The importance of good teaching material in Arabic cannot be overstated if future generations are going to (proficiently) learn and use the Arabic language well. It is without doubt an imperative that we have good materials (and of course teachers) such that can support the excellent teachers out there working hard to find resources in order to creatively teach the language. What do I mean by good materials? I mean books, textbooks, worksheets and online provisions that support student learning of this (ancient majestic) language who live and have grown up in a modern fast-paced era that we live in today. I do not need to lament (again) over the sorry state of some current Arabic curricula, especially for native Arabic speakers, that fills the classrooms around the world. There is a clear consensus by teachers, educators and policy makers that something needs to be done about these materials and I have written about these previously here on the blog.
In this post, I put up the text of an interview I conducted with Laila Familiar at New York University at Abu Dhabi who specialises in the design and development of instructional materials for Arabic as a Foreign Language. She is project manager of Khallina, a website dedicated to the teaching and learning of Arab culture(s) through open source audiovisuals. She is also the editor of Sayyidi wa Habibi (2013) and Saaq al-Bambuu (forthcoming 2016) for learners of Arabic, and the translator of La Tía Safeyya y el Monasterio (2000), a novel by Egyptian author Bahaa Taher.
I was initially attracted to the website, not just because of the playful title, but the bringing together of culture and language learning at the same time. I was intrigued because of the resources available online and the variety of material available on the website. Scholars in the field of anthropology, child development and linguistics acknowledge that when children acquire language they also simultaneously acquire the cultural rules (culture) of that/those language(s). This is known as language socialisation and is one the main frameworks I use for my research when investigating how parents and families teach and transmit Arabic to the next generation (see work by Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin (1984) an excellent introduction). So to combine the learning of culture and that of language, even at this late or rather superficial level, I think may make a difference so that students better understand the relationship between Arab culture and the language. If conducted well this can be seen as second or secondary socialisation, whereby these cultural and linguistic norms are learned after one’s first language socialisation. Why is this a good thing? The process of acquiring the language is easier if the student can have access to the culture and cultural significance(s) behind words and expressions. With access to culture and cultural keywords, phrases or concepts sometimes the vocabulary is remembered (retained) better, as are sentence structures, and the ability for the student to at least attempt speaking in the target language (the language they are learning). Below is the interview in which I ask Laila general questions, some background information about Khallina and then we talk about the actual teaching of Arabic
- Tell me a bit about Khallina, and why it was set up?
Khallina was born from realizing that mainstream Arabic textbooks do not address current Arab cultural trends in a way that can keep learners engaged. Nowadays, students constantly use the Internet and watch videos online. So I wanted to create a learning tool that could be attractive to students and that could be easily updated and adapted. One of the things I most like about Khallina is that it showcases authentic Arab cultural manifestations, and that videos and worksheets are constantly updated.
- Tell me about yourself and your work in Arabic language/culture please.
I have been teaching Arabic as a foreign language for 15 years, and before that I taught Spanish for some years too. One of the things that surprised me when I did my transition into the Arabic classroom, is the type of teaching materials available to the instructor and the learner. When you compare the Arabic resources to those available in European languages, you find an important gap at many levels. Their textbooks are usually loaded with cultural input, the learner is able to “breathe” the culture in almost every page. When I say culture I refer to what is known as the big C Culture and the small c culture. In Arabic textbooks the focus is usually on the classical side of the big C; we like to highlight important figures and works from the Middle Ages. On the contrary, modern and contemporary fine arts, literature, or music are not usually addressed. With regards to the small c, Arabic textbooks offer some “formal” aspects like basic greetings and social expressions. But most concepts related to the realm of the small c (body language, humour, hobbies, behaviour, dialect, etc), is left to the teacher because this has more to do with teaching the colloquial register of the language. The small c is a concept in constant change, so it makes it harder for printed textbooks to keep up with up-to-date cultural input.
- Why do you think it is important for learners of Arabic to also learn about the Arab culture?
I think culture is a great tool to keep learners hooked to Arabic, it brings them closer to the people and it humanises everything surrounding the Arab culture. A student cannot only interact with Arabs to only talk about politics and current events, they need to be able to perform other social tasks and engage in various daily life situations, like watching a soccer game or eating together, talking about the Arts, singing, etc.
- So how would Khallina benefit me, if I were a teacher or student?
If you are a teacher, Khallina offers you ready-made teaching materials to take into the classroom. You just need to select the proficiency level that best represents your students, and select a cultural topic that interests them. Each module comes with a detailed Lesson Plan (placed under the Teacher Portal) that explains the cultural objectives and how to use the videos and materials posted under each module. What I like about Khallina is that, by offering several topics at the same level, decisions can be taken collaboratively with students.
If you are an independent learner, Khallina is a window into the Arab culture(s), even if you don’t know much Arabic; and it can contribute to having richer and more fulfilling interactions with Arabs.
