This article first ran in The WISE ed and appears here with WISE and the author’s approval.
Arab visitors to the small Mediterranean island nation of Malta may hear a familiar language. Maltese is derived from the language of the Fatimid Empire that ruled south Italy from the ninth through twelfth centuries. Maltese is written in the Latin script and has many imported words, but its grammar is North African Arabic. It is used in schools and in government. Maltese is the only Arabic vernacular, or dialect, in official use.
In the international comparison tests of primary school students, the Maltese scores topped all the Arab countries, including those of the much richer Gulf countries. Oral reading tests in Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, and Egypt reveal widespread inability among students to understand written text, even after four years of schooling. In the “reading to learn” competency of the PIRLS test, most of the sampled Arab students perform at a low level against international benchmarks.
Whether rich or poor, Arab countries get disappointing performance results. What are the likely reasons for this worrisome trend? Many observers blame economic incentives, sociological factors, traditionally minded instruction, and the presumed oral culture of the Arab world. But cognitive science suggests causes more closely linked to biology, particularly the memory functions that enable information processing. Here’s why these variables are particularly relevant to Arab students.
The Challenge of Arabic Script
Maltese, as noted, uses the Latin script. Compared to Arabic script, with its more complex use of dots and other characteristics, Maltese is easier for young learners to process. Accomplished readers instantly recognize the script and the language, and focus on content. But the first few milliseconds are spent crossing the dark tunnel of procedural memory. It contains knowledge of how letters look, how sounds fit with them, what the words mean, and which combinations are likely or unlikely.
Procedural memory is unconscious and rapid. The script must be deciphered and a phrase or sentence correctly interpreted within the very brief capacity of our “working memory” (about 12 seconds), otherwise we lose our train of thought. Thus it is easiest to learn reading in languages that match sounds and letters consistently. At first, learners read letter by letter. With several hours of practice, the brain comes to recognize words as if they were faces, and we begin to read effortlessly and automatically.
We are fastest at detecting one-piece letters, but most Arabic letters consist of multiple pieces, differentiated by the location of dots. These features slow young readers down significantly. Moreover, added short vowel signs (harakat) help identify the word, but also slow visual processing by imposing an overlay of disconnected symbols. It is faster to process unvoweled text, but this requires proficient prior language knowledge and instant word identification.
The Challenge of Grammar
A further problem for young readers in the Arab world is that they are taught in a formal Arabic called ‘al fus-ha’ (also known as Modern Standard Arabic), which no one speaks at home. It is the Arabic of formal newscasts, print media, literary and other texts. Research suggests that students approach it as a foreign language. Standard Arabic mastery time depends on its linguistic distance from a student’s colloquial dialect. Qataris may require less time than Moroccans because their colloquial language is more similar to standard Arabic.
Our brains collect frequency statistics on events we witness. They detect patterns and derive rules. Children are particularly good at these tasks, but the Arabic grammar framework is large. Grammar, vocabulary and syntax must be learned in school, where students need to encounter many samples with limited class time. The grammar should be taught systematically starting in Grade 1, exploiting children’s ability to detect patterns and memorize sequences. To understand even simple text, learners need to know the conjugations of common verb forms in the present and past tense, and in three forms –masculine, feminine, and the dual.
But ‘traditional’ grammar lessons are insufficient or ineffective. Curricula often prioritize memorizing definitions of unnecessary grammatical terms before applying them, overwhelming learners with the result that few enjoy reading Arabic. For many students these multiple complexities push the limits of memory and result in failure. Some methods calling for natural language learning through authentic texts might work for English language learning because it has relatively little grammar, but may not for Arabic.
Socio-economics and resistance to change
Educated families with means try to help children with extra attention and tutoring. In the Gulf, many send their children to English-medium schools where Arabic is taught only as a subject. They lament the loss of proficiency in Arabic expression, and some call for Arabic to be rescued from this situation.
What are the potential solutions? The default approach is to retain standard Arabic as the language of instruction for Grade 1. But cognitively efficient methods must be piloted and developed for them. If first graders studied only language and math through effective curricula, sufficient standard Arabic could probably be learned.
The alternative is to use the Arab vernaculars (colloquial languages) for the first three to four grades, giving students time to learn standard Arabic. Moroccan students, for example, might perform in Moroccan Arabic PIRLS at the level of the Maltese. Such a progression to the standard grammar would be reasonable. The Arabic vernaculars share the Arabic etymology, so sophisticated vocabulary can only come from standard Arabic.
But the use of vernaculars in formal education faces big practical obstacles. Some dialectical sounds cannot be rendered with the Arabic reading rules. Also, students would have to mark the vowel sounds, which slows reading and writing.
The popularity of social media and communication technology may have intriguing solutions for vernaculars. New codes are emerging in text messaging using a mixture of Latin letters, numbers, and other symbols. A well-adapted formal spelling system does not currently exist, but it is feasible. Dhivehi, a language spoken in the Maldives, might provide inspiration for vowel writing in vernaculars. Its letters were derived from Arabic around the thirteenth century; the result was probably the simplest living script.
There is great cultural anxiety around the use of vernaculars or dialects particularly among those who believe they could erode the connection to the Qur’an, and the very underpinnings of society. There may be resistance to fundamentally new teaching approaches. The experience is not unique to the Arab world. After many years of intense debate, the Greek government in 1976 ended the use of the ancient katharévousa as a language of instruction. Spelling was reformed and vowel marks abolished. Few have looked back.
Can the Arab countries make such difficult decisions in the current period? The political and religious environment is complex, challenging the practical viability of technically feasible solutions. Still, there are possibilities that must be considered. Qatar is able to approach an effective education through the lenses of science. It could be the driving force in promoting policies that improve the performance of all Arab students.
* Helen Abadzi is a Greek psychologist who speaks many languages. She retired from the World Bank after 27 years of service and is currently a research faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Education. She regularly monitors the emerging research in cognitive science and synthesizes relevant findings to explain and predict likely outcomes from various interventions. Her work has helped early-grade reading fluency become an international priority.