Kharrat: Solutions for teaching Arabic at Canadian universities

Arabic is a native language spoken by more than 200 million speakers dispersed across the Middle East and north Africa. It is also the language of Islam, which is followed by a billion Muslims throughout the world. Moreover, Arabic is one of the official languages for many international organizations such as the United Nations. The Middle East has also increasingly attracted the attention of the West for a number of reasons such as its richness in natural resources like oil and gas, and the Middle East’s effect on the global political climate.

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KHARRAT

As a result, North Americans and Europeans have developed a keen interest in learning Arabic.

Many universities all over the world are competing to offer programs that teach Arabic as a foreign language. The ubiquity of Arabic taught at most universities, therefore, necessitates specialized Arabic professors to put forward the best possible pedagogical methodology for potential Arabic teachers.

Currently, many departments offering Arabic courses are facing problems. I have contacted professors teaching Arabic at Queen’s University, the University of Toronto and University of Windsor as well as at Kansas University and the University of Michigan; we are all experiencing the same problems.

Based on my experience teaching Arabic at Western during the past eight years, I have compiled the following list of problems and I offer possible solutions.

Introduction to Arabic classes consists of both Arab and non-Arab students.

Arab students are usually familiar with the alphabet and common Arabic phrases they have acquired from home. Non-Arabic students, however, are completely new to the language. They neither have a previous background in Arabic nor are they exposed to its culture. Accordingly, they need more time and special attention by the professor to facilitate their learning.

This discrepancy of students’ levels of Arabic in the same class poses a challenge to the instructor because each group requires special instructions unique to their level. I believe effective professors should capture the attention of all students and maintain their interest in learning Arabic.

To remedy this situation, I follow a method which attempts to engage all students and keep them motivated.

At the beginning of the course, I convey to my students the instructions issued by the dean’s office regarding over-prepared students. I repeatedly stress the importance of enrolling in a class suitable to his or her level; this can maximize their learning outcome. I also encourage students who are uncertain about their level to take the online placement test posted in our department and to talk to me should they need further assistance. A number of students follow my request and switch classes accordingly. I also elaborate details on the course outlines; I shed important light on the nature of the course and its objectives.

In addition, I explain the mark distribution so students know exactly what is required of them. I also call students’ attention to the importance of the course textbook, although the textbook itself is somewhat problematic because it does not always sufficiently explain certain concepts. For this reason, it is crucial the professor, at his or her discretion, adds or omits aspects of the textbook. I also take into consideration the practical applications important to everyday use of language which are not included in the textbook.

At the beginning of each class, I read and explain a passage from the textbook, after which I ask questions pertaining to the passage. Furthermore, I assign questions which are meant to diagnose problem areas for students; those who do not do well are encouraged to see me so I can assist them in learning from their mistakes.

Like any foreign language, learning Arabic depends on practise. Therefore, I always remind students in-class instruction alone is not sufficient to fully grasp the language. Effective learning is accomplished when students reinforce their in-class learning by practicing outside the classroom.

Students should invest their time and effort by involving themselves with native speakers of Arabic who are well educated in Fusha (standard Arabic). To facilitate such involvement, I urge students to attend tutorial sessions run by work study students who are advanced students of Arabic. These tutorials offer students the opportunity to practice their oral and written Arabic. It has proven particularly useful for newcomers to Arabic and for students struggling in intermediate and advanced Arabic.

I have also found students of other foreign languages benefit from attending conversational sessions offered by our department. I have thus set up a session for Arabic this term. It is an informal meeting encouraging students of all levels to attend and improve their verbal and comprehension skills. Since it is informal and not obligatory, the objective has less to do with perfecting students’ grammar than it does with giving students the chance to voice their opinions and listen to their peers’ dialects. This session exposes students to Arabic beyond the textbook. Ideally, students develop confidence in their speaking ability which should encourage them to participate more frequently in class.

Let me now touch on the needs that should be considered by the Department of Modern Languages.

This current academic year, the department offered Advanced Arabic 3300, which has proven to be beneficial for a couple reasons. Not only does it afford interested students the opportunity to advance their Arabic, it has opened a space for advanced students so intermediate students of 2250 no longer feel intimidated that among them are students above their level.

I am also hoping the department will establish a computer-based language lab. The lab would be equipped with an audio-visual feature allowing students to practice speaking and listening to Arabic and then receiving feedback directly from the program. The language lab also indicates individual students’ progress, which alerts the professor of students’ areas of strengths and weaknesses. This program is an effective tool to improve students’ speaking and comprehension skills.

Moreover, the department should also consider founding a library that contains a variety of Arabic materials such as simple short stories and novels, CDs, DVDs, etc. A space in the D.B. Weldon Library could be used for these Arabic materials. In addition to improving students’ linguistic skills, these Arabic materials would expose students to Arabic culture and entertainment that would hopefully maintain their interest in Arabic and its heritage.

Furthermore, I suggest the department should offer a course between Arabic for beginners (1030) and intermediate Arabic (2250), which should be called ‘upper beginners.’ Such a course is important for some students who find Arabic 1030 easy and Arabic 2250 very difficult. As a result, these students prefer to take 1030, which makes newcomers to 1030 feel uncomfortable.

Offering an upper-beginner course would also solve other problems: First, it would reduce class sizes; second, it would give all students a chance to participate; and third, the professor has more time to give individualized attention to his or her students.

Last, but not least, I believe expanding Arabic studies at Western is promising, especially with the introduction of a minor in Arabic. I have already written a description of five different courses (Arabic Culture, Arabic Literature, Arabic Business, Islamic Studies and Conversational Arabic) which I have submitted to the department for consideration.

Yahya Kharrat is an instructor of Arabic Studies in Western’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Faculty of Arts & Humanities.