Teaching and learning Arabic language

 06 Apr 2017 - 14:37

You might find it funny that a non-Arabic speaker is writing an article about teaching and learning Arabic, but languages and how they function, have always fascinated me and are, at least part of the reason, that I became an English as a Second Language teacher. The dichotomy of the spoken and formal Arabic language was something that I had read about, but it was only when I arrived in Palestine to work as the principal of an international school that I realized the pedagogical implications of this dichotomy.  In conversations with my students, I quickly learned of the aversion that they all seemed to have about their Arabic classes –an opinion that I found mirrored in the memories of the adults with whom I spoke. As I heard the stories from students and adults alike, I started to wonder why there was a problem and what we could change to improve the situation. 

The first thing I noticed was that the students felt that the teaching methods were not “fun.” I translated that into “not modern.” The approaches did not match the type of teaching that was going on in their other classes. The second issue was one a little closer to my heart: the issue of second language teaching. Students often expressed to me that they really did not know why they needed to learn MSA (Modern Standard Arabic). This wasn’t the language that they used at home or with their friends; it wasn’t the language that their mothers used to tell them stories before bed or that their dads used to tell them about their families. They also knew that the work places they visited were not populated by people speaking MSA to each other. So why should they learn this language? This lack of connection often manifests itself in weaker reading abilities in Arabic and a lack of interest in reading books in Arabic, which are, of course, written in MSA.  

Listening to all of this made me think that a big part of the problem is that we were trying to teach a second language without using second language strategies. As I did some research, I found several articles that supported this hypothesis. One in particular caught my attention: the work of Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim from the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities at the University of Haifa's Department of Learning Disabilities.  Through the use of brain scans, he and his team were able to illustrate that when an Arabic speaker of dialect is learning MSA, the parts of the brain that handle second language acquisition are fully engaged and not the part of the brain that handles the expansion of one’s mother tongue. This understanding alone requires us to review the way we teach MSA to our students. The approach needs to shift and our expectations need to shift as well. 

Linked to this discovery is another piece of the puzzle that should also influence how we teach MSA to non- Arabic speakers. Again pulling from the findings of Dr. Ibrahim, the Arabic speaker’s brain deals with language in the opposite hemisphere of the brain from those who are speaking and or learning western languages such as English or French. Since proficiency in a second language is built on the structures of one’s first language, it is helpful to imitate the 1st language patterns as much as possible when teaching the second language. Unfortunately, for people like me who are trying to learn Arabic, there are many differences in how we approach the language. One example would be that in Arabic, teachers present verbs in the past tense and then build from there. In English, we present verbs in the infinitive form and then start from the present tense to build the subsequent forms. Another thing that might seem trivial, but adds to the gymnastics that the learners’ brains have to go through is how we present the personal pronouns while describing the conjugations of verbs. In western languages, we start with the singular forms and place the plural forms in opposition to the singular forms.  In Arabic, they are not usually presented the same way. So not only is the brain trying to learn something that is being presented in a script that is read in the opposite direction and is not familiar, but the presentation doesn’t follow the patterns that our brains are accustomed to seeing. Finally dictionaries! In order to use an Arabic dictionary, students need to know the stem of the word in order to look something up. This requires a high level of proficiency in Arabic before you can use one of the basic tools that we use in western languages.
In conclusion, I believe that there is enough new information out there to warrant a review of how we teach MSA to Arabic speaking students and also how we teach it to non-Arabs learning Arabic. 

Dr. Kenneth Hulslander
Head of School-English Track | Arab International Academy