A Conversation With One of the World’s Most Influential Arabic Teachers

ABU DHABI—Arabic is widely criticized for being a difficult language that cannot keep pace with technological development and that doesn’t help those who know it to succeed in the labor market. Hanada Taha, the endowed professor for Arabic language at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates, disagrees with those views. She heads the Arab Thought Foundation’s Arabi21 Project, a project that seeks to improve Arabic and its teaching methods.

Taha has developed standards and performance indicators for teaching Arabic from kindergarten to high school that were adopted by the Abu Dhabi Education Council in 2011. Schools in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman have also adopted the standards. She also designed an Arabic curriculum, an evaluation for Arabic reading literacy that has become a regional standard, and the “balanced language approach,” a system she developed for teaching reading skills. Lastly, she created the first system to classify children’s literature in Arabic, a system that rates children’s books according to their difficulty and their usefulness in helping children learn Arabic vocabulary and other aspects of the language.

Taha has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of New Orleans, in the United States, and master’s and bachelor’s degrees from the American University of Beirut. She has taught in many countries, including the United States, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Oman. She has also trained thousands of school and university educators in several countries.

Al-Fanar Media interviewed Taha in her office at Zayed University, where she stressed the importance of Arabic despite those who demean it, and explained how to develop the teaching of Arabic and Arabic teachers.

Today, criticism of Arabic is growing, with critics calling it a dry language that is unable to keep pace with scientific development and is unsuitable for academic teaching and labor market needs, given that various local dialects are different from classical Arabic. What is your response?

I think this accusation is unfair to both classical Arabic and its many dialects. Arabic is a vivid language that is coping with all the developments in science, economics, technology, and the labor market. This is evident from the fact that our Arabic dictionaries today include thousands of modern terminologies and idiomatic expressions that reflect the language’s flexibility. . . . However, the way we teach Arabic is what we need to review and address in a modern way different from the traditional pedagogic methods.

Some scholars suggest modernizing Arabic by easing up on its strict grammar. What do you think of this proposal, and how could such updates can be achieved? 

Today, the modernization of the Arabic language and its teaching methods have become a national necessity. With the enormous information explosion and new technologies, knowledge economies and societies can no longer afford this infinite precision in language or to get lost in every linguistic nook and cranny. This means that we must define the basics of grammatical and morphological rules, which are essential for a student to know to be able to deal with the language reasonably. Unfortunately, teachers are busy teaching Arabic grammar without the presence of an actual debate with students in classical Arabic. If every Arabic teacher spoke with his or her students in sound classical Arabic beginning in kindergarten, children would learn the grammar without problems and without hating the language. Doing so would save the language from being deemed boring, with grammatical accuracy considered more important than anything else.

Arab students, especially in Gulf countries, are poor in their Arabic proficiency. What is the reason for that, in your opinion? And how can we develop Arabic language teaching methods?

This problem is not limited to Gulf countries alone. The lack of Arabic mastery is found in the entire Arab world—in both the Levant and North Africa – with a few pockets of excellence and innovation in several places in the Arab world. Many of those pockets can actually be found in the Gulf region. The causes of linguistic weakness, according to studies, relate to many things, including poorly prepared teachers and the lack of good resources at schools. By that, I mean the lack of classroom libraries, children’s literature, and a modern, good, interesting curriculum. In addition, not enough time is spent teaching Arabic, especially in private schools, which is something the ministries of education began to notice, so they started to enact laws enforcing how much time each school should dedicate to teaching Arabic. Moreover, Arabic language teachers do not commit—and this is reflected in the students—to speaking in classical Arabic except in Arabic classes and the other classes in which Arabic is the language of instruction. All these reasons together rob students of their right to learn Arabic in a good, proper, and interesting way, and lead to poor skills in their mother tongue.

At a time when Arabs are leaving their mother tongue, many foreigners are attracted to studying it. How can we improve the teaching of Arabic for non-native speakers? How can Arab universities attract foreign students?

Teaching Arabic for non-native speakers has been a very prosperous field for more than a decade. In fact, there is a huge development in this field in Western countries, where international conferences on this topic are held and a lot of research on instructional methods of Arabic to non-native speakers is conducted. We have a range of good institutions in this area to teach adults, but we still need to develop the teaching of Arabic to non-native youngsters. This is because we are still often using the same methods for Arabic speakers and non-native speakers. Those are two different fields and they need different standards, objectives, and teaching modalities. Universities also have to develop special teaching methods for non-native speakers and ensure that their professors are trained for excellence in this field.

What was the motivation for starting the Arabi21 Project? What are the challenges it faces today?

The Arabi21 Project was launched by the Arab Thought Foundation, and financed by the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, in Saudi Arabia, in 2009. It seeks to contribute to developing Arabic language teaching and learning by working on building the basic infrastructure to instruct in Arabic.  The project has been able in its short duration to achieve many of its goals, such as creating the first Arabic system to classify children’s literature. Now, around 3,000 books are classified on the project’s website. Likewise, the first Arabic award for children literature, the “Kitabi Prize”, was launched, and the jury is composed of children themselves. We have also designed the first global test for early Arabic reading, and the first contest for writing stories geared exclusively to high school students.

Of course, the biggest challenge for the project is to find financial support during these financially critical times. [The lowering price of oil has hurt many Gulf countries’ economies and tightened spending on education.] But we are convinced that the good work we are doing on the Arabi21 team should be sufficient to help us find the funding we need.

The majority of teaching in the region depends on memorization. What prevents us from going beyond this method?

Again, I stress the importance of well-prepared Arabic teachers. Old methods were suitable for a previous time. Today’s generation needs methods that suit its time, its tools, ways of thinking, and dreams. Our own methods should not be imposed on them even if we are convinced those methods are useful. We do not prepare students for the present only, but for what they will  need in twenty years, so if preparing teachers is not futuristic, flexible, and creative, we will be stuck in the orbit of memorizing and recollection.

A survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media two years ago found that the salaries of university professors in the region are very low.  How do you think this affects the quality of education?

The really developed countries are those that take care of education and educators, especially in regards to salaries, incentives, training and even expectations. However, in my opinion, low salaries are not the only reason for the poor educational quality. There is a full circle of reasons starting with the insufficient number of teachers and the fact that our university professors are occupied with doing research of no value and are not publishing them in respected journals. We should also do annual performance reviews —360-degree assessments—in which a professor is evaluated by himself first, and then by his students and the head of his department, as well as evaluated for his research and community service. Because we lack such performance reviews, we have started sometimes to allow the least qualified professors to teach the new generation. The circle goes on to the extent that the poor salaries and few numbers of researchers work together to create a situation that could lead to poor learning and unpleasant outcomes for students.

* This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.


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