Learning Arabic: Change is on the Way
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Published on: December 2009
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There are more than 330 million Arabic speakers worldwide, but only 8,710 books were published in Arabic in 2006, against more than 172,000 published in English in the US, a country with a similar-sized population.

While some take issue with these figures from the Arab Human Development Report, there is no doubt that the crisis in the availability of books in Arabic reflects a wider issue related to how the language is taught and learnt in schools.

Learning Arabic is a complex process. First, there is the problem of diglossia – two different forms of the language used in different contexts. There is the spoken dialect, the language of a particular country in which people communicate; and there is the written form of the language, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or al lughat al arabiya al fus-ha, used in newspapers, books and most written communications. As a result, the Arabic that students study in school is a far cry from the Arabic they speak at home and in the playground. 

There are other problems, many relating to an outdated curriculum. In the top performing countries on the Programme for International Student Assessment, a triennial worldwide test of 15-year-old schoolchildren’s scholastic performance run by the OECD, students learn their first language through novels, poetry, plays, newspapers and a range of literary genres. While they typically study grammar in primary school, the emphasis shifts in later years to engaging with those texts.

Arabic, however, is typically taught using just two books, the textbook and the workbook. There are few if any novels or plays and little poetry. There is also limited training on how to write an essay, a report, a book review or a newspaper article, all standard writing genres in most OECD countries. Exam preparation consists of parents sitting with their children and helping them to memorise the lessons that will be examined, with the emphasis on grammatical skills. The exams themselves are merely testing this memorised knowledge.

Experts such as Dr Hanada Taha-Thomure from San Diego State University believe much of the problem lies with inadequate teacher training. Teachers may be familiar with the content they teach, but have not been trained in how to teach it. They lack training in student-centred methods, curriculum development and classroom management. They also lack quality student-friendly teaching materials, making any attempt to supplement the textbook even more difficult.

This combined lack of resources and lack of training often means that the default teaching method is teacher-centred. The focus on the teacher as sole transmitter of knowledge discourages critical thinking, innovation and risk-taking, skills sorely needed in the 21st century.

Parents also have a valuable role to play. They need to demand more Arabic language children’s books from bookstores, and they must read to their children. This is especially important when their children are young, as it will encourage not only a love of reading but a love of Arabic. In some English-speaking countries new mothers are given a book to read to their baby while they are still in hospital; such policies could be implemented here. There is also the problem of children growing up with maids who are not native Arabic speakers, so their exposure to their first language can be even more limited in the formative years. 

There are encouraging signs that change is on the way. The American University in Beirut is offering training for Arabic language teachers that connects content instructions with sound pedagogical skills. With a greater number of such programmes and a more demanding accreditation system by education ministries there is great potential for improvement.

The transformation of the content and style of Arabic language teaching could have a profound effect on both the number of books written in Arabic and on the development of a highly literate, independent-minded and innovative next generation.

Natasha Ridge is a Research Fellow at the Dubai School of Government

This article was originally published in The National. It can be accessed here.

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