- How did you choose which materials to include and why that specific material?
In the year 2011 we conducted a survey among Arabic students in several US universities. We received over 200 responses from learners at different proficiency levels to know what aspects of the Arab culture they are interested in. The results were fascinating and the themes you currently see on Khallina reflect real students’ interests. Currently we are developing new content based on the same principle. We have for example two Modules coming out soon, one about Egyptian humourist Bassem Youssef (Advanced level) and another one on Empowering Women (Intermediate level).
- Do you think students learning Arabic should also be familiar with Arabic dialects?
Absolutely. Not only to interact effectively with Arabs, but to understand their culture. As we know, language and culture go hand in hand. In fact, many cultural manifestations and practices require a linguistic engagement that most of the time happens in dialect. Depriving students of Arabic of learning a dialect is like teaching a person to swim using only one arm.
- Do you advocate the writing of dialect? If so why?
Instructors should not be advocates for dialects over Modern Standard Arabic, or vice versa. Our job is to show students how language is being used, not how we WANT it to be used. Arabs write sometimes in dialect, so we must expose our students to that from the beginning. The best one can do is to teach descriptively, not prescriptively.
- Is it correct to assume that the website acts to provide some kind of cultural experience and language use especially for those students not able to travel to the Middle East?
It certainly helps bringing the Arab world closer to the learner. Unfortunately, most Arabic students drop out after their first semester or year of Arabic; and many others don’t have the opportunity to travel to an Arab country until years later. Culture is one of those things that stays inside you for a long time; maybe forever. You may not remember how to say “I miss you” in the foreign language you studied, but you will always remember a song or a social tradition you saw, even if it was once.
- How do you see the future of Arabic teaching and learning?
On one hand, the teaching and learning of foreign languages is moving fast towards incorporating technology and online tools, and Arabic is no exception. Apps are being developed, online platforms to connect learners with instructors or native speakers around the globe, websites with fresh learning material; this is already happening in Arabic. Of course, the existence of these apps and tools does not always guarantee quality, but it reflects the need and necessity of developing resources tailored to the needs of different types of learners. The challenge for developers is how to update and adapt themselves to the market’s demands, especially if you are going to charge for the service.
On the other hand, new textbooks and approaches are being developed and published every year although, unfortunately, some are poorly designed and produced. Most Arabic practitioners see the need to explore new paths and move in a new direction that can teach authentic language while providing a well-rounded knowledge of Arab culture, but the real issue is that we still haven’t connected research-based language acquisition theory to the development of teaching materials. There is a clear mismatch between applied linguistics research and textbooks, but some efforts are starting to surface. Corpus Linguistics, for example, is emerging as an essential tool in providing authentic linguistic input especially when it comes to learning vocabulary, and it is essential that we apply these tools if we want to produce quality teaching materials that can help produce learners who are capable of communicating effectively. One final aspect that is worth mentioning is the visuals; most books available today in the market lack the necessary appeal to attract students of Arabic (the consumers). The future lies, then, in purposeful collaborations between material designers, researchers and publishers.
This interview raised a number of issues for me, most notably, the obvious weakness in current Arabic teaching materials: the failure to apply theories of language acquisition to the teaching of Arabic. It doesn’t mean all theories should be adopted because knowledge is ever-evolving and one theory that may be seen as acceptable today may change tomorrow. But the point is: adapt some theory and try it out on students and keep tailoring it until it works. I would of course be ignorant if I said that (proper) learning of Arabic falls solely on the teacher, schools and textbooks. It does not; the home and society also play a huge role especially in attitudes towards language. However the school does occupy an important role in the formal learning of language.
I personally think that because the Arabic language is closely connected to the Qur’an and the great canon of Arabic literature it has created speakers and learners who are constantly in awe of the language. Instead of turning this “awe” into something effective when it comes to teaching and transmitting the language, people seem stuck. This makes teaching Arabic even harder for teachers especially in modern times where the Arabic language is no longer the language of power that it used to be. There is a battle between preserving what is beautiful and unique about the Arabic language and actually effectively teaching the Arabic language. Currently the state of curricula, including by the way some of the technological material, is not up to standard and fails both the native speaker and the non-native speaker student. We need more materials and platforms like Khallina and as Laila said more collaborations between interested parties. This is very important for the future of the Arabic language. Not wanting to make this post any longer, it is also important that parents, families and society check their language attitudes towards the Arabic language because that may have a foundational role to play in all this.
I would like to thank Laila again for taking time out of her busy schedule to do this interview with me. I am sure Khallina will grow from strength to strength and offer the much-needed culturally-rich Arabic teaching material which most of the Arabic curricula currently lack.
(Note: Once again I have not been paid to promote this website by Khallina)