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

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.

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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

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?

Sources:

http://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/news/qatar/366681/renaissance-of-arabic-language-forum-from-wednesday/

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/qatar/qatar-to-host-arabic-language-renaissance-forum-1.1656068/

http://www.gulf-times.com/story/475962/Call-to-protect-and-preserve-the-Arabic-language/

http://www.qna.org.qa/en-us/News/16012015090048/The-Second-Renaissance-of-Arabic-Language-Forum-Kicks-Off/

http://dohanews.co/doha-institute-graduate-studies-prepares-open-fall/

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.

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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:

http://lughat.blogspot.fr/2015/08/algerian-arabic-in-schools-more-smoke.html

http://lughat.blogspot.fr/2015/08/algerian-arabic-in-schools-actions.html

http://lughat.blogspot.fr/2015/08/teaching-in-dardja-before-colonial-rule.html