Many Arab children start out with excellent classical Arabic, learning it, ironically, from cartoons. Then when they hit school, their Arabic starts to deteriorate, and it keeps sliding downwards throughout their education, compared to the levels they should be achieving.
Why does this happen and how can we rescue Arabic instruction?
In a study published in 2012, researchers found that language centers in the brain grow substantially as a result of successful language learning. Intellectual and mental abilities—including understanding and elicitation, connectivity and analysis, and problem solving—seem to depend on the student’s linguistic ability. Perhaps this explains why most Arab university students depend on summaries that contain short solutions, and have a weak ability to analyze and solve problems and connect related topics.
I have met children under school age who speak classical Arabic brilliantly, which they have learned from watching dubbed cartoons. By the time they get to university, they hate the language, whose grammars have paralyzed them. This attitude among students suggests that the pre-university Arabic language curricula is on the wrong track.
The basis of the poor linguistic skills that hold back students lies in the common mistake of considering classical Arabic as a mother tongue. Classical Arabic isn’t a mother tongue in the sense of being a language of daily life. The method of teaching is now like instruction in philosophy, focusing on topics like syntax, morphology, and rhetoric. This language in the Arab world—from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean—is not anyone’s first language, because it is not used in conversation, even though local dialects are related to it.
In some Arab countries—such as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan—universities hold a test for students to determine their level in Arabic. In other countries, like Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that students are often given an extra preparatory year before university that includes some Arabic instruction, the students still do not become competent in Arabic. Adding extra teaching does not seem to result in enough learning.
Employment laws in many Arab countries do not highlight the need to master Arabic. Government agencies usually do not have a list of jobs that require good Arabic. This is a matter to rethink, taking into consideration that the laws in all of the Arab countries often state that Arabic is the state’s official language, and should be the first language of instruction.
In general, the mastery of Arabic is necessary for the university student. It is part of national identity. University study also depends mainly on reading, research and writing. When students’ linguistic skills are poor, the results of their reading will also be poor, and they will write poor research papers.
Arabic language is especially important in some disciplines: Education, including curricula and teaching, media and journalism, languages and translation, the departments of Da’awah and theology of Islam, law departments, in addition to Arabic linguistics and Arabic literature.
In these fields, it is not possible to succeed without mastering Arabic, because they depend on public speaking and communication skills, written and verbal.
In short, those are some of the problem’s aspects, so how can it be solved systematically?
Reflections about the stages of intellectual development by the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead concluded that proficiency in learning languages and sciences ends at the age of fifteen. That means an undergraduate student attends university after passing that stage.
Thus, teaching students at this age is different from teaching children. An adult is looking to guide their own instruction and to learn from practice instead of being indoctrinated about theory and grammar. Social activity should be integrated with education. Adults especially need some freedom to find their own way to learn.
The preferred way to teach Arabic should be based on four skills: listening comprehension, reading comprehension, mastery of syntax, and a proficiency in writing essays. Of course, these skills should all be tested after instruction. These four skills are similar to those tested in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to evaluate the proficiency in English for non-native speakers. That test looks at how language users combine listening, reading, speaking and writing skills to perform academic tasks.
The ability to listen and understand is often missing after secondary grades with the current way of teaching Arabic. Listening is an important way for students to learn grammar and enrich their vocabulary.
Moreover, printed and audio materials should include a wide variety of topics, including sciences, literature, and religion. A diversity of materials gives students the chance to learn about the language, while also learning about a topic that is interesting to them. Assignments for essays should also be related to the student’s academic interests.
The syntax rules should be explained through practical ways and not mere theories, and should be stripped of terms, definitions, and rules that are often not used anymore.
We should also add training for proper speaking and pronunciation of Arabic and test for this, particularly for students who intend to be teachers or to work in the media, on radio and on television. This can be achieved through two important elements: The Arabic pronunciation (how the breath, mouth and throat are used to make proper Arabic sounds) and the grammatical relations among words.
Much of what I am suggesting would not be that hard or take that long to implement, we just need to focus on three things: First, we need to raise national and cultural awareness of the importance of the Arabic language. Second, we need to review the current Arabic language teaching curricula in primary schools. Lastly, we need to stress to all students that learning Arabic is a lifelong commitment.