Did you learn English in school? This language hardly changes the forms of verbs or nouns in ways that affect meaning. Lucky learners of English or Malay can easily string words together and communicate with limited vocabulary. But if you studied an “inflected” language like German, Spanish, Russian, or Greek, you found that communication with just a few words is difficult. Listeners expect the correct endings of verbs and nouns to know who said what to whom and when. These “inflections,” or pattern changes, must be learned early on.
People are impatient with grammar, so curriculum writers try to adjust. The Internet is full of promises to teach a language in a week for your next vacation. A method may teach the vocabulary relevant to markets, hotels, or banks, but in inflected languages, word endings are indispensable. Standard Arabic conjugates verbs in 10 forms, each in about five tenses, in singular, dual and plural numbers, and in male and female genders. It declines nouns in three cases. The learner must distinguish between “you withdrew money from the ATM yesterday” and “your two will daughters can withdraw money tomorrow.” Instruction obviously takes more than a week.
The near-absence of inflection in English has helped make it an international language. And that has spoiled the prospects of Modern Standard Arabic as an easy vehicle of communication. Why is that, and what should be done about it? Recent research I conducted at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, in the United Arab Emirates, points to possible solutions.
A ‘Foreign’ Language
For cultural and religious reasons, Arab countries use Modern Standard Arabic as their language of school instruction. Teaching Arab children in Modern Standard Arabic, called “fus-ha,” would be akin to teaching first-grade American or British children in Middle English of the 11th century.
Consider, for example, this excerpt from a 14th-century text describing “the langage of the inhabitatores of Englonde”:
Hit may be schewede clerely to the wytte that there were so mony diuersites of langages in that londe as were diuersites of nacions. But Scottes and men of Wales kepe theire propre langage, as men inpermixte with other naciones; but perauenture Scottes haue taken somme parte in theire communicacion of the langage of Pictes, with whom thei dwellede somme tyme, and were confederate with theyme.
—from John Trevisa’s translation (ca. 1387) of the Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden
A contemporary English speaker requires instruction to understand Middle English or Old English, and Arab students similarly need instruction to understand fus-ha.
Children learn grammar by hearing samples of grammatical constructions in their environment. If Arabs used the fus-ha conjugations daily, the children would learn them, just like Russian and Greek children master their native grammar. However, Arab children master instead the conjugations of their own vernaculars, which differ significantly from the more ancient fus-ha grammar.
Adults who are fluent in both forms perceive the Arabic etymological continuity, and they may assume that young children will somehow see these relations. So authorities underestimate the grammatical differences between the older, more-inflected language and the vernacular forms used in daily life. To understand textbooks and class discussions in Standard Arabic, students must learn in Grade 1 conjugations, syntax and other features that have changed in vernaculars (negative expressions, for example).
Our brains easily take up patterns, and the almost mathematical regularity of the older Standard Arabic verb forms should make them easy to master. But in decisions about how to teach Arabic in schools, beliefs about communication methods often trump research on the ways people learn information.
Grade 1 Arabic curricula focus on discussing topics, such as the family or the environment, with verbs mainly presented in the present tense, first or third person. And no links are made between Standard Arabic and the vernacular grammars that students already know.
Not surprisingly, research suggests that students perceive Standard Arabic as a foreign language. By the time they have sampled enough of its grammatical framework in class, years of poor comprehension and performance have passed. In the Maghreb, where the linguistic distance from Standard Arabic is considerable, many students drop out without learning much from these curricula.
Given these circumstances, one would think that Arabic curricula would devote much time to structuring the language, but the methods are somehow perverse. Curricula in most countries emphasize definitions and recitations of grammatical terms, such as noun and verbal clauses. Then short texts are read and analyzed, with the relevant items learned as they appear. Students’ implicit memory must compose inflection patterns from loose examples, and this takes time. The method also seems pointless to students, so Arabic classes are often disliked. English seems so much easier!
Evidence of ineffective and limited Arabic instruction is seen in comparisons of international test scores. Students in even the wealthiest Arab countries perform worse on international tests than students in other countries. Therefore families that can afford to do so send their children to schools where English is the language of instruction. Thus a generation of children in the Gulf has grown up speaking English primarily, and they have much difficulty in expressing themselves in Standard Arabic. This saddens many parents and has resulted in calls for reform.
The effort to make Arabic a vehicle of live communication has pushed curricula deeper into the “communication approach”: “Heya natawasal!”— “Let’s communicate!” [ هيا نتواصل]
Curricular writers strive to create relevant, contemporary, attractive dialogues and projects. But like the marketers of quick-delivery language courses, such curricula deliver a retail, haphazard list of words that are not very manipulable. The method resembles a storekeeper who goes to the bank every time he gets paid rather than grouping the coins he earns and going to the bank once.
One solution to better comprehension is to teach needed inflections in the early grades and to leave the terminology until secondary school. This is what I had to do as a student in Greece in the 1950s, when katharevousa (the Greek version of “fus-ha”) was the language of instruction there. Decades later, as a cognitive psychologist, I saw the research rationale of this “traditional” approach.
A Promising Experiment
The Al Qasimi Foundation agreed to a pilot study of reading and grammar instruction using cognitive science research. In reading, we experimented with “perceptual learning,” a concept little known in traditional education. Results surpassed all expectations. Students can read voweled Arabic during the first half of Grade 1, if there is sufficient practice time.
Equally important was a pilot for efficient language instruction.
With Sahar ElAsad, a foundation employee, we taught first graders orally, focusing on regular patterns and categories (for example, using six of the 10 verb “conditions”). We experimented with verb conjugations presented in a consistent order in the various tenses; we also taught items, such as interrogative pronouns, in groups, because long-term memory is built on categories.
And we used no grammatical terms. Instead we referred to verb forms as “for boys” or “for girls,” and as “today,” “yesterday,” “tomorrow,” and “now.” Students used gestures to point as they conjugated.
We found that first graders could retain the patterns and then predict how similar verbs would be conjugated. And we consistently asked students to translate into the Emirati dialect. So the students understood.
The foundation is developing a detailed curriculum for Grade 1. Much experimentation is still needed to ensure that students generalize the patterns and understand the meaning. But the goal is to attain by the end of Grade 1 at least passive knowledge and effortless recall of the grammatical forms that students in other countries know of their own languages at this level.
Improving Comprehension Early
When taught in a detailed, no-terminology way, the grammar of Standard Arabic appears simple, particularly in comparison to the Greek “fus-ha” of old. The grammatical items for early-grade reading books can be taught in about 60 lessons of 20 to 40 minutes each. This means that from Grade 2 onward, students can progress to longer texts and more detailed grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. By reading faster and understanding better, students could catch up with the students of other countries on international tests by Grade 4.
This methodology would also be effective for schools where Arabic is only a subject; for overseas Arabs, an app could be developed for oral exercises with video feedback.
Is there a downside? Teachers or other educationists may find conjugations and systematic sentence formation “traditional.” There is a reason for that. Traditions are created when students can learn through certain methods, and cognitive science shows why some of these work. To communicate, we need instant, automatized access to the various language fragments. The Arabic patterns, complex though they may be, are also highly regular and can be instantly accessed by working memory.
To communicate effectively in Standard Arabic, therefore, a preliminary grammar course would greatly facilitate the process. Effortless retrieval will furthermore permit enjoyment of stories in Arabic. Those who would like to see Standard Arabic as a language of communication should advocate for methods that streamline this process. Grammatical fluency leads to freedom of expression!
Helen Abadzi is a Greek psychologist who speaks many languages, including advanced Arabic. She is retired from the World Bank 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.