‘[Arabic-speaking] Children are on Quicksand Nowadays’

So said Isobel Abul Houl, Director of Magrudys bookshops and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature at a recent debate over language and education. 

Abul Houl went on to say:

…they don’t have a strong foundation and are forced from an early age to learn English. We need to get back to basics; Arabic should be the first language children in the UAE learn. We also have to educate parents on how important the matter is.

I might not agree that children should wait until secondary school to learn a second language, as Aboul Houl advocates (children in the U.S. wait until secondary school to, well, not learn much of anything), but to reinforce the education of Arabic I say: hear, hear.

I have previously written about why experts think children should first learn to read in their mother tongue, and how this will help them learn a second language. W. H. Ryburn: “Any emphasis laid on the mother-tongue will have a good effect on the standard of English.”

Dareen Charafeddine, a publisher at Kalimat, notes another reason why greater emphasis needs to be laid on Arabic, because it’s also a “second language”:

Children are often surprised when they start school and learn [fos’ha] Arabic that sounds like a different language.

But perhaps more important is that teaching methods—at least here in Cairo—make Arabic deadly un-fun, un-engaging, and nearly irrelevant. English and French are the world of songs and stories and creative expression, while Arabic is the world of copying, copying, texts from the government, and about 60 hours of (boring!) homework every night. (Last night, my older son wanted to read هناك ما هو أسوأ together instead of doing his Arabic copying. We read it together, repeated it to the two-year-old, laughed and delighted ourselves, and…well, I can’t stand the copying, either.)

Dana Al Sarraj, Programme Manager at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, believes the same thing is a problem in the UAE:

Children are very willing and able to do whatever we put them through. I don’t disagree with teaching [Arabic-speaking] children English at a young age, what I disagree on is the method of teaching Arabic.

The way foreign languages are taught is much more attractive, and this might be the biggest hurdle towards teaching the Arabic language to children.

What can we do to change this? I want to buy a small library of high-quality Arabic books for my son’s classroom—perhaps the teachers will spend some time reading them? But I’d suspect there needs to be a change from within: teachers themselves need to be involved in forming better methods.

In any case, I’m delighted that the UAE is having a national conversation about this issue, and hope we can follow.

Also, do skip past the gush about how being pro-West = happy, but does anyone know about this e-book children’s publishing house in Oman, run by…teenagers?

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7 Responses to ‘[Arabic-speaking] Children are on Quicksand Nowadays’

  1. This was on my mind all night yesterday after I watched my young Bedouin neighbor do her homework in my garden. She copied page after page of her Arabic history textbook into her copybook…I then asked her to read it to me and she could barely sound out the first word. But that’s not important, she only has to copy it – and she does have beautiful handwriting so she must be “getting it”, right?! She didn’t seem too bothered about the copying though, she just dreams of going to a school where teachers don’t use physical abuse as a means of discipline. So, yes, a library of Arabic literature is a good place to start, but teacher training is a must!

    • mlynxqualey says:

      Well, to oversimplify, I assume girls are more likely not to mind copying, since their fine-motor skills tend to mature more quickly. And boys are more likely to dread it.

      But in either case, AGH!! While he’s gotten largely self-sufficient with his English and French homework, I have to stand over him to make sure the copying gets done. (One more sentence! Come on! You’re almost at the finish line!)

      Some nights, I just can’t.

      I think there’s a widespread feeling, at least among my fellow-parent-friends, that the method of teaching Arabic isn’t working. But what to do about it? How to take the first step?

      • How about starting with your son’s school? I can envision starting with one small but essential strategy – read alouds of Arabic children’s literature. Find English or primary teachers at the school that would be willing to spend an afternoon or two training the Arabic teachers on this strategy. (You’d probably also be a good choice since you can model the reading aloud of Arabic lit.) Talk to the head of the Arabic Department at CISE to find out if they would be open to (free!) teacher training in strategies to engage the students more in the Arabic language. Bring the research to support the practice of read alouds. At some point in this process, you’d obviously have to make the proposal to the principal about the project. I think (I hope!) you’d find some of the Arabic teachers excited to learn a strategy to help their students enjoy the Arabic classes more. And a read aloud doesn’t have to take more than 5 – 10 minutes a class. I think the Arabic teachers that work at international schools would be the most open to these strategies as they are already exposed to them and see them working in the English classrooms. If it works, get together with your parent-friends and start exporting the project to other international schools. Then on to the language schools. And other literacy strategies. Teachers training teachers – a low cost professional development opportunity that is often missed out on here in Egypt.

    • mlynxqualey says:

      OK, Bernie! I think I’ve become frustrated/clear/passionate enough that even a painfully shy person like myself can motivate herself: maybe first buy a few great books for the class, then speak with the Arabic coordinator next week (who I talked to last year, and I found her to be nice and receptive to things like, “my son works better when he receives praise”) and then maybe the elementary-school principal and/or director.

      It’s too bad Ms. Barb is gone; she worked really well sharing information with the Arabic dept. I certainly wouldn’t want the Arabic teachers to feel disempowered, or like they were being told how to do their jobs.

      Wish me luck!

      • You can do it!!!

        Yes, teachers can be touchy when given suggestions on how to improve their instruction. Could the Arabic teachers be asked to share anything in return with the English teachers? Perhaps even just a few beginning Arabic lessons. I know that when teaching Egyptian children English, my basic understanding of Arabic helps me understand the errors that the students make or helps me explain an English concept or vocab word more clearly.

  2. Oh, and that Omani publishing house sounds awesome! Have you seen any of their books?!

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