishing houses can only develop and become reliable producers of books if readers read, it’s that simple. arabic books1
  3. Fears over the future of Arabic were raised again: This is in the context of the UAE or other Gulf countries, of course these fears are present at different levels in different Arabic speaking countries. For example an article written in The National back in March, titled: Arabic at risk of becoming foreign language in the UAE. This worry was prompted by the fact that many teachers (over the years) have reported that their students are not fluent in Arabic, and that eventually that may lead to a shift or loss of Arabic. The article also raises an important issue, which I sometimes discuss here, and that is the need to make Arabic language classes more creative, fun, up to date and functionally effective in teaching students a language. A second article More must be done to preserve Arabic (Nov, 2015) calls for not only the teaching of Standard Arabic but also that of Emarati Spoken Arabic. I like the idea that people living in the UAE (or any other Arabic speaking country) should be able to learn the local dialect in a formal setting, like learning any other language. It is effective, useful and it allows non-Arabic speakers to interact with native speakers as well as other non-Arabic speakers. The result? Well, aside from creative language use Emarati Arabic will be actively spoken in public. A note on the use of the word ‘preservation’, it is more ideological than real (I think) because we usually speak of preserving a dying language, it is hard for me to say Arabic is a dying language. But the panic and anxiety is real and Arabic can only become effective or seem more alive (in some countries) if people converse and communicate in Arabic, an Arabic they feel expresses them, not a form of Arabic imposed by laws.
  4. Talking of laws, in Qatar (Jan 2015) there is a law in the making that intends to make it an offence to speak Arabic incorrectly-I quote from the article: “The draft law would discourage mixing of Arabic with any other language and its use in public — in educational institutions, business establishments and offices, service institutions and the media. Shops and business establishments would need to pay special attention since signboards and letterheads used by them would have to use impeccable Arabic. The organisation feels that the Arabic spoken by many in Qatar is not proper, so there is a need to take corrective measures, and hence the draft law.The prestige of the Arabic language is to be maintained at any cost so that people feel proud of it, and the draft legislation aims at that”. Can you control how people speak? My sociolinguist self is telling me no, especially not multilingual (those who speak more than one language) speakers. Socially it would be almost impossible to police this, but maybe in institutions and the media it may be easier (as is the case in some other countries). The idea that signboards and letterheads should also be correct is a good idea and that can also be monitored. But to monitor speakers is not realistic and will only push people with poor Arabic proficiency not to improve their reading and writing skills. I don’t know what data they are using to say that people in Qatar have bad Arabic, it is also unclear how they will ensure the law is implemented and what sanctions will be handed out to those who defy the laws.
  5. In September the Qatar Foundation published a list of English-Arabic biological terms, in an effort to realise their intention of making Arabic a language of learning. Their vision is that one day Arabic speakers should be able to go to university and not only be taught in Arabic (in some classes alongside English of course) but also write (competently) in Arabic. They identified a need for the formulation, standardisation and recognition of ‘Academic Arabic’ a form of academic writing that should not need to use English words for expert terms (but should have good Arabic equivalents that go beyond transliterations). This coincides with the opening of a university in Doha that offers courses in Arabic and asks students to supply not only their TEFL (English) scores but also Arabic ones in an effort to raise standards of the Arabic language. It would be very interesting to see the outcome of this initiative and see its effectiveness, I think the fact that they are not against English is refreshing. Most Arabic bodies or revival committees always blame English or dream of an English-free world, but that is unrealistic and it usually results in unattainable initiatives and ideas. Let’s see how this initiative pans out, I’ll be watching carefully and if I am lucky enough I can interview someone about it. Arabic1

Those were the stories that caught my attention as I was going through my file of saved articles in 2015. It seems to me that anxiety over the future of Arabic in Arabic speaking countries will linger for a while until educators, teachers, parents, children, and speakers themselves decide what they wish to do with/or for their language. Parents blame teachers for poor proficiency, teachers blame parents, parents blame children, others blame technology and globalisation and it goes on and on. But essentially it is only the individual Arabic speaker and/or together with their family who can make a difference. Let’s hope 2016 will be as exciting, I already have 2 posts in draft, thanks for reading.



Iftah ya simsim (Sesame Street): http://iftahyasimsim.com/main_activities.html



Law to prohibit bad Arabic in Qatar: http://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/news/qatar/318801/mind-your-bad-arabic

Reading initiative:  http://gulfnews.com/news/uae/government/uae-declares-2016-as-year-of-reading-1.1631695


Publication of Arabic terms: http://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/news/qatar/353226/glossary-of-english-arabic-biological-terms-released

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


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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:





“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.


How’s Arabic doing? Some reflections


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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.