How to Teach Arabic as a Foreign Language

by Michael Hinckley

Arabic is one of the most important languages to teach in the United States, but it can also be one of the most difficult as well. The following guide offers some insight as to how to approach the teaching of this language to American students.

Deciding on your approach. You need to determine how large your class will be in order to decide on how to teach the class. Smaller classes can engage in play-acting and dialogues in a way that larger classes can not. Larger classes, however, do have a larger range of potential partners and study groups for students. It is highly recommended that study partners or study groups be encouraged, as Arabic requires a different way of thinking, reading, and a more intensive memorization than European languages.

Choosing your material. Though many institutions of higher learning have opted to utilize a series of books by Brustad, al Tonsi, and al Batal ("Alif Baa" and the "al Kitaab" series), some instructors have opted for other books dedicated to learning Arabic, or have even created their material themselves. The advantage to using the "al Kitaab" series is that, should your students transition to another institution, they will be familiar with the format and style offered by the series. The advantage to creating your own material, or choosing one of the other books, is that you can customize your lesson plans to fit the needs of your students.

Understanding shortcomings of the materials and the needs of the students. While Alif Baa (see Step 2) is an excellent primer to understanding the Arabic alphabet and how it interacts to form words, the choices that Brustad, et. al. have made in the al Kitaab series is perplexing to many students. For example, the first chapter of the first volume of al Kitaab introduces students to the tongue-twisting Arabic word for the United Nations while colors, emotions, and directions are reserved for later chapters. This can limit students wanting to stretch their vocabulary and form neural connections which result in a deeper understanding of the language. Using other materials, particularly your own, can also have its drawbacks as Brustal et. al. are very thorough in covering concepts and grammar that are either glossed over or ignored completely in other works. Also, other books may not continue on as a part of a series the way that al Kitaab does, which may leave the students at a loss if they wish to pursue a greater understanding of the language. Finally, creating your own material is time-consuming and may reveal what you think is unimportant or what you do not understand clearly. This may confuse your students and result in a lot of back-tracking in class.

Teaching the Arabic alphabet. The most important, and most frustrating, aspect of teaching the Arabic language can be teaching the alphabet. Unlike most other university-level languages, which tend to be European, there is no relation between the English alphabet and the Arabic alphabet. Brustad, et. al.'s Alif Baa is an excellent source for teaching the alphabet, because it is thorough and includes a DVD which can help your students understand how to form the letters into words and how the letters can, and do, change appearance depending on their position in the words. This is the step where self-generated material can be overly-time consuming, particularly given the attributes of Alif Baa. Nonetheless, repetition both by you and by the students is really the only way to teach the alphabet. Students who struggle the most with this aspect often did not practice creating words and writing the letters over and over again enough. Many right-handed students find writing right-to-left difficult (though most left-handed students find it a relief) and may be discouraged by the "messiness" of their work. An important step to teaching the alphabet is to remember to stress the order in which letters are organized. Not only will this help students understand the language, it is critical to know the alphabet's order when looking up translations later on in their studies. Some instructors have found that utilizing the "ABC song" with Arabic letters is a very effective way to get students to learn the alphabet (though many students may feel silly at singing a child's song).

Expanding vocabulary. Many students who take foreign languages, particularly European ones, latch onto cognates as a way to help memorize the new language, and Arabic should be no different. It is recommended that students be familiarized with Arabic-derived words that appear in the English language to facilitate their learning. Words such as "admiral," "gazelle," "fellah," and "average," can be used to show the connections between Arabic and English (see Resources, below). Also, encourage the formation of mnemonic devices, the sillier or more outrageous the better. This encourages the formation of neural pathways which will graft an understanding of the language onto the student's brain and deepen his understanding of the language. Study partners and groups are essential in this aspect as students will feel more free around each other than they will around instructors (or even teaching assistants). Finally, be flexible in your approach. Do not be afraid to diverge from the lesson plan if a student voices a question about the concepts and words of the Arab language--most of the other students will have the same question but may not voice it. Be willing to jump ahead or fall back in vocabulary or grammatical rules so that the students understand the concepts better. That being said, it is important to keep your class from diverting too much into areas which distract from the lessons, particularly political or religious discussions. For example, many points in Brustad et. al.'s series mention the plight of Palestinians--a topic which is sure to engender fierce debate within the classroom and may result in hurt emotions and discourage some students. Typically, instructors merely mention that the points of view expressed in the books are those of the authors as well as many in the Arab world and students are not requires to agree, or even accept, these points of view.

Be prepared for controversy. Some students, or even community members, may object to the teaching of Arabic as a second language. Some erroneously think that learning Arabic means converting to Islam. Others may consider the language "evil" or "unpatriotic." There may be times when your class becomes embroiled in controversial issues. Be prepared to find some resistance to the language and take heart in knowing that the vast majority of your students, your colleagues, and the community appreciate your efforts and will afford you respect and courtesy. Defuse arguments by suggesting students write op-ed pieces either for the school paper or as an extra-credit assignment--this will result in a positive outlet for their feelings without turning your classroom into a war zone. If your class is disrupted by external persons (particularly community members) be calm and call security or the police in the case of particularly belligerent persons. Remind all involved that Arabic has no more connection to world problems than German does to the influence of Marxism.

About the Author

MA in modern Middle East history, BA in US history