Teaching Arabic Language for Arabs: Challenges, Tensions, and the Way Forward

Designing an Effective Training Program September 15, 2016

The challenge of teaching Arabic is significant, and is further intensified by a range of political and cultural debates in various Arab countries. Traditional practices in teaching, learning, and assessment are well-established, making change difficult to implement. Efforts to reform language teaching, particularly in conservative cultures such as the Arab world, have always faced opposition largely from those who believe that change will lead to the deterioration of the language.
If we can only agree on ‘why’ we are teaching Arabic for non-major students, then we can decide ‘what’ to teach and ‘how’ to teach it.  While the question of ‘why’ sounds logical and simple to address, it is, in fact, very controversial among Arabic specialists. Teaching Arabic for all students and at all levels, including those who are not majoring in Arabic at the University level, has been dominated by those who teach Arabic for language specialists. Thus, Arabic has been taught with a focus on syntax, literature (from various eras including classical Arabic), and rhetoric. This approach, intended for language and literature specialists, does not address the needs of students in other fields or students in general who need to learn Arabic for written and oral communication.
The ‘one size fits all’ approach ignores the unique objectives around ‘why’ we are teaching Arabic.
The methods used to teach Arabic have been entrenched for a long time. Any major reform to the curriculum or the teaching approach will be difficult for some to comprehend because teaching Arabic has always meant teaching syntax, rhetoric, and poetry. Calling on classroom instructors to focus instead on contemporary texts to teach writing and critical thinking skills can be a stretch that they resist. When a new approach is introduced, faculty resistance is normal and expected. According to Reyes (2013), when reform related to language use is introduced, the most common reactions range from aesthetic, sentimental, historical, as well as concern about implementation. When established methods of language teaching are questioned, some teachers feel that their very identity is threatened.  Another concern often raised is an assumption that any move toward perceived simplification will impoverish the language and the writing product.
In my view, effective reform requires a comprehensive curriculum overhaul, rather than a tweaking approach, such as a change to an assignment, replacing texts, creating a new assignment, or adding an activity to the curriculum.  Real reform means restructuring and redesigning the curriculum according to the priorities of education today and in the future.  To meet objectives for student mastery in oral and written communication in Arabic, a new curriculum should be developed that considers the following realities and needs. 1) The low levels of Arabic skills among students at all grades;  2) The outdated content and the persistence of traditional teaching methods and learning in higher education in the Arab world, particularly in the humanities; 3) Arabic teaching needs to evolve in concert with advancements in education and methods effectively used in teaching other languages; 4) Acknowledging that Arabic, like all languages, undergoes change (today’s language is different from its classical forms), will help teachers adjust to curriculum change; 5) ‘Why’ we teach mandatory Arabic courses at all grade levels and including tertiary education, ‘what’ we teach to serve that purpose, and ‘how’ we teach, that is, the methods we use to effectively deliver the content and ensure we serve the purpose (why); and 6) In the design and execution of the courses including Arabic, we must develop an updated curriculum bearing in mind the needs and aspirations of students in the twenty-first century.
The goal of the new curriculum is to ensure that students develop the functional communication skills required in professional and academic settings, as well as those which have been established as either best practices or in response to employer requirements. Therefore, curriculum revision must be based on the shift from teaching Arabic as knowledge-based to teaching Arabic as a skill. To do this, it should be built on three principles: 1) modeling, 2) applying a spiral curriculum, and 3) using relevant content. These are described in detail below.
Modeling is a research-based technique in which students are taught texts that they can model and learn from.  Its application in teaching Arabic creates considerable controversy because modeling implies the necessity of using the “modern standard Arabic” (MSA) that is used in today’s professional and academic written texts, and not the language of literature. Using MSA in modeling also raised issues of identity and religion.  Language teaching tends to focus on teaching knowledge and information using the language of literature, rather than the MSA found in the media and press today and, most importantly, the language used in writing and speaking in all types of communication. Such classicists, or specialists, tend to focus on syntax and vocabulary from literature and rhetoric.  This current knowledge-based approach focuses on “what the author or text says.” Modeling, by contrast, stresses the need to give similar attention to “how the author said it”.  This suggests teaching the structure of the text, something that has been neglected in current practice.
Language “modeling” has produced further debate between two camps around the purpose of teaching Arabic. In one camp, Arabic is viewed as an essential communication skill for academic and professional success. Those in the other camp view teaching Arabic as a way to preserve cultural identity and the language of the Qur’an. These two perspectives reflect differences around what and how to teach Arabic.  For those of the second camp, modeling is not a preferable approach; they want to teach classical Arabic, so learners are exposed to it, learn it, and maybe memorize it. But in all practicality, this classical language will not be used for academic, professional writing, nor in day to day communication.
Curriculum spiral. In this approach, the students learn writing skills by focusing on writing as a “process” rather than a “product.” The technique is based on the idea that writing skills are developed as the writer progresses through three stages: a pre-writing and planning stage in which the ideas, context, and topic are discussed and developed; the writing stage, in which the student produces drafts and receives comments and feedback from the teacher; and finally re-writing, in which the student corrects and makes adjustments based on discussion and  feedback from the teacher.
Relevant content. The content should be relevant to the global context and environment which the students inhabit by supporting them in learning about themselves and the contemporary world. The content should address student interests rather than those of the faculty. Studies have shown that when the subjects and activities of a course involve topics connected directly to students’ lives and realities, they are more engaged, stimulated, and more likely to retain and appreciate the learning and the learning environment they have helped create.
But this approach, using texts relevant to students’ lives, possibly including current local and global issues, can provoke controversy and resistance among those of the second camp, described earlier. They view the main objective of teaching Arabic to be the preservation of identity and established religious teaching. These teachers look with admiration to the classical literature of the past, and emphasize the role of teaching Arabic in preserving the  language of the Qur’an. From their perspective, these inherited texts exclusively provide the appropriate material for any and all Arabic teaching.  
The objective of the contemporary curriculum is to explore a range of strategies and techniques to shift roles of students and instructors in the classroom toward a student-centered approach to better meet individual student needs. Toward this goal, the new curriculum should integrate technology with cooperative learning, self-learning approaches, and include specific in- and out-of-classroom activities.
In closing, I would like to emphasize that it is not uncommon for faculty everywhere to show reluctance and resistance to injecting new elements into an existing syllabus. The relation between culture and education and the question about whether culture should drive education, or education should drive culture to change is like the chicken or the egg dilemma.  Sometimes, therefore, top-down decision-making is necessary to make things happen in the best interests of students, their education, and for the lasting security and prosperity of future generations. 

Please click here to read this article in Arabic